Working Outside the Box

I recently moved to a new house and, as part of that, moved office premises. Be Leadership is in a better space now, with more room for growth. I have a better desk, more shelving for files, and nicer view. It’s not fully set up yet but I already love it and am sure it will be a productive and creative working space.

What matters though is less the specifics of the space but the change. Creating a change in environment is a wonderful way to jump start your creativity and effectiveness. Even if you work from the library, or a coffee shop, or your garden for a day, you’ll find that breaking your normal routine allows more focus and fresh insights. Not only are you likely to have fewer interruptions, you can set aside quality time to think, reflect, write, or just work. It’s amazing what’s possible.

I have been lucky to spend most of my working career with organizations who support flexible working. As long as I get high-quality work done, my clients don’t mind (or know) where I am. I can be travelling, sitting on my sofa or waiting for my daughter in the car as I check my email. This was true in my past corporate life as well. While this requires discipline to ensure I am not working and on-call 24/7, it also allows a wonderful level of autonomy over how I structure my work and life. I am not alone in having this level of flexibility: According to the Institute of Leadership and Management, 94% of UK organisations offer employees some form of flexible working, and 73% of managers say that their organizations are largely supportive of it. But even if we have it, we don’t always take advantage of this option.

One of my colleagues recently sent me a link to an organization that is connecting hosts and ‘office riders‘ who want to find room for co-working, a meeting or event space or even a creative venue for a photo shoot. Their proposal is that professionals can connect with hosts who have under-used space in private places, allowing you to work wherever and whenever you want. Their current options include Sophie’s living room, Sebastian’s rooftop and Yann’s connected caravan. Sadly OfficeRiders appears to be largely French based, so I can’t register my new walled garden or look for local homes to escape to for my next UK offsite just yet. But the concept is so good.

Whether you are stuck in an office cubicle or even lucky enough to have a cool modern workspace that you haven’t ventured outside of in a while, I encourage you to start the year right and break out of the box to try a new working space. You’ll be amazed at how much you can achieve.

The Tyranny of the Urgent

Yesterday I had a rare “free” day – one uninterrupted by meetings and appointments where I could spend the day at my desk really getting things done. When the day started, I thought about all the things I’d like to accomplish. The hours stretched out ahead of me, and I was excited about the possibilities. I had blog posts I wanted to write, a 2016 business plan to draft and some changes I hoped to make to my website. All were important, strategic projects to help grow my business and prepare for next year.

The day passed, and I was productive. But not with all of those important projects. Instead, I got sucked in by my to-do list, which was full of urgent tasks that I felt had to be done immediately. I filed expenses and sorted out the pile of paperwork that had gathered on my desk. I sent out some invoices. I responded to client queries and delivered some promised actions. I felt great about my progress, yet at the end of the day, I knew I had missed an opportunity.

In my work, I often coach leaders who are struggling with exactly this challenge: They have great strategic opportunities – ones which could be transformational for their business and for themselves personally – and they struggle, like me, to give them the right priority. They head into the office in the morning full of good intentions, only to find people at their door, emails in their inbox and messages on their mobile phones with real, urgent needs that stop them from making progress on longer term goals.

So what are we to do about this ongoing struggle? How do we get the right balance between the urgent and the important?

1) Block time in your diary

Some projects require a level of focus that is hard to obtain during a standard work day. If you need some time for thinking and reflection, or to move an important project forward, consider blocking dedicated time in your diary. Then keep this time sacred, just as you would time allotted to any other important meeting.

I do this occasionally for large projects that don’t seem to have a clear deadline. I also do this for things like exercise, which otherwise can be too easily pushed aside. I dress in my running clothes when I get up in the morning and block an hour in my diary to run as soon as I drop my daughter off at school. Because I schedule it, I make sure it happens. And by going out first thing in the morning, I get the productivity boost that morning exercise gives you while avoiding getting dragged into a crisis that might otherwise prevent me from giving it the time it needs.

2) Find a new work environment

Even with time set aside, urgent issues can come up that distract. In this case, consider an avoidance tactic – don’t go into the office at all. Work from a new location that is free from your standard distractions.

What this location looks like may vary. For some, who are in a standard office setting, this may be working from home. Those who need quiet may try a local library. Others take a more creative approach: I recently spoke to a team that went on a “coffee crawl” to focus on a strategic project, spending one hour in a local coffee shop before moving along to the next one. They left with a caffeine buzz and a finished project.

3) Don’t go solo

Often times, as leaders, we feel we need to work on the big strategic questions on our own, before we share them broadly. Many organizational cultures reward expert leaders who come with the answers. The bigger the potential transformation, the more leaders tend to want to hold the challenge close until a vision or direction is clear.

In today’s organization, this is short sighted for a number of reasons. Not only are many companies moving toward more collaborative cultures which discourage command and control leadership, but this also can create blockages in progress on large, important change.

Instead of trying to tackle strategic challenges single-handedly, bring in some diverse perspectives. Delegate to a team of high potential talent to explore the question or create a task force to establish the work as a priority. Or, if it really is something you must do alone, find an accountability partner – a coach, a colleague or even a manager you can share your goal with who can check in with you on your progress.

4) Re-assess the project’s importance

Despite being distracted by my to-do list yesterday, I am a big believer in task lists and have an established system for tracking my work. One of the keys to this system is that everything goes on the list and each day I mark those items that have greatest priority. That’s where I put my attention. As I move toward Friday, I shift items to future weeks as my schedule becomes clearer and I am more able to assess what’s possible in the current timeframe.

One of the sub-rules for this system is that if I move something forward three times, I reflect again on its importance. Why is it not getting priority? Is it really essential? If not, and no one is depending on it, it gets cut. If it is important, it automatically becomes a priority in the third week – with time set aside to ensure its successful completion.

5) Break it down

Sometimes in assessing an item’s importance, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t that it isn’t an essential or strategic task or project but in fact it’s not getting done because the next step isn’t obvious. As humans we take the path of least resistance. If we have five things to do that require very little thought and are seemingly urgent, we do those first. Therefore, we are more likely to make progress on those larger, more strategic and important projects if we break them down into clear and measurable tasks and we know what we need to do next.

The next time you find that you are leaving your office at the end of the day frustrated that your important work is not getting done, think about these approaches to managing your work to get a better urgent/important balance. Do you have other methods that work for you? If so please share them in the comments.