Here’s a simple mantra for this year to help you adjust your time management habits and make choices that increase your productivity: outcomes are more important than outputs.
As one of the most sought after soft skills, there’s a whole industry around time-management with countless systems to help us get stuff done and fit more into our days. If you spend enough time trying out the various options, you’ll eventually realise there’s no single method that works for everybody. Ultimately, we all have to work out our own personal systems for time management, mainly through experience. However, there is a universal truth to improving your time management and productivity - it’s all about habits. If you create and adjust habits intentionally and focus on making little changes regularly, you’re likely to succeed.
Time management is not a single skill
Have you ever made a big new year’s resolution that didn’t work out? Ambitious resolutions that require big changes to the way we live usually go this way. The key to making a resolution work is to break it down into little changes that take place over a realistic period. Did you decide to go vegan forever on the first of January? You’re more likely to give up than someone who broke this big goal into little objectives, such as not eating meat at weekends as step one in the mission to go vegan. If you want to improve your overall time management skills, breaking this challenge down into smaller changes will improve your chances of success.
Time management is not a single skill and people who manage their time well aren’t necessarily people who are obsessed with deadlines and have colour-coded calendars. They’re usually people who have a high level of self-awareness, are good at communicating, can see how their work fits into a bigger context, understand the limits of their working memory, are empathetic, manage information well, take practical notes… You see? There are many different soft skills that make good time management and they’re all things you can improve.
If you look at people struggling to manage their time, you will find it’s also not down to a single issue or lack of a ‘time management’ skill. they tend to have multiple issues, from not being able to say no to new tasks to a lack of focus, to being anxious at the mere hint of a deadline.
Be more strategic to prioritise effectively
Being strategic, at the most basic level, is about thinking before doing. This first step to becoming more productive may seem obvious, but how often are you too busy to think before doing? The most important thing to think about is why you’re doing something. Is it because a customer asked you, or does your job exist as part of a broader mission and purpose? That was a trick question - every task you take on should be connected to an overall purpose. If it’s not, then surely it’s a distraction from that mission and should not be a priority.
Ever felt like you have too many priorities? It’s a common problem, especially if you have a boss or clients! The word priority used to mean the most important thing - singular. It was the thing you did prior to anything else. Eventually, that meaning changed and now everybody has multiple priorities stressing them out all the time. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the original usage of the word and only focus on one most important thing at a time.
How do you decide what’s the most important thing? Ask two questions:
- What impact will it have on our objective or overall goal
- What will the negative effect of not doing this be?
The strategic pyramid shows how even boring repetitive tasks can be connected to the lofty goals published next to your CEO’s face in the annual report. It should also help you work out how to prioritise your daily work. You simply have to decide what is likely to have the biggest impact on the things you, your team and company need to achieve. What are the outcomes of your work going to be? Prioritise the ones that help you achieve the most important objectives and goals and contribute towards your overall mission. If you don’t know exactly what those are, it’s time to find out!
Prioritising outcomes over outputs is simple
Outputs are the things you and your team deliver such as software, requirements, tests and other work that when completed show you the team is getting things done and seems to be making progress. Outcomes on the other hand are the end results your work is intended to achieve such as changes in your organisation or the way your customers behave. Outcomes are the real reason you have your job and that’s why it makes sense to think about them before you work out how to create the output.
Try adding the goals and objectives you’re working towards in your project and task systems to bake this idea into your everyday work life. Apps such as Teams and Trello give you an easy way to do this with tags, colour coding and more.
It’s easy to make yourself busy and convince yourself that your time has been productive when you look at all the output you’ve created. But ask yourself whether your day’s work helped move you closer to achieving outcomes and you may review your day differently.