As America embarks on the largest work-from-home experiment in its history, many knowledge workers are rethinking the status quo. Long meetings are becoming emails. Business travelers are realizing they can meet their clients (and their goals) remotely. Conferences and other industry events are going virtual — and may stay that way. As a champion against busywork and the author of Why Simple Wins, I’m here for it.
The changes we’re witnessing are long overdue, and they build momentum for truly decluttering our work lives. If you’re seeking a spring-cleaning approach to your day, explore the two techniques below. They’re designed for people at all levels to identify time-sucks and unnecessary rules, as well as the tasks that bring the most value to your organization.
Cancel stupid rules. If you could cancel all the rules that frustrate you or slow down your efficiency, what would they be? With your remote team or individually, take 30 minutes or so to list those stupid rules. Keep these pro tips in mind:
- Focus on your sphere of control — choose rules that are directly related to your business unit and your daily work, not the larger organization.
- Think in terms of red rules and green rules. Red rules are government-mandated and industry-regulated, so leave those rules as they are. Everything else is a green rule and fair game.
After you’re done, review your list. If you’re doing this technique as a team, share it aloud. Do the rules on the list seem like things that anyone would miss? In my experience, many of the “rules” people write down aren’t actually rules — they’re just annoying processes that we assume are rules. Many times, the origin for the stupid rule is someone who is no longer with the company. Use this moment to clear up misperceptions around any rules that aren’t actually formal policy.
Among the “rules,” take a team vote via Zoom which one should be cancelled. Then do it, right on the spot. If possible, cancel more than one. If you need permission from someone higher up, then make your case to them. Or do the next best thing: Temporarily suspend the rule for a few weeks or months. If no one misses it and there’s no negative impact, get rid of it permanently. Your team will be thrilled — or at least cautiously optimistic — because this exercise demonstrates that their time and energy is valued.
Cancelling stupid rules provides an opportunity to challenge why we do things a certain way, and it can open up much-needed dialog within the company. Leaders get a strong pulse on where change is most needed and people feel empowered to remove obstacles from their daily work.
Separate valuable work from dispensable tasks. For this exercise, start by drawing a line down the center of a piece of paper, dividing it into two columns. Consider the experience and skillset that you bring to your organization. If you could modify your role so it better leveraged your talents in support of the company’s goals, what would you spend your day doing that you’re not currently doing? In the left column, make a list of these new work activities and title it “Valuable Work.”
Maybe your Valuable Work column includes “anticipate strategic threats” or “identify hidden marketplace opportunities.” Maybe it skews toward product development or new ways of selling those products. Just imagine how eager to contribute you’d be every morning if you had more time for the things you care about, and if you were wasting less time on the things you don’t.
Speaking of, now ask yourself: “What current tasks occupy most of my time?” Check this month’s calendar and to-do lists to jog your memory, and be sure to list specific tasks — not general projects — and your role on that task. For example, write “lead weekly staff meeting” instead of just “meetings.” Write all your answers in the right column and title it “Current Tasks.
Now compare your two columns: How do they differ with regard to busywork and work that really matters?
As a final step, circle every item in the right column (Current Tasks) that adds value to the business. Now look at anything you didn’t circle and ask yourself: “Which of these tasks can I eliminate, outsource or streamline to make space for things in the Valuable column?” Identify your targets by looking at your list of current tasks and honestly answering the questions below.
- Which of my current tasks don’t bring value to the business?
- Would anyone really miss this task if I stopped doing it? (If the answer is “nobody,” cancel it.)
- Is anyone else already doing this task and could that person take ownership of it?
- If I had to hand off two of my responsibilities, what do I give away and to whom? What’s stopping me from doing this today?
- Which of my daily tasks could become weekly? Which weekly tasks could be done monthly?
- What steps could be eliminated from this task?
- If I had to get the same amount of work done in half the time, what would I do differently?
You may be in a position to implement change immediately or you might need to get buy-in from leadership. Either way, be willing to test the suspension of a task for a few weeks or months to see if anyone actually misses it. And if someone does, that’s okay: it’s a sign that the task may be more valuable than it seemed. From there, see if there’s some way simplify it.
The distractions and challenges of working from home are forcing positive changes to how we conduct business. Fewer stupid rules and less busywork could actually become the new future of work. So let’s take this present moment to re-examine our time and tasks, cutting away what doesn’t add value and prioritizing the work that really matters.