Make It Simple

Quiz: What’s the task that’s on your list over and over, daily or weekly, that makes you groan every time you think about it? Maybe it’s keeping your time, filing expense reports, updating your LinkedIn contacts, or reviewing and paying invoices. Pick the one that nags at you the most, the one that feels like it’s always hanging over your head.

My “oh no, not this again” task is filing. Even in our electronic age, I produce and receive a ton of paper. Most of it gets scanned and then filed online, and accomplishing that is my most dreaded task that feels pointless yet necessary. (Even when I’m able to delegate that to an assistant, the task is still there in some way, since I need to indicate how the filing should be done.)

My first job after law school was clerking for a federal District Court judge, and that’s where my dislike of filing began.
When I started, the senior clerk suggested taking Friday afternoons to update the case files, but I always wanted to crank out a little more “real” work to finish the week instead. Result? The senior clerk would face Monday morning with a clear desk and empty in-box, and I’d have a huge stack of papers and a feeling of dread. After all, Monday is definitely for “real” work. How and when to cram in the necessary but onerous task of filing?

Unfortunately, I didn’t master the task while I was clerking. I always played catch-up and hated it, but not enough to change my pattern. And then, while practicing, I figured it out: create an on-the-spot system to ensure that the necessary but annoying “non-work” tasks get done bit by bit, on a regular basis. For filing, that means that I now tack on an extra minute or two to scan and save documents after I do the “real” work. I rarely keep time now, but when I do, I keep a pad by my desk to make running notes and tally it up at the end of the day. It’s ongoing (just like the annoying tasks) but it makes the irritation easier to handle because things don’t pile up.

How do you spot “on-the-spot system” tasks, and how do you create the system? Seven steps.

  1. As you do your work, notice what “unthinking” tasks you do and dread over and over.
  2. Determine the central actions of the task. Is it scan paper, save file, recycle paper, as with filing? Is it categorizing receipts from a business trip?
  3. Determine how long that central action takes. Is it something that could be accomplished “in the moment” rather than piling a lot up to handle all at once? “In the moment” tasks are those that could be handled in one or two minutes, tops. (Filing correspondence, yes; writing it, no.) Is there a benefit to doing it all at once? If so, you need a system, but not an on-the-spot system.
  4. Set aside time to clear yourself of the backlog. Take an hour and respond to all of those LinkedIn requests or catch up on your billing. Finish the dreaded task. Notice the feeling of delight, and notice how quickly the next task of the same kind pops up.
  5. Create your in-the-moment system. Starting immediately, scan and file each paper as it comes in. Starting immediately, note your time as you work. Starting immediately, put your receipts for business trips in envelopes labeled by client or by trip. Whatever you do, begin it right away. Otherwise, your system is doomed before it begins.
  6. Do the task as it arises, every time it arises. Starting work? Note the time and task. Reviewing email (in your designated email review time, please) and see a LinkedIn request? Click accept, then send a “great to connect” message, delete the email, and move on. Whatever your task, do it without delay, and don’t let it mount up.
  7. When you slip (and you will) go back to step 4 and start over.

Once you get accustomed to your system, you’ll find it much easier to handle the small pieces of these annoying recurring tasks as they pop up. You may even discover that someone else can help you and that tasks broken down to the central action are more delegable than you’d imagined.

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