Job done! How to finish stuff

Struggling with a huge array of distractions which stops you from finishing? Don't just just sit there feeling overwhelmed, there are plenty of ways you can get on top of your workload.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Don't you ever wonder how people like Justin King and Sheryl Sandberg get everything done? While some of us let out an exasperated sigh on a Sunday evening in anticipation of just how much we will be expected to achieve in the coming week, others seem to glide effortlessly through meetings, conference calls and email conversations - and still get their work done.

Just picture the unenviable to-do list that new BBC director-general Tony Hall faces: the continuing Jimmy Savile fall-out, dealing with senior executives' payoffs, adjusting the broadcaster to an ever-shrinking income, and shaking up organisational culture. Where do you start?

Like every one of us, those at the very top of business will at times struggle to cope with a bombardment of information and distraction as they try to achieve goals that often seem shapeless and elusive.

Finishing tasks in the networked, data overloaded, communication-exploding 21st century workplace can seem nothing less than an existential challenge.

Speaking from California, the author of the bestselling Getting Things Done (Penguin), David Allen, says: 'There's always more work to do than you can do. When are you finished? When are you done? There's always more to write, more to think. There's always more to do. So it's about how you manage your own assessment of what you did out of all the options and what you didn't do.'

Feeling comfortable about what you are doing and what you're not doing is one thing, 'but most people haven't a clue about what they're not doing, they haven't managed an objective inventory of what that is', says Allen.

'The second thing is, if your job has anything to do with what the late, great Peter Drucker called knowledge work, then first you have to figure out what it is that you are supposed to be doing. If you're cranking widgets, then you turn up and there's a big pile of uncranked widgets to make it quite clear what your work is. But if you have to implement diversity in your workforce, then what do you have to do to make that happen? It's not self-evident.'

This is difficult enough. Now consider that typically office workers have something like 1,000 emails in their inbox at any one time with another 70 arriving each day. You've got IM switched on, texts popping up on your mobile, you're monitoring your Twitter feed and keeping tabs on a raft of other social media. Then you've got piles of stuff you should read, people to talk to, meetings to attend.

How on earth is it possible to pull yourself free of the quicksand of demands and requests long enough to actually do some work? And that's supposing you can turn a blind eye to the non-work-related distraction that the internet poses.

Research by Kansas State University found that 'between 60% and 80% of people's time on the internet at work has nothing to do with their job'. Professor Joseph Ugrin even came up with a name for it: cyberloafing.

Rosie Gray, whose company Mosaic Learning specialises in productivity training, says that increased workload is another factor that has left many people feeling their work has teetered out of control.

She adds: 'In the past, you might have arrived at the office with three clear things to do. Now people are dealing with their emails before they even arrive, and by 10am their priorities might have completely changed.'

For what might seem a low-tech problem, there's no shortage of advice and self-help available; from Tom Peters' ebook Getting Stuff (That Matters) Done (New Word City) to Matthew Kimberley's less cerebral Get a Grip (Ad Lib).

What many offer is a system for keeping on top of your work that revolves around capturing and prioritising what has to be done. In Getting Things Done, Allen pioneered much of the contemporary thinking on the subject.

It starts, he says, with defining what your work is, and, secondly, 'managing and maintaining a complete inventory of what that work is'. Professionals typically have a list of between 30 and 100 projects with over 200 'next actions' to perform; the trouble is, it's largely in their head. If you can't sit down once a week and review the list, your working life will be chaotic.

We're not suffering from information overload, says Allen, so much as 'potential meaning' overload: our brains are crammed with things that could be useful. The stress comes from worrying about what you should be doing with the information, and is only relieved when you write it down.

Eventually, that will become as habitual as brushing your teeth or having a shower. The second stage involves creating meaning as you file everything on the basis of what action it requires.

Graham Allcott runs a UK-based coaching and training business, Think Productive, and has also written a book, How to be a Productivity Ninja (Read Press). His CORD model follows the four stages of workflow: Capture, Organise, Review and Do, and also relies on unburdening the mind. 'Our brains are great at making smart judgements, but they are rubbish at remembering 15 things at the same time,' says Allcott.



- Don't cc emails to everyone

- Pick up the phone rather than have email conversations

- Don't surf the web looking at silly sites - a time thief

- Board meetings should not last more than two hours

- Get in early - miss the rush hour

- Live close to your work - cuts down on the commute

- Never drink at lunchtime

But it's one thing to have a tidy mind and organise what you need to do into a filing system; it's quite another to actually do the work.

So that inevitably means you've got to identify what's important and allocate time to do it. If you don't do that, you can end up busy all day with emails and the like, but not actually achieving the things you need to.

There's a paradox: we are each, to some extent, our own boss - defining the work that has to be done, issuing instructions, and then actually doing it. Allcott takes this a stage further; ask yourself questions twice a day to find out what you're up to and how you are getting on, he advises.

Don't just drift in and out of your workload - give yourself direction and make sure you're doing the right thing.

Meetings and email are the two 'beasts' that eat up your time if you let them, says Allen. 'If someone asked me to a meeting and there wasn't a clear agenda with a clear description of what success would look like by what time, I wouldn't go,' says Allen.

One issue that raises is the competing demands of short-term and long-term priorities. Donna Ladkin, professor of leadership and ethics at Cranfield School of Management, says: 'Some things are urgent but not important, others are important but not urgent. For example, CEOs need to develop strategy, not just focus on the immediate executional things; so they need to ringfence time for that and protect it.'

Equally, many people focus on what needs to be done today at the expense of investing time to advance their career.

You have to be honest with yourself and exercise more choice, says Ladkin. 'People who do well are discerning. They decide what to respond to and hold on to their own agenda.'

The good news is that the more senior you get, the easier it can get, but only if you are ruthless at delegating.

And actually doing work, as opposed to organising and prioritising, comes down largely to attention. There's evidence from research that if you're distracted for one minute, it takes you 15 minutes to recover your focus, so anything you can do to remove distractions is hugely productive.

Apps like SelfControl, StayFocused and the like go some way to shutting out the noise. 'Every serious writer I know says that when they're working, they switch off the internet,' says Ladkin. Even better, get away from your desk altogether. 'We're seeing an increasing trend for people to book a meeting room for one,' says Allcott.

Why not go further and get your colleagues to lock you in?

Choosing the right time to work is also important. It's generally recognised that each of us has different energy levels at different times of day. If you feel sleepy after lunch, use that time for talking to people or admin, rather than mentally taxing work.

In The 4-Hour Work Week (Non Basic Stock Line) author Timothy Ferriss suggests you do the three most important things in your day by 11am.

Motivation can be a tougher issue - particularly if your work is boring. Some people need to have deadlines hanging over them to overcome procrastination and make themselves knuckle down. Even if you are motivated, another common problem is overload caused by taking too much on, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Mosaic's Gray points out that many people have difficulty saying no.

'You don't necessarily use the 'no' word, but you do have to manage expectations about what you can do. If you say 'yes' and can't deliver, the consequences can be worse, so you need the confidence to negotiate and still maintain that 'can-do' attitude,' she says.

Yet paradoxically many of us, I suspect, actually need the pressure that comes from having too much work to get our heads down and get stuck in. 'I achieve that little bit more if I am a bit overstretched,' says Ladkin. 'Each of us has an optimal level that keeps us buzzy without being overstressed.'

And with that, I can press 'Save', send this in, and delete another item on my 'To Do' list. I've got something done.


Ten tactics for taking action

1. Have a blitz. See how much you can get done in a concentrated 15-minute burst.

2. Get in the zone. Mindfulness is about having your mind emptied from all but the task in hand.

3. Clear out your inbox. Empty it every night or keep it just for stuff you really do have to get done.

4. Learn to ignore. Don't respond to everything that's addressed to you; only those things you really need to.

5. Build in time for the unexpected: new opportunities, firefighting, etc.

6. Establish good working habits. Neuroscience shows that it takes seven days to establish a new behaviour; after 30 days it's harder to go back.

7. Control the inputs. Don't allow email and social media to interrupt you continually.

8. Let go. When you delegate, don't look over the other person's shoulder.

9. Keep an eye on the big goal. Measure priorities against your long-term objectives.

10. Take time out. Have a break, take a walk to re-energise yourself and come back refreshed.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

When should you step down as CEO?

Bob Iger's departure poses an unpopular question for bosses.

The death and resurrection of the premium customer

Top-end service is no longer at the discretion of the management.

What HS2 can teach you about project failure

And how you can prevent projects going astray.

35 Women Under 35 2020: Nominations open

Management Today's 35 Women Under 35 showcases the country's rising stars in business. Here's how...

Practical steps for breaking silos

Briefing: Adam Williams, former CEO of influencer marketing agency Takumi, shares what he has learned...

The Power 50: Proof that you can be a part-time CEO

Just a few years ago, executives were reluctant to admit they worked part-time for fear...