Manage by Task, Not Time
Anyone trying to manage by task, not time, should rethink how to do meetings.
The fundamental concept of a meeting is sound. You bring people together—in-person or virtually—at an appointed time to reach a decision. Fortunately, virtual work presents an opportunity to innovate, not replicate. Theoretically, virtual meetings should already be more efficient, since you don’t need to travel between meetings.
Managing by task, not time, means focusing on results. Have a purpose: What will change in the world as a result of this meeting taking place? If nothing will change, think hard about whether you need to meet. What is the agenda? Who needs to be in the meeting or on the call to achieve the purpose? What will everyone in the meeting or on the call do with every minute they are there? If the answer is just sit there . . . then you’ve got an organization that’s stuck in the mind-set that employees owe you hours. Your employees’ time and attention is a valuable resource. Directed right, it can achieve great things. Misdirected, it presents a huge opportunity cost.
FOCUS ON RESULTS
Meredith Monday Schwartz has her team at Here Comes the Guide send an end-of-day email. “It shouldn’t take more than five minutes to put it together. It isn’t supposed to be something arduous,” she says. By reminding people about their morning ambitions, the email holds them accountable for doing what they said they’d do. It keeps her apprised of what’s going on in the company, and allows her to spot problems early.
Managing yourself and others by task, not time, doesn’t mean ignoring time. Good work takes time.
Meredith Monday Schwartz notes that she and her employees set intentions that generally take about eight hours a day. That number isn’t random; I suspect its popularity has some basis in humans’ natural rhythms. But it does mean keeping time in its proper place—as one part of the equation of success, a variable that can be tweaked up and down as circumstances require, but not all that matters. The most important thing is achieving small wins, over and over again. As a task is set and accomplished, the power of progress kicks in. Do this day after day, and—no matter how many hours people are working—they soon feel unstoppable.
Get the Rhythm Right
The best way to deal with “productive” distractions that pop into your head unbidden is to create a “later” list. Keep a notebook next to you while you’re doing focused work. Whenever a thought pops up of something you need to do, write it down. If you need to find a number, a quote, or a piece of information, just use the journalist trick of writing “TK.” It means “to come”—and then you put the item you’re going to find on the later list. When you take a break in thirty to forty-five minutes, you can go do all these undone tasks. The meat will be OK if it comes out of the freezer thirty minutes later, but uninterrupted working time is priceless.
We are more prone to distractions when we’re tired. So, as you work to avoid distractions, you should proactively design your schedule to recognize energy peaks and valleys. The most productive people figure out a template for their days that recognizes when the low energy moments will happen. Then they plan real breaks—pauses from normal work centered on rejuvenating activities—into these spots.
Many people who work from home find it helpful to create their own ending rituals. Whenever your task list is finished and you have decided to be done, do something to close out your session. Write your to-done list. Review your to-do list for the next day. Meditate for five minutes or write in a journal. Reverse whatever fake commute you orchestrated in the morning. Put yourself in the right headspace for the rest of life.
Build Your Team
RE-CREATE THE WATER COOLER
The Zoom happy hour became a pandemic cliché.
But clichés become clichés for a reason, and what those of us who had Zoom Pro accounts before March 2020 have figured out is that, for most small group business purposes (e.g. your get-together doesn’t center around touching one another!), seeing one another’s faces is about 75 percent as good for connecting and nurturing relationships as seeing one another in person. Yes, there are slight sound delays that need to be managed, but with a little mindfulness, this is doable. Since video calls also cut down on multitasking, they, rather than audio-only calls, should be any remote worker’s default.
If relationships are best built face to face, then there’s a little downside to cubicle life that’s seldom discussed: being in an office forty hours a week results in an overinvestment of time (probably beyond the point of diminishing returns) with a small group of people, and generally a massive underinvestment of time in anybody else—who might also be professionally useful. When you work in an office, you eat lunch with your coworkers. If you are not in the office forty hours a week, it’s easier to get together with people who are not your immediate coworkers . . . and you should.
BUILD A HOME TEAM
Of course, if you are working from home and have young kids, you may have noted this issue: even if they are being cared for by someone else, you are all still in the same space. The kids may hear you. You may hear them. They may want to visit you.
Good childcare is expensive, so I know it’s tempting to pay for less, rather than more, but if you’ve got big ambitions, try to think of this as an investment that will pay off in your long-term earning potential.
You might also consider help with the housework. Many people assume that if they’re home during the day, they’ll have more time for housework, but the problem with being home during the day is that you keep seeing the messes, and soon housework can consume all available time. Hire someone to come clean and you can consider this task to be off your plate. As for those plates? You might look into hiring someone to cook dinner occasionally. It’s really lovely to know that dinner will be ready right when you’re ready to emerge, victorious, from your new corner office.
CREATE A “LIST OF 100 DREAMS”
Don’t talk yourself out of ideas. You are not holding yourself to any of this. You’re just playing around with scenarios for your life. Revisit this list every few years as your desires and ambitions change. If you’d like, you can share your list with supportive friends, family members, or mentors. You could cross some items off this weekend. For the bigger ones, choose one or two professional and personal goals to focus on per year. Come December, what would you like to be able to say you’ve done? Write these goals somewhere prominently, so you can think about taking steps toward these goals when you plan your weekly schedule on Fridays. And, of course, be open to opportunity. When you articulate desires, you start seeing possibilities.
DESIGN A REALISTIC IDEAL WEEK
Another form of thinking big is designing a “realistic ideal week”—that is, imagining what you would like your life to look like, hour by hour, given the constraints of biology and physics. What kind of work would you be doing? What hours would you work? Who would you be working with? When would you do your hobbies? What would your evenings look like, and your weekends?
BECOME A THOUGHT LEADER
As the world gets back to normal, some workplaces have marched, or will march, everyone back to traditional schedules. If you’d like to keep a more flexible one, you need to think about what sort of leverage you have. A discovery: it’s easier to control your work hours and location when people come to you rather than you needing to go to them.
Building a strong professional reputation is the best way to protect, and advance, your career. When you’re recognized by others as an authority in your field, clients and employers want to work with you, specifically—and if you do lose your job, you’re equipped to bounce back.
BE PREPARED TO PIVOT
All these little bets that you place will, over time, make you more broadly marketable. It’s good to have options. This is particularly true in uncertain economic times. Few business plans account for a multimonth government-ordered shutdown.
A sense of abundance allows us to see possibilities. When you know that if one thing doesn’t work out, you can always find something else, and when you have the time and connections to do so, you operate from a position of power. You have full command of your corner office. You are the architect of your career—your means for impacting the world—whether you’re part of an organization or running your own.
Long term, you might consider moving somewhere that allows you to have a real office. If that’s not happening, at least set your desk or table at an ergonomically correct height. Get a good chair. Dining room chairs look lovely, but trust me, you will rip the upholstery sitting on them for forty hours a week, even if your pants don’t seem particularly rough. Check in with your body. Do your shoulders feel hunched or is your neck tight on one side? If so, move around and adjust things until you’ve fixed the situation. Some people like to sit on exercise balls and some like to use an adjustable desk that allows them to work while standing. Figure out what works for you.
Theoretically, working from home lets people exchange evening commuting time for cooking time. Some culinary sorts do enjoy creating more elaborate meals. If you don’t, simple meals (or outsourcing) is the way to go. But I have found that working from home does enable healthier lunch choices.
HAVE LITTLE ADVENTURES
Aim to have at least one little adventure each day. There are all kinds of possibilities. This was true under social distancing orders, and is also true as life opens up again. Instead of taking your usual route along the sidewalks, go run on a trail. Try a picnic breakfast. Organize a family scavenger hunt. Cook a new recipe for dinner on the same night that a friend is also giving it a whirl and video chat to compare notes. Meet a friend for a twenty-minute spin through a nearby museum where you each pick one work of art to ponder together for half the time. If museums are closed, meet to ponder an outdoor sculpture or fountain.
EMBRACE WORK/LIFE INTEGRATION
As with most aspects of working from home, you can replicate your exact schedule from the office. Some people suggest keeping work and home completely separate and never letting them overlap. Personalities differ; compartmentalizers may do better with strict lines. But I’d challenge to experiment.
There is happiness to be gained from making the lines between work and life more porous—by making more of the 168 hours of the week available for work or life or both.