I’ve been writing a lot about work lately. About developing strategies to do the work, about the energy necessary to sustain good work, the challenge when being busy overwhelms our capacity and what the work we do tells us about the choices we are making and where our priorities really lie. For many of us, work is what defines us, to ourselves and to others; it tells us who we are, and it demonstrates ou capabilities to others.
At the same time, the work just never goes away. Looked at from the wrong perspective, it is a Sisyphean slog up a mountain of endless and steadily growing commitments, obligations and expectations. When work stops being a joy (and for some, I acknowledge it may never have been one) it starts to look a lot like hell.
I’m reminded of this as I deal with a continual planning—and re-planning—of my obligations and work commitments. I’ve had a lot on my plate of late. As I mentioned last week, in addition to a number of customer commitments there have also been several personal challenges that I am juggling. The result is that I’m keeping up on some things, and other commitments are being creatively rescheduled.
Like many, I use a form of to-do list to manage my projects, my other work activities and my calendar. It’s a pretty spiffy form of to-do list in that it integrates contacts, calendar, projects, actions and documents into my email. But at it’s heart, it’s still a to-do list.
In managing our to-do lists, there is often nothing quite so demoralizing as updating tasks to move them from where you last scheduled them to some future date, often for the umpteenth time. And sometimes with a sneaking suspicion that we will move it yet again before it actually gets done.
When this happens, there is a strong temptation to cut corners, to find short cuts and ways to deflect the workload. Sometimes that’s because we’re just not in the mood to do what’s on our list. It is boring, or big, or mindless, or requires thought or any number of other possible excuses. And they are excuses. Somewhere, we said we would do something, and now we’re looking for a weasel clause with which to get out of the commitment.
For me, situational challenges like these highlight the brilliance of David Allen’s introduction of the concept of contexts. In his landmark book Getting Things Done (worth the read) he talks about defining not just when you need to do something, but where you need to do something. That might be while out doing errands, or at your desk, or online or at home. It might also be about where you are mentally: bored, or tired, or engaged. You can define contexts that reflect ‘needing to think big thoughts’ just as much as you can define contexts that reflect ‘requires no thought, just action.’ You can then line up your actions with your mental state; tackle the big tasks that require heavy mental lifting at the start of your day, for example, while saving the mindless ones to the end (or just delegating them entirely, if you can get away with it).
Engaging productively with contexts still requires some thought and effort, though. We need to plan to do the work that needs doing, and we need to think about the state and circumstances in which we will most optimally do it. When that doesn’t happen, there’s a risk that we sub-optimize our approach. We do just enough to tick the box and get it off our list, even if what we do doesn’t really solve the problem that got it on to our list in the first place. This isn’t really doing, it’s deflecting. It’s doing the minimal amount necessary to get the endorphin rush that comes with checking something off the list. But if the problem isn’t solved, we’ve just deferred dealing with it. Eventually it will come back, with all of the emotional baggage of revisiting work that we have already pretended that we have previously tackled.
This doesn’t just happen on individual to-do lists involving simple actions. It happens on big items as well. It happens on projects. I’ve seen many instances—in more than one organization, so no-one should feel unduly singled out here—of projects being strategically prioritized as part of the annual planning cycle. The reason it got prioritized is that it was perceptually important. The work was necessary. The outcome was valued.
All too often, though, when the time comes to initiate the project, things have changed. Or, at the very least, perspectives have. Rather doing the project to solve a problem, the project itself has become a problem to be solved. The exercise becomes one of simply getting it done. The work is often reframed into an exercise of “what can I plausibly do for a project with this name in the time that I have available” rather than delivering on the outcome that was initially envisioned.
What is happening in these situations is that we are substituting ‘done’ for ‘done well.’ We are subverting the intent to do the best job possible with the expedient deflection of doing something—anything, really—that gets it off of our plate. The question that each of us has to ask and answer, though, is whether that is how we want to represent our abilities? The choice we are making is ultimately in how our work—and ourselves—are perceived.
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t wrestle with this issue myself. I can think of several times in building presentations, for example, when expediency has gotten in the way of effectiveness. If I am trying to build a meaningful presentation, I think hard about who the audience is. What impact I am trying to have. What outcomes I need to help them to realize. The stories and examples that will assist in underscoring and illustrating the points that I am trying to make. This takes time and effort. The presentation builds progressively from outline to slides to content to finished product. Done well, the audience is engaged, and I’m left satisfied that I’ve delivered the best work possible.
In other instances, there have been situations where the presentation simply needed to get done. There was a deadline looming, I wasn’t engaged, and I wanted the work off my plate. I searched for previous related presentations, found some suitable slides, rearranged and repurposed them, and saved them in a new file. Tick goes the checkbox. One more thing off my plate.
Many might be reading this and saying, “What’s the problem? You got it done, the content was relevant and you can gloss over any holes in the material when you present.” To an extent, that’s true. In fact, in situations like this it’s often what I’m relying on. But it’s not my best work, and I know it. Worse, there are times that the audience knows it; not often, but it certainly happens.
Best case scenario, I will connect in the moment with the topic and the people in the room, and figure out in the moment what needs to be presented, and how, and weave what I’ve assembled with what I need to actually say. And it’s certainly nice to be accomplished enough to be able to do that, but it’s still leaving a whole lot to chance. If I had taken the time to think through the presentation just a little bit more in advance, I would have the confidence necessary not to be grasping for plausible content in the moment.
Of course, sometimes the challenge is that we know—or we fear—that in doing the work we aren’t going to do it well at all. So what we wind up doing, in essence, is sabotaging ourselves. We set ourselves up for failure. We do the minimum plausible amount and don’t make the effort to do it well. We have created an out where we can attempt to justify—to ourselves or to others—that the work isn’t great because we didn’t have time, or take time, or apply our best efforts.
A key point to keep in mind about our work—and how we approach it—is that we have agency. We have choices about what we do, how we do it, when we do it and if we do it. Granted, those choices come with possible consequences. But the choices are still there. We choose how we see the work that we do, how we approach that work and in many ways we choose the quality of the finished product. Certainly, there are variables out of our control in terms of risks, challenges, resources and sometimes deadlines. And yet there is still a lot within our control as well.
We don’t just have one good idea—or one good piece of work—in us. It’s not a question of riding on our own coattails, taking something that we have done in the past that worked well and constantly repurposing it. But if we are going to avoid that outcome, we need to show up—mentally, as well as physically. We need to do the work. We need to engage with the problem and wrestle with possible solutions. And—quite often—we need to let go of preconceived notions of how we have done it before, in order to be open to new ways of thinking and doing that may be more effective in the current context.
The importance of this was reinforced in working with a customer recently. We are in the process of administering an RFP for project management software. During our discussion, I mentioned that I had coordinated the selection and implementation of software like this probably nine or ten times in the past, and in each situation I had never actually recommended the same software twice. Instead, for each customer it was about finding the right solution, based on their context, and on what could most appropriately help them realize their goal.
The customer was surprised by this, and said so. It would be a lot easier to get to know one piece of software well, and just recommend that. And while that might be true, and it would genuinely be easier to go with the same answer over and over again, doing so would be wrong. It would be the equivalent of looking at every problem and seeing a nail, simply because the tool I am carrying just happens to be a hammer. I would be ignoring the particular details that make each situation unique and different, and pretending that each client has the same requirements and needs the same solution. That is simply not how I work. And it’s not the work that I want to be known for.
The customer I mentioned has a saying written on the white board in his office: “A lot of people miss opportunity, because it is often dressed in overalls and looks like work.” There is a great deal of truth in that statement. And doing the work is important. But it is not simply about doing the work; we also have to do the work well. That’s when our work best represents us, and best influences how we are perceived by those we serve and support.