ARE you convinced that you’re indispensable and that everything you do is critical? Yet you feel underappreciated, stuck in your current position and torn between prioritising every task and your well-being?
Meet Suleikha. As a senior vice-president of finance and administration, she tops the list of organised and reliable executives I’ve coached. She used to respond to emails within an hour, check off a long list of work items daily, be there for team members whenever they needed her and has long been an expert on her subject.
The problem? Suleikha had been languishing in the same role for two years longer than her peers. Her manager considered her indispensable, but never got around to an in-depth career conversation with her. Her colleagues respected her but didn’t include her in strategic conversations. Instead, they sought her out for last-minute crisis resolution.
She had more fires to douse than others because everyone knew she’d carry the water no matter how high the heat. She worked seven days a week, never unplugged, neglected relationships at home and deferred exercise, gaining a few pounds every year. Nearly burnt out, Suleikha was considering leaving her job.
Finally, she discussed her situation with her manager. He supported the idea of her offloading some work, so she and I brainstormed a path to a more strategic and healthier, happier Suleikha. If this situation sounds similar to your own, the problem may not be your position or peers, but whether you are viewing your work in the right way.
Not every project or task you take on, especially those others ask you to do, requires your immediate attention or your action at all. You need to assess whether the work on your plate is the right work for you. Many of my clients, including Suleikha, use the following six questions to critically consider whether all the work on their list really needs to be done, even if someone has asked them to do it.
- Why is this task necessary?
Suleikha was surprised to learn that a quarter of her to-do list didn’t have a meaningful “why”. These items weren’t departmental priorities or necessary to keep the trains running. She could eliminate actions like a standing status update meeting where a weekly email sufficed. Ascertaining “why” can ensure critical jobs are prioritised and aligned with the big picture, while others are delegated or left undone.
- Does it fit into my ‘time portfolio’?
Create a portfolio for your most precious resource – your time. Suleikha divided her core activities into seven categories, namely to manage her team, manage up, track top-five projects, create vision to support business growth, sponsor a key customer account, present at two annual conferences and email. She then assigned the ideal percentage distribution across these buckets. She mapped time spent on each and set goals to achieve the ideals. Suleikha realised she needed to be thriftier with the time she spent on email, say no to lower priorities and dedicate more time to what she was truly paid to do, which was to be strategic and set clear direction. By creating a time budget for big work categories, you become more mindful about the responsibilities to which you attend.
- What would happen a month from now if it isn’t done?
Suleikha got a lot of satisfaction from completing action items. She would even add an already completed chore to her list just to feel good striking it off. But would she derive as much joy at the thought of this completed work a month from now? It became clear that neither she nor anyone else would remember the impact of many items even a few days hence. Before hastily agreeing to a request, visualise its future impact on you, your stakeholders and your business. You may avoid effort spent on things that are best consigned to corporate oblivion right now.
- Who wants this task done, who is the right person to do it?
Suleikha was first to respond to email requests. Her direct subordinates felt she often did their jobs for them and deprived them of visibility to upper management. Also, she realised that when her peers wanted something done, a single glance her way would make her volunteer. Ask yourself not just who could do the task, but who is the right person to do the task. Then, free time through delegation and allow your teammates to own their work.
- How often do you give more importance to a task than it is actually worth?
A colleague asked Suleikha to have a career conversation with his nephew. She scheduled a meeting, only to be stood up – twice. Eventually, she recognised responsibility resided with the nephew, and it wasn’t time-critical for him. Evaluate your assumptions about the task’s speed and importance. Assign accountability where it belongs and focus on the action items that are truly pressing and truly yours, even if they are outside of work.
- What’s the story I’m telling myself?
Suleikha imagined dire consequences if she didn’t accomplish everything, ranging from “people will think I’m rude” to “my subordinates are already burdened” to “I will look incompetent and weak”. Together we created a fact versus FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) list to illustrate her worst anxieties alongside reality. If many of your must-do items originate from a must-do story, generate a similar list to trim your work. Suleikha moved past her compulsion to take on every little thing and now achieves more on critical matters that are more aligned with the job she was hired to do. She’s happier at work and healthier at home.
When you believe you have to accomplish a million tasks, ask yourself these six questions. You might discover that there are more important things to do, ones that will increase your impact and prolong your longevity at work and in life.
This article was first published in the Harvard Business Review.