8 keys to regaining control of your workday

Busy tasks and incessant outside requests will sap your time, energy and cheerful disposition. Try these approaches to set and maintain your priorities.

How to regain control at work

Are you feeling over-tasked at work, maybe even overwhelmed?

If so, you’re not alone. This out-of-control feeling is a perpetual state of existence for too many. It’s exhausting, and frankly it’s not sustainable, particularly if you take pride in doing great work. If you’re caught up in that vortex of too much work costing you too much time, take these steps to regain control:

1. Master your calendar.

I work with many clients to audit their calendars, and it’s not uncommon for us to reclaim 20% or more of that precious real estate. From eliminating recurring status meetings to refining your operating meetings, there’s gold to mine on the calendar. Minimize the power people have for scheduling you as well. As needed, block out “You time” to focus on your priorities.

2. Reconsider running your one-on-one sessions weekly.

It might sound like heresy to suggest reducing contact and coaching, but it could improve the quality of your one-on-ones. Team members have different needs for connection and coaching, and not everyone needs to see you in this capacity every single week. Some prefer added time between sessions to put the coaching ideas to work and engage in professional development work. Ask for their preferences, and suggest meeting fortnightly.

Power Tip: Discuss the timing and frequency of one-on-ones with your boss, and explore a schedule shift to every other week.

Warning: If your one-on-ones are no more than status updates, you’re misusing this precious contact time.

3. Fine-tune priorities with your boss.

Your priorities must be an extension of your boss’s priorities. Go out of your way to calibrate with your boss on her key objectives and initiatives, and align yours accordingly. Do this regularly, and use the process to gain support for culling nonpriority activities from your list.

Power Tip: If you don’t have a communication protocol with your boss that offers time to compare notes, use finesse to establish this regular dialogue. 

4. Filter your priorities daily.

The old-school, A-B-C priority system is still my go-to approach. One or two top priorities (A’s) earn the lion’s share of my daily focus. I force-rank my B’s, with one or two in the on-deck circle, ready to move up to A. I redo throughout the day as I complete top priorities. For those initiatives that take longer, give them enough focus each day to ensure they are moving along.

Power Tip: Don’t look for volume. It feels great to cross a bunch of items off the to-do list, but if those are all C’s and easy to knock out, all you’ve done is transact on the unimportant.

5. Don’t compensate for a broken system with more effort.

Identify where the flow of daily tasks originates. In many situations, excessive work is a direct result of a poor management system. Instead of pushing rocks up the hill every day, dig deep and find the root cause(s) of the problem, and then work with your boss and colleagues to fix broken or cumbersome processes. Such an effort is temporarily additive to your workload, you and your colleagues will gain time and improve quality if you fix problems at their source.

Power Tip: Don’t put Band-aids on systemic issues. It’s easy to simply execute on the work created by a flawed process or management system, and it’s wrong. Draw upon your influence and communication skills, and organize resources to improve the situation.

6. Learn to say “no” with empathy.

Great people become go-to resources for others in an organization, and although it is gratifying to be asked to help, it can become a trap. For your firm, the things you decide not to do will free up time, resources and capital for the real priorities. Treat your workload with this same discipline, and say “no” to issues that don’t fit. Of course, consider offering alternatives.

7. Negotiate for resources or help.

Most workplace conversations are typically some form of negotiation. Draw upon the persuasion cycle and tools of positive persuasion, and view the initial “no” or resistance as a step toward getting to a negotiated “yes.”  Be flexible and creative in the process.

Power Tip: Recognize you are in your role to help your firm and team get better. Almost every improvement comes from individuals with the courage to say, “There must be a better way,” and then to act on it.

8. Bookend your day with success thinking.

One favorite approach is to start my day reviewing my priorities and committing myself to succeed with each one. Then, I end the day by focusing on what worked and what was achieved, not what I didn’t complete.

Art Petty is a leadership coach, blogger and speaker. A version of this post first ran on his site.

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