Have you had days when you felt so overwhelmed with all you had to do that you didn’t know where to start or focus? Maybe you are the type who tries to ease anxiety by flitting from one item on your to-do list to another, under the delusion that you can cross off all of them. I am this type. I even avoid realistically assessing the actual time I have available so that my fantasy of super-womanhood will not be deflated.
Or perhaps you are the type that focuses on the most immediate or easiest tasks and push the rest in the background with the vague promise to yourself that you’ll get to them later. Yet they weigh you down like stones around your neck. Whether you handle your workload through frantic, aimless busy work or through procrastination, the results are the same. At the end of the day you feel exhausted and unfulfilled. You are still anxious and have the sense that nothing was accomplished. You experience life as running out of control while you can't climb into the driver’s seat.
The staff of Fast Company apparently determined that this lack of control and productivity was a serious impediment and looked for ways to remedy it. An article in the same magazine, “The One Habit Change That Can Help You Stop Procrastinating,” details an experiment that its employees conducted to re-gain their focus and a sense of control in their daily work.
These employees were inspired by a technique used by Jack Dorsey, the creator, co-founder, and Chairman of Twitter and co-founder & CEO of Square. Dorsey disciplined himself to focus each day of the week on a theme. He concluded that “this habit allowed him to quickly recall and refocus on the day's task once a distraction was out of the way.” He explained: “There is interruption all the time, but I can quickly deal with an interruption and then know that it’s Tuesday, I have product meetings, and I need to focus on product stuff."
“While we can’t all be the CEO of our own companies,” the writer of the article says, “we can at the very least be the bosses of our time in some capacity or another.” The results of the experiment were very successful:
"I tend to be absent-minded, so if I get interrupted, I can forget about something until someone brings it up again," an employee said. "But with this idea of focusing days, the themes acted as a trigger to help me remember the things I wanted to get done each day."
Someone else found themes promising in creating “a three-day approach to work for a new, ongoing video project: Day 1: Generate ideas and pick the best one. Day 2: Storyboard winning idea. Day 3: Produce the video based on storyboard.”
Employees felt less anxious and more productive.
Organizations, like individuals have personalities. Most organizations I worked with, especially associations, are drowning in busy work and constant disruptions. Meetings, conferences, board management, budget deadlines, elaborate approval processes and micro management of myriads of logistical and procedural details have everyone running around breathlessly, as if the price to pay for not completing such tasks was execution by a firing squad. How much time does this work environment leave to focus on customers and build long-term capabilities for serving them and competing in today’s market? For that matter, how much clarity does an anxious, harried and unfocused organization have for strategic assessment and discovery – identifying the roots of attrition, ideal points of connection with customers or gaps in market capabilities? If you were tempted to respond with zero, you would not be too far off.
Attention and resources are usually scattered among countless disconnected projects and tasks without a sense of strategic priorities or connection among them— will performing one task set the foundations for another or compete with it? How do various projects connect and combine to deliver value to customers and manifest the value proposition. Does allocation of time and resources correspond to what the association has promised members and set as strategic priorities?
The article addresses the way individuals manage their time, but it has implications for the management of an organization or department. What if associations agreed on priorities and determined the focus of each day rather than react to deadlines and crises? For example, what if one or more days was focused on customers? Staff might share with each other lessons learned from the trenches and how these might be applied; review new trends in the market, technology platforms and other organizational capabilities; establish methods for monitoring the outcomes members realize as a result of their membership in the association; invite small member groups to get feedback or co-design a program or solutions, etc.
Unless the leadership of an organization clarifies its focus and the results it is after, it will be a leaf in the wind, squandering resources on myriads of tasks, problems or opportunities as they occur without linking them to larger goals and prioritizing among them. Maybe the idea of focused themes as organizing principles to manage daily work schedules is a way to start.