5 minute read

The Purposeful Workday

Where Has All The Time Gone?

It took me a long time to get out of the mode of thinking that a corporate job is like school. When I first started working, I treated everything like an assignment I would be graded on. I had no choice but to complete whatever was asked of me, because I would ‘fail’ if I didn't. Eventually, I realized that I couldn't possibly do it all, and that I was going to have to prioritize if I was going to survive. Some things are just meant to slip under the radar. After all, if a task is relatively unimportant and no one will notice if it isn't done, is it really worth burning out over?

Leslie, 25, Ohio

It's impossible for one human being to do it all, and unless you want to spontaneously combust before the age of 30, you shouldn't try to. If you're thinking that you don't have any say in how you spend your time at work, consider whether this is a subjective state of mind or an objective reality. Is your boss really watching you every second of every day? Probably not—he's got his own work and schedule to manage. I don't care if you're inundated with assignments that could potentially keep you busy for the next decade, the only person who can truly control your schedule is you.

Here's the thing: struggling to get through each day by running frantically from one task to the next won't bring happiness or job satisfaction. You'll be exhausted, stressed, and unmotivated, and you won't have accomplished much in respect to your long-term career goals. For the first year of my career, I was so fried that you could see my hair crackling with electricity. I was so anxious for every senior person to like me that I accepted assignments indiscriminately—like a dog scarfing down table food. Boy, was I earning my $25K salary! I thought that all those days of nonstop agita would certainly earn me a promotion, so naturally I was surprised when I was passed over. At the time, I didn't understand that in the process of doing 7 million unrelated and unimportant tasks, I had neglected my professional development and hadn't acquired the core skills I needed to move to the next level.

As a general rule of thumb, you must manage your time strategically if you want your efforts to translate into personal fulfillment and career advancement. You can do this by organizing your schedule around your priorities. What makes a task a priority? Think back to the personal mission statement from Chapter 1 and the goals you set in Chapter 4. For the most part, your priorities should focus on results and relate back to your master plan. Here's an example: My friend Lou's personal mission has always been to live on a farm, but he went to school for hotel management. When Lou started his first job as a hotel front desk attendant, his goal was to develop the skills and knowledge base needed to manage his own country inn. In keeping with this goal, Lou made it a priority to interact with and learn from the Guest Services staff. Several years later, Lou is living on a farm, and the visitors to the country inn he runs pay the mortgage. By leveraging his hotel experience, Lou was able to achieve his long-term vision.

Focusing on tasks that contribute to your big picture sounds like a good idea, but how do you do it? Let's look at the approach advocated by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. To paraphrase Covey, there are four types of tasks:

  • Category 1: Urgent and important tasks that allow you to keep your job (crises, deadlines, pressing problems).
  • Category 2: Nonurgent and important tasks that allow you to develop professionally and work toward a promotion (relationship building, new skill acquisition, opportunity assessment).
  • Category 3: Urgent and nonimportant tasks that allow you to maintain your reputation as a team player (interruptions, certain e-mail and phone calls, certain meetings, certain administrative work for senior team members).
  • Category 4: Nonurgent and nonimportant tasks that will get you fired if you're not careful (busywork, shooting the breeze with colleagues, instant messaging).

By “urgent,” Covey means that the task is highly visible and insists on action. An important task is relevant to your personal mission and corresponding goals. If you've been spending your days running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you are probably spending 90 percent of your time in Categories 1 and 3, and you might have noticed totally irresponsible people who hang out permanently in Category 4. When you master effective time management, you stay out of Category 4 and decrease the time spent in Categories 1 and 3 to allow more time for Category 2. Do this on a regular basis by scheduling time each week to achieve Category 2 tasks that relate to your goals, leaving space for unanticipated Category 1 and Category 3 activities. Review your schedule every day and take the time to reassess it, if needed. Remember to be flexible, because, unfortunately, life doesn't always work out the way you plan, and people often don't behave consistently.

You'll feel more on top of things if you keep a running “to do” list. Mentally separate all of your tasks into their respective categories, and then decide which ones you can eliminate, delay, or delegate. As you undertake a Category 1 or 3 task, think about how you can achieve the maximum impact with the least amount of effort. Remember to keep your department's processes and your own work style in mind. For example, if your group has status meetings every Tuesday morning, you might want to schedule your personal preparation for late in the day on Monday so that you can be prepared to deliver the most up-to-date information. Alternatively, if you are a morning person and your energy is highest just after you wake up, maybe you can slot an hour before office hours on Tuesday to organize your material.

When you're an overworked and underpaid junior member of your company, it's easy to fall prey to low morale. However, by developing strong time-management skills and focusing on tasks that will help you attain your long-term goals more quickly, you'll be able to approach each new day with a sense of purpose.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareer Advice: Career 101 for Recent Graduates, New Hires, and Would-be Corporate ClimbersThe Purposeful Workday - Where Has All The Time Gone?, Saying No, Battling Procrastination, You, Too, Can Be The “organized One”