Photo of Socks

Just Too Busy to Improve? Four Ways to Make Certain We Work on Our Work

jessicalarsen Executive Director Articles

Sometimes it feels like we don’t have enough time to take a step back and really think, ask the tough questions and work on our work. This is simply a trick that good old inertia plays on us. The inertia of the status quo is so powerful that we’ll often opt to live with a low-performing and dysfunctional situation rather than take the time needed to find a way out of it.

For the past few weeks I have been fumbling through my sock drawer every morning trying to find the right pair of socks for the day. As a blind person, I use a system to help organize my socks so I don’t confuse brown socks with black or hiking socks with those for working out. Overtime, and like many of my other organization systems, my sock drawer system slowly disintegrated. My hiking socks found their way into the section for workout socks and some of my black socks were mixed in with my brown socks. Consequently, every morning I have been spending way too much time trying to find the appropriate pair of socks.

I had also convinced myself that I am simply too busy to sit down and reorganize everything. Every morning I’m rushed preparing for the day, and in the evenings, I just have too many other things to do. Really? Does it truly make sense that I somehow have an extra five minutes every morning to deal with the dysfunction, but I can’t find just 20 minutes to focus on the problem and resolve it? Just think—during the past month I have spent at least 2.5 hours wasting time trying to find socks, but I can’t justify the investment of 20 minutes to resolve the problem. Does that make any sense? Absolutely not.

Unfortunately, this mindset is not much different from what we encounter in the workplace. We are so busy running around putting out fires that we simply can’t find the time to ensure there is no fuel to burn in the first place. And yes, I know it feels almost irresponsible and like an indulgence to set aside time to actually work on our work. Emotionally we feel compelled to respond to every issue, concern, email, meeting request or good idea that comes our way. Real, significant, and sometimes urgent issues demand our time. Our culture almost rewards and reinforces the need to have jam-packed calendars and to be busy almost to the point of being overwhelmed. However, I believe we desperately need time in our organizations and personal lives to think, ask questions and have space to imagine what is possible.

Paying attention to the health of our organizations is like paying attention to our own physical health. Exercising, eating well and managing stress takes time and may not provide us with immediate results. However, when we neglect these areas we pay the price down the road. Organizations that find themselves in continuous chaos and feel as if they are simply treading water may need to adopt their own diet and exercise plan.

Specifically, the following four disciplines can help organizations and individuals alike become more productive:

  1. Schedule Time. We have to face the reality that if we don’t schedule time to proactively plan, address root causes, and work on our work, it won’t happen. The time doesn’t magically appear. Scheduling big blocks of time to work on our work must be a priority and should actually be scheduled on the calendar—trusting that the investment will pay off in the long run.
  2. Be Consistent. Stepping back to assess our performance and finding ways to improve is never a one-time effort. Organizations and operations face the same laws of entropy that physical matter faces—we devolve, get stuck, face new problems or get off track. Continuously setting aside time to assess our performance, identify problems, and find meaningful and systemic solutions is the only way to maintain organizational health.
  3. Stop Blaming. Sometimes it is easy to blame everyone around us for the lack of time available to improve our work. Our bosses, team members, customers and stakeholders can be easy scapegoats. Yes, these groups can and do play a role in determining our work culture and how much time we have available to problem solve. However, each of us can take charge of our own lives and calendars to find the time requisite to work on our work. The more we individually improve our work and approach, the more capacity we will have to positively influence the teams and organizations with whom we work.
  4. We all know that if everything is a priority nothing is–but do we really practice it? Getting super clear on what we’re going to focus on is tough because it requires that we say no to a laundry list of ideas and activities competing for our attention. One of the beautiful contributions of the Theory of Constraints is the idea of extreme focus. We can’t do everything–or at least do it well. In the months to come I’ll provide lots more information on how to find what to focus on, but it is the bedrock of optimizing the limited resource of time and attention.

Like exercise, healthy eating, and even an organized sock drawer, continuous improvement is a habit that requires time and attention. A consistent investment can reap big improvements and a better sense of control down the road, but only if we have the discipline to make it a priority. The inertia to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them will always win out unless we have an intentional plan to overcome it.