by Tom E, 01 July, 2018
As time moves on, each and every one of us usually find themselves taking on additional responsibilities. These can quickly become overwhelming and quickly take over both our time and our thoughts. As such, it is important to have systems in place to manage these responsibilities. And this is where workflow comes in, a set of habits and principles that streamline your work processes and help you to maximize the effective use of your time. What is described here is by no means prescriptive but merely a suggested format that you may want to adapt to your own work demands?
The first thing that you need to examine is your attitudes towards your time. Phrases like “to kill time” are toxic and misrepresent the true value of time. You should value your time. A good way to do this is to put a dollar value on your time. This might be derived from your hourly rate at work or some other metric. Then whenever you are examining what to do with your time think if you would spend the dollar value of that time on doing that activity. If the answer is yes, then all well and good. But if no then it’s time to reassess.
The idea of improving flow is threefold:
Setting Clear and Specific Priorities and Goals
These are the things that really matter to you, to which all other things are subservient. By clearly articulating these, you are able to assess anything you are doing at any given time and decide if it is contributing towards your main goals or priorities. If not, it may be a use of your time that you would be better off without.
Maximise the Time you have Available
This is achieved by consistently approaching your work with a system and applying it effectively to streamline your work and to prevent obstructions. Finally, you want to free cognitive space for difficult work that actually requires mental effort rather than wasting it on “dumb” things which are done by using tools to externalize memory.
Have a System
The next important component is the system. The first thing to do is be mindful - Do not undertake tasks on autopilot. You want to be thinking:
What am I doing?
Is this the most effective way to be doing this?
Is this an effective use of my time?
This ensures that you are always being effective and will consistently get better results in less time.
A useful tool is “The Two-Minute Rule” - When you are in a given environment (either physical or cognitive) and you are given a task, you should first assess how long you think it will take.
If it takes 2 minutes or less, just do it. This is because these tasks can quickly add up if you defer them and it will always take more time to revisit the environment or resources necessary to complete the task at a later date than it will be to take care of it immediately. It also always means there is one less thing playing on your mind.
If it takes longer than two minutes, it’s time to run it through the system. I visualize this as an inbox with a number of outboxes and some additional factors that decide where a task goes.
So say you get a task, the first thing you need to decide is if it is appropriate, necessary or desirable for you to take action on it now or imminently.
If the answer is no, you should either discard it immediately, put it in a ‘someday maybe’ pile or simply keep it for reference as need dictates.
If it is actionable you must then decide if it is a single step task or multi-step task.
If it is a multi-step task, articulate the steps and desired outcome as specifically as you can and move it to the “projects” pile with an accompanying plan of how you will address this project and when.
If it is a single step task you then have to choose to do it, delegate it or defer it. This decision will be based on a number of factors including having access to all required materials, the environment you find yourself in, the time you have available and the resources you have available. Importantly the latter also includes your levels of energy and focus that you will be able to apply to the task. If these are less than the requirements, you will be better served by deferring it if you are able.
The second important element of this system is to include mechanisms for review to ensure that it is working for you or if your goals and priorities need to be reassessed, as they inevitably will as time passes.
Now understandably this would take a lot of cognitive effort to keep track of all at once. Fortunately, this doesn’t need to be the case. Especially in this age of smartphones and computers, a lot of this functionality can be outsourced to a digital medium, thus achieving the second principle of externalized memory.
The first tool to consider is a to-do list. This is to manage your flow and the various inboxes and outboxes from the various domains in your life. For example, you may have one set of the previously mentioned “piles” for each of work, study and recreation as they relate to your goals and priorities. A number of excellent apps such as Wunderlist exist to achieve this purpose, often with the added functionality of being able to notify you when you “defer” a task and to add calendar reminders to alert you to important tasks on important dates. This means you don’t need to spend your time thinking about what you have for the day because it will already be on your list for the day.
Additionally, it allows you to delegate the responsibility for remembering to do the “dumb” stuff. These are tasks that you routinely have to do but take no cognitive effort and might be forgotten whilst thinking of something else. These are the simple things like preparing lunch for the following day, taking the dog for a walk or booking a yearly dentist’s appointment. By removing that sensation of “what do I have to do today?” you free up both memory, willpower, and concentration for tasks that help you achieve your goals.
For anything more complex than a to-do list item, there are excellent notebook applications that save your material on the cloud. Examples of these are OneNote and Evernote. You can use these to store your project plans, construct mind maps and store information for revisiting later including study material for revision. The advantage of digital over the paper in this regard is that it can be accessed from anywhere even without your own computer and that it can be freely modified and refined over time without having to begin from scratch each time. What’s more, it further reduces the requirement on your memory to hold information, freeing it up for cognitively demanding tasks and ensuring you have more willpower to make important decisions and look after yourself.
I hope this has first and foremost taught you to value your time, and that it additionally frees up some of that time, produces effective results and leaves you with more cognitive power to address those things that are important to you.