Join the revolution against the tiny task masters

It’s interesting to chart changes in expectations around the average working week. In a recent article in the New Yorker magazine, Tim Wu (Professor at Columbia Law School) was reflecting on what became of the ambition for a 30 hour working week. In the 1960’s, the prevailing wisdom was that with advances in science making routine tasks easier, we should all have been able to look forward to less work and more leisure. Now according to those fine people at the Office of National Statistics, the average working week in the UK is around 39 hours – it’s higher elsewhere in Europe, and considerably higher in the States. What’s happening? Well as longer tasks got easier to complete we have, says, Professor Wu, been overrun by a “plague” or “tyranny” of what he calls “tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive.” He goes on “And when every task in life is easy, there remains just one profession left: multitasking.”

So the utopia of a short working week is in danger of being replaced with the dystopia of a never-ending pressure to work.

Confusing activity with achievement

I recognise the trend Tim Wu has identified. When I started work, all correspondence was received on paper, and if I wanted to send anything other than a hand written letter it had to be sent through a typing pool. The process of issuing a single typed letter could take two to three days. Now, I can deal with dozens of small, focused pieces of correspondence by email every day. Because I can, I do. With 24/7 access to information through my mobile devices, there is no physical factor which will protect me from this tyranny of tiny tasks. The worst of it is falling into the trap of thinking that because I am being active, my time is, therefore, well-spent – of confusing activity with achievement. I need to create a new eco-system to protect me from this plague, to start a revolution against my ubiquitous and incessantly demanding tyrant.

Coaching in action

Every revolution needs its thought leaders, and for one of mine I’ve turned to Dan Sullivan, Co-founder and President of The Strategic Coach Inc. Dan has developed a model that he calls The Entrepreneurial Time System, built around three types of days.

The first is free days – a 24 hour period when you completely switch off from business-related activity and thinking. It’s the principle of the Sabbath – a day of rest and recuperation. I have one of these a week (in my case usually Sunday) in which I have disciplined myself to ignore the temptation to have a look at my emails and detach myself completely from work for the day. Apart from hitting my Mondays with more energy and a clearer head, I’m sending myself a message – time to care for myself, my family and my friends is as important as the demands made by people in my working life.

Second we have focus days when we spend 80% of time on activities that get results for your business or, if you work for an employer, activities which deliver results that have the most impact on your top priority work objectives.

This is in contrast to our third day – buffer days in which we clear the decks of detailed routine tasks, spend some time on a new skill we want to learn, and plan for the week ahead. I have my own weekly “half hour of power” when I mind-map my week ahead to give myself a picture of the kind of balance I want to achieve between my various areas of focus and responsibility. It’s a great way of getting a sense of what kind of return I am getting for my efforts, where I need to re-prioritise, and when priorities change during the week with new unexpected demands, having a basis for re-focusing to ensure that the most important activities still get done.

Take a few minutes to think about the rhythm of your own working week. And if you’re enslaved by the tiny task-masker, take a stand and join the revolution.

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