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Getting Beyond the Busy Work

March 30th, 2009 by Emira · 6 Comments

Since Alex had a post up at the Harvard Business Blog, I’ve found myself checking in there regularly for what is, not to surprisingly, great thoughts on business. And by “great thoughts” I mean ideas and analysis around entrepreneurship, leadership and business that apply to small business, innovative business and well generally the kind of business I relate to.

One particular article caught my attention the other day and has been working its way through my system over the past while. The post, titled “How to Mitigate the Urgent to Focus on the Important” by Gina Trapini of, doesn’t really state anything all that new to be honest, but it’s definitely a perspective I need to hear right now as both Lauren and I have been burning the candle at both ends (and possibly from the middle as well if that’s at all possible) since January. Here’s how she starts the post:

Busy people have two options when they decide how their workdays will go: they can choose to be reactive to urgent demands on their time, or proactive about focusing on what they decide is important. The only way to actually get things done is to mitigate the urgent to work on the important.

Let’s differentiate between what I call urgent and important.

Urgent tasks include things like that frantic email that needs a response RIGHT NOW; a sudden request that seems like it’ll only take two minutes but often ends up taking an hour; a report you’ve got to write up before a meeting. More often than not “the urgent” is putting out fires, or busywork, or tasks that you’d rather do first because they’re less intimidating than your current project list.

Urgent tasks are usually short-term and we’re drawn to them because they keep us busy and make us feel needed. (If we’re busy people, we must be important people.)

But dealing with a constant stream of urgent tasks leaves you wrung out at the end of the day, wondering where all the time went, staring at the undone actual work you’ve got to complete.

Now, I have to admit, that bit about feeling needed? It kind of stung. But deep down I have to admit there’s at least a grain of truth there. She goes on to give you some tips for focusing on the important — close down your email, have weekly meetings with yourself to focus, etc — which are all valuable and, if I’m totally honest: really hard to put into practice. For me, particularly the email one. We’ve all become so very focused on how connected we are: Twitter, Facebook, email, text messages, Skype, instant messaging etc. And with all of those apps and utilities constantly buzzing around us, it’s no wonder it’s hard to get focused and actually get something done. Let me take you on a short diversion to help illustrate the point that unplugging for a while can make your more productive and, despite the mild panic it may first induce, almost certainly will not lead to total chaos and destruction. (And this is as much to remind myself as it is to share with you).

I’ve been having what we can euphemistically call “computer problems” since we moved our office. The reasons for said problems are complicated, boring and ultimately deeply frustrating, but suffice it to say that I’ve ended up without a working computer or access to all my files more than once over the last two very busy months. Most recently, I came in one morning to find that I had lost access to all of my email (again) at a time when, due to the sheer volume of busyness, my inbox was in a full to bursting state. I panicked. I had that experience — which some of you surely know — of not really feeling like I could accomplish anything until I had my email back. At the same time, I had a roughly 50 page proposal due which I was never able to find uninterrupted time to work on. (You starting to see where I’m going with this?) I ended up losing the better part of a day to the email fiasco (after coming in at 7:30am to get work done, I was actually able to start working at 3:30pm when my email files were retrieved safe and sound), which resulted in me needing to work through the weekend to finish up the proposal. In the midst of this, a funny thing happened that Friday afternoon. As my computer went off to see the computer doctor, I worked at one of our staff’s workstations for the afternoon on the proposal. No task list open. No email connection. No Facebook. No IM client configured to my account. Just proposal writing. And, at the end of a very taxing week, when I was surely not at my best, in about two and half hours I got more work done on that proposal than I had managed in the three weeks prior. All because I finally had uninterrupted time.

When we’re running around like proverbial chickens, answering phone calls, rushing to meetings and trying our best to stay on top of our inboxes it’s really easy to lose site of the important in the midst of the urgent, but as the bosses of our own careers and shops it is so very important that we make this distinction. For my part, I’m considering a few tactics to make this a reality, including possibly spending some time working from home when I have big proposals to write, and definitely considering some tactics for mini email shut downs. Anyone have tips for tricks you use to help focus on the important and chill out on the urgent?

Tags: Business Advice · Thoughts

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Laura. // Mar 30, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    i do this at my boring desk job! i open my email once when i get to the office, check for any new tasks, delete the ones that are system-wide reminders, answer the ones that can be answered quickly–basically do as much clean-up as possible in my inbox.
    then i make a to-do list from the rest of the emails: items to research, projects i need to work on. i also spend a fair amount of office time with my phone on ‘do not disturb’. with these two distractions, gone, i can get a lot done. or, i can spite my employer by surfing the internet, researching things for my own business.
    when i have done all the tasks on my to-do list, and need to contact my clients, or need something new to do, i re-open my email.
    it usually works pretty well. i have also disabled that stupid pop-up that alerts me to a new email. that is the worst, for my workflow and my brain.

  • 2 Paula G // Apr 1, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Oh how I love this post… I will have to blog about this one. What I love to do is challenge my coaching clients to disconnect. It can do wonders to cure overwhelm, help you get things done, and generally make you more peaceful. Once the withdrawal shakes pass from putting down the IM, blackberry, cell phone, etc. you can really get into a flow.

    I totally relate and feel your technology pain. Having experienced multiple bouts of this in recent months I have taken a new approach and hired someone to solve the problem (just because I CAN eventually figure out a problem doesn’t mean I SHOULD). Nonetheless… all the more important to underpromise and overdeliver so these “life happens” moments don’t do us in… or at least very infrequently.

  • 3 StephanieHillberry // Apr 2, 2009 at 8:28 am

    On a good day, I force myself to shut off my email (including all of my RSS feeds) all morning. I open it at lunch to respond to messages, etc. and then I shut it down again until late afternoon.

    Because I’m a blogger and spend A Lot of time online, this is always hard for me. But to take my blog to the next level, ironically I have to Step Away from the Web for dedicated chunks at a time.

    Also, I find that if I physically Remove the phone and Shut the door to my office, I can concentrate much better. Something about that connection to the physical world helps….

    All said, multitasking really doesn’t work well for me in the long run. I am the most successful at accomplishing my daily goals if I just stick to one thing at a time.

  • 4 Lorissa // Apr 22, 2009 at 1:05 am

    This is such a needed reminder for me right now – thank you! I’ve found myself beyond stressed with my to-do list, and tired from a “busy” day, but not actually accomplishing much. It’s all that “busy work” and no “real work”.

    Amazing how just the thought of shutting down my email for part of the day almost has me breaking into a sweat. What if a client urgently needs me? What if there is a hiccup that must be resolved immediately? That “feeling needed” thing? – yeah, guilty. But, this is definitely a step I need to take, especially if I want to grow the business. I like the idea of a weekly meeting with myself as well – refocus, set new goals and hopefully, move forward.

  • 5 finding focus | Lorissa Shepstone // Apr 23, 2009 at 12:46 am

    […] recently read this great post from emira: getting beyond the busy work. such a timely post for me. i’ve found more and more my day is consumed with all the […]

  • 6 jackie connelly // May 5, 2009 at 8:13 am

    I hired an awesome local marketing consultant (PLUG: who, after writing my annual marketing plan, broke it all down into monthly (and then into weekly) tasks. Literally all I have to do now is open to the page of the current week and work my way down the list. There’s space to add other to-do’s as they come up which may or may not relate to my sales&marketing, but even if they don’t relate, I write them here so that everything is on one piece of paper.
    I’ve also heard about organizing a meeting with yourself once a week as you mention here, and I agree I think it’s both a great idea AND something that’s really hard to do. Right now i’m trying to physically schedule it into my friday afternoon calendar, we’ll see how that goes.
    As always, great post, love it!
    ~ j