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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

May 11, 2019


Most of us have what I call infinite jobs - where we could just keep working more hours and never quite get everything done. This week we look at practical ways to manage infinite jobs, improving our productivity while also regaining control over our hours.



Hello and welcome to episode 35 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at practical ways to manage infinite jobs - improving our productivity while also regaining control over our hours.

There are two types of jobs - what I call finite jobs and infinite jobs. Chances are at some point in your career you’ve had a finite job - one where you had set work hours, and were paid for every hour you worked. For example, retail jobs are typically finite jobs - you start your shift at a particular time, complete as much work as you can during your shift, then walk away at the end of your shift. Whatever work was left over is either there for you the next day, or handed across to someone else. And there’s no expectation to work beyond the hours you’re given - remember those days? In this environment, leaders assess the overall workload and determine the resources needed to deliver. If more work needs to be done, more resources are allocated.

Infinite jobs are quite different. These jobs have objectives to deliver - some being set up front, and some which emerge over time. Here you’re not really paid by the hour. Your contract may specify that you’re employed to work 38 or 40 hours, but you’re really employed to deliver results. Contracts might refer to ‘reasonable overtime’ or something similar. Or you might be running your own business, where you just work the hours you need to deliver results. Infinite jobs are different because there isn’t an end point. You could potentially keep working more and more hours and never ‘finish’ an infinite job. There’s always more you could do - more clients to contact, more processes to improve, more development of people to undertake. The vast majority of leadership roles are infinite jobs, so chances are you’re currently in an infinite job. And more finite jobs are either being automated or converted into infinite jobs. The reality of the modern workplace is that more and more of our work will not have a natural end point.

So how do you manage an infinite job? I remember when I first took on a leadership role. I had worked as a management consultant, so was pretty familiar with having an infinite job, but was able to manage my time reasonably well despite the high demands. But nothing had prepared me for leadership. My work hours began to increase. I started with a bit over 45 hours a week, but found it quickly rose to 50 hours, then 55, then 60 plus. I was getting into work earlier and earlier to try to get something done before my team arrived, then worked later and later to catch up on things at the end of the day. Then I would log in again after dinner, finding myself swapping instant messages with the rest of the leadership team until late at night, before crawling into bed and starting it all over again the next day. I felt exhausted and dissatisfied, and there was still more to do. When the weekend rolled around I’d sleep for much of Saturday morning and try to recover in time for Monday, but would find myself gradually become more and more worn down. 

Eventually it dawned on me that there actually wasn’t an end point to my job. There was never going to be a point where, as a leader, I could say “I’m finished” or “job done”. In fact, the more hours of work I completed, the more work I generated for myself and others. I wasn’t even approaching completion - even though I was hitting all my targets, I was pushing completion even further down the road. There was an ever-present level of stress and dissatisfaction - a constant worry that I was missing something or had more to do. Maybe you can relate to my experience - and maybe you’re in the middle of it right now. The key lesson for me from this experience was we can’t manage an infinite job by just adding more and more hours to our work week. We need to change the way we think about and manage our work.

A framework you’re probably familiar with involves thinking about our work in terms of the Important versus Urgent - basically that every task we complete can be thought of in terms of how important it is, and how urgent it is. While he wasn’t the first to think of this framework, Steven Covey popularised it in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Even 30 years on this book is still worth a read. Covey highlighted that we tend to get caught up in urgent work, and don’t prioritise important work enough. Clearly, if something is both urgent and important, then we should tackle that deadline, crisis or emergency straight away. But much of our time is spent with seemingly urgent but not important tasks which we should delegate to others. And we definitely need to get rid of the not urgent and not important distractions that soak up our time. But the other category - the not urgent but important - is what most leaders end up neglecting. This can include planning, reflection, long term development, networking and relationship building, creative thinking - all the things that so often get pushed aside in an infinite job. So how do we make sure we have time to do this important work, while also making our infinite job a little more finite?

Here’s an approach you might want to try:

  1. Determine your ideal work hours. For most people you should aim to reduce what you’re doing at the moment, but why not start with around 40 hours as a target. A company called Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand experimented with people working four eight-hour days a week but being paid for five. Aside from the numerous benefits to individuals, they actually saw an overall productivity increase - people completed more in 32 hours than they used to complete in 40 hours. People came up with all sorts of creative ways to be more productive in their infinite jobs. We will fill whatever hours we set, so take this moment to reset.

  2. Use your calendar to schedule everything - and I mean everything. This includes putting things in your calendar that unexpectedly come up so you have a record at the end of the week of how you’ve actually spent your time.

  3. Identify your priorities and schedule the not urgent but important work for when you’re at your best. Each of us has a time in the day when we’re best at focused work, and that’s where the important but not urgent work should sit.

  4. Schedule in breaks - at least three if not four per day. Actual get up, go for a walk, chat with someone else - take at least 10 to 15 minutes to re-engergise and refresh. You will be amazed how much more productive you are with some well-placed breaks every 90 minutes.

  5. Leave time for the inevitable urgent and important activities - leave blank periods in your schedule. It’s tempting to schedule every minute then be disappointed when other things come up. I recommend trying to leave an hour or two per day for most people, but it could vary depending on your job. 

  6. Be ruthless when it comes to meetings - if there isn’t a clear purpose, agenda and role for you, don’t go. Sure, you might need to negotiate that, but if you’re spending more than a couple of hours per day in meetings, you’re unlikely to be performing at your best.

The beauty of this approach is that you’ve set the overall number of hours, and you can’t be doing two things at once. So if you’ve filled your calendar and something else comes up, you need to get rid of or reschedule something else. You’ve effectively made your job finite by setting your work hours. 

Now, you might ask, what if I can’t get everything done in those hours? Well, now your calendar is evidence of your overall workload which will help when negotiating additional resources or a change in accountabilities. Just like those employees in New Zealand, you’ll be amazed at how creative you can get when you make your job more finite.