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Make time for the work that matters

    Julian Birkinshaw
    Jordan Cohen
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Knowledge workers can be more productive by thinking consciously about how they spend their time; deciding which tasks matter most to them and their organisations; and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest.

More hours in the day. It’s one thing everyone wants, and yet it’s impossible to attain. But what if you could free up significant time to focus on the responsibilities that really matter?

We’ve spent the past three years studying how knowledge workers can become more productive and found that the answer is simple: Eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and replace them with value-added ones. Our research indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others.

So why do they keep doing them?

Because ridding oneself of work is easier said than done. We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we’re willing to accept.

We believe there’s a way forward, however. Knowledge workers can make themselves more productive by thinking consciously about how they spend their time; deciding which tasks matter most to them and their organisations; and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest.

We tried this intervention with 15 executives at different companies, and they were able to dramatically reduce their involvement in low-value tasks. The benefits were clear.

When Lotta Laitinen, a manager at If, a Scandinavian insurance broker, jettisoned meetings and administrative tasks in order to spend more time supporting her team, it led to a 5 per cent increase in sales by her unit over a three-week period.

While not everyone in our study was quite that successful, the results still astounded us. By simply asking knowledge workers to rethink and shift the balance of their work, we were able to help them free up nearly a fifth of their time and focus on more worthwhile tasks with the hours they saved.

Why it’s so hard

We interviewed 45 knowledge workers in 39 companies across eight industries in the United States and Europe to see how they spent their days.

We found that even the most dedicated and impressive performers devoted large amounts of time to tedious, non-value-added activities such as desk work and “managing across” the organisation.

There are many reasons why this happens. We worry that we’re letting our colleagues or employers down if we stop doing certain tasks. Also, those less-important items on our to-do lists are not entirely without benefit.

Making progress on any task increases our feelings of engagement and satisfaction, research has shown.

And although meetings are widely derided as a waste of time, they offer opportunities to socialize and connect with co-workers.

Organisations share some of the blame for less-than-optimal productivity. Cost-cutting has been prevalent over the past decade, and knowledge workers, like most employees, have had to take on some low-value tasks that distract them from more important work.

Even though business confidence is rebounding, many companies are hesitant to add back resources, particularly administrative ones.

What workers can do

Our process, a variant of the classic Start/Stop/Continue exercise, is designed to help you make small but significant changes to your day-to-day work schedule:

Identify low-value tasks

Look at all your daily activities and decide which ones are not that important to either you or your firm and relatively easy to drop, delegate or outsource.

Our research suggests that at least one-quarter of a typical knowledge worker’s activities fall into both categories, so you should aim to find up to 10 hours of time per week.

Decide whether to drop, delegate or redesign

Sort the low-value tasks into three categories: quick kills (things you can stop doing now with no negative effects), off-load opportunities (tasks that can be delegated with minimal effort), and long-term redesign (work that needs to be restructured or overhauled).

Our study participants found that this step forced them to reflect carefully on their real contributions to their respective organisations.

Off-load tasks

We heard from many participants that delegation was initially the most challenging part - but ultimately very rewarding.

One participant said he couldn’t stop worrying about the tasks he had reassigned, while another told us he had trouble remembering “to push, prod and chase.”

Allocate freed-up time

The goal is to be not just efficient but effective. So, determine how to best make use of the time you’ve saved. Write down two or three things you should be doing but aren’t, and then keep a log to assess whether you’re using your time more effectively. Some of our study participants were able to go home a bit earlier to enjoy their families. Some unfortunately reported that their time was immediately swallowed up by unforeseen events.

But more than half reclaimed the extra hours to do better work. “I stopped spending time with my project planning tool and instead focused on strategic activities, such as the product road map,” said Shantanu Kumar, CEO of a small technology company in London.

Laitinen used her freed-up schedule to listen in on client calls, observe her top salespeople and coach her employees one-on-one. The result was that stunning three-week sales jump of 5 per cent, with the biggest increases coming from below-average performers.

Commit to your plan

Although this process is entirely self-directed, it’s crucial to share your plan with a boss, colleague or mentor. Explain which activities you are getting out of and why. And agree to discuss what you’ve achieved in a few weeks’ time. Without this step, it’s all too easy to slide back into bad habits.

The small intervention we propose can significantly boost productivity among knowledge workers. You don’t have to redesign any parts of an organization, re-engineer a work process or transform a business model. All you have to do is ask the right questions and act on the answers. After all, if you’re a knowledge worker, isn’t using your judgment what you were hired for?

Julian Birkinshaw is a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School and the author of ‘Becoming a Better Boss.’

Jordan Cohen is a productivity expert at PA Consulting Group and the recipient of the 2010 grand prize from the Management Innovation eXchange for his previous

work at Pfizer.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

The goal is to be not just efficient but effective. So, determine how to best

make use of the time you’ve saved.

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