On most days, my To Do List seems longer than the Nile River. It contains everything from the quotidien (remember the milk!) to the critical — tasks that trigger serious consequences. On days when it seems like I add two tasks for every one I complete, it can be tempting to focus on the noisiest ones. What are noisy tasks? The tasks with the most pressing deadline or the most vocal sponsor. And so it goes, racing from one due date to another, with barely enough time for a breath much less a moment to consider the true results of what I am doing.
Writers on productivity, time management and strategy have told us for a long time that we should focus on the IMPORTANT not the URGENT. That’s excellent advice. However, I’ve recently started thinking about another lens through which to view and prioritize tasks: Will the completion of the task (or project) act as a force multiplier?
To understand this better, let’s spend a moment on force multiplication. The military calls a factor a “force multiplier” when that factor enables a force to work much more effectively. The example in Wikipedia relates to GPS: “if a certain technology like GPS enables a force to accomplish the same results of a force five times as large but without GPS, then the multiplier is 5.” Interestingly, while technology can be an enormous advantage, force multipliers are not limited to technology. Some of the force multipliers listed in that Wikipedia article have nothing at all to do with technology:
- Training and Education
- Strategy and Tactics
- The Advantage of Terrain
Now come back to that growing To Do List and take another look at those tasks. How many of them are basically chores — things that simply need to get done in order to get people off your back or to move things forward (perhaps towards an unclear goal)? How many of them are (or are part of) force multipliers — things that will allow you or your organization to work in a dramatically more effective fashion? Viewed through this lens, the chores seem much less relevant, akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, while the force multipliers are clearly much more deserving of your time and attention.
The challenge of course is that the noisy tasks grab your attention because others insist on it. They want something when they want it because they want it. They may not have a single strategic thought in their head, but they are demanding and persistent. So how do you limit the encroachment of purveyors of noisy tasks? One answer is to limit the amount of time available for chores. To do this credibly, you’ll need to know where you and your activities fit within the strategy of your organization. If the task does not advance strategy, don’t do it. Or decide upfront to allow a fixed percentage of your time for chores that may be of minimal use to you, but may be important to keep the people around you happy. Another approach is to get a better understanding of the task and its context. If your job is to copy documents, one page looks much like another. However, it matters if the document you are copying contains the cafeteria menu or the firm’s emergency response guidelines. Finally, you need to educate the folks around you. With your subordinates, do your decision making aloud — explaining how you determine if a particular task or project is a force multiplier. With your superiors, ask them to help you understand better the force multiplication attributes they see in the tasks they assign. (This will either provide you with more useful contextual information or smoke out a chore that is masquerading as an important task.) Finally, with the others, engage them in conversation. When you cannot see your way clear to handle their chore, explain your reasoning. They won’t always be happy about it, but they will start learning when to call on you and when to dump their requests on someone else.
Of course, the concept of force multiplication goes far beyond your To Do List. Do your projects have a force multiplying effect on your department? Does your department have a force multiplying effect on your firm? These are important questions for everyone, but especially for people engaged in the sometime amorphous field of knowledge management. Sure, most of what we do helps. But do we make a dramatic difference? If not, why not?
[Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds]