Most of my workday is spent running from one urgent problem to another. When we deem something as urgent, it requires a swift response. The following story had happened to me when I first started my tenure in Corporate America. It has repeated many times in different forms over the years. You’ve probably experienced something like this yourself.
An executive called a 7:30 AM meeting. It was urgent, critical. The email even sported one of those high-importance flags. Ten people spent almost two hours on the call. Why? Because someone in power said so. What made it critical? Someone invented a solution. We gathered for the urgent call in search of a problem. We left the call with a laundry list of action items. Three weeks later, we gathered around again. We concluded that solution, while interesting, was a solution in search of a non-existent problem.
Nothing useful came from that three-week experience. Soon after, it dissolved from the collective corporate memory. The experience always stuck with me. A dozen or so of us had put aside what was hopefully meaningful work in favor of urgent action.
This kind of thing happens all the time in our professional and personal lives. We cling to urgent work and urgent tasks instead of focusing on meaningful work. There are a host of reasons why we do this.
Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty — Theodore Roosevelt
Meaningful work is hard. It requires focus, effort and risk. Meaningful work takes time to complete. We don’t see the results right away. It can take weeks, months or even years before the benefits of meaningful work manifest.
Urgent action often becomes urgent for one of two reasons. Someone important says I need this. Everyone drops what they’re doing to satisfy the request. It’s rare that someone evaluates the request first. If it’s someone in a position of power, we do what they ask and scratch our heads in confusion later.
The second reason why we favor urgent action is that it makes us feel good. Cleaning your inbox feels like an accomplishment. Going to eight hours of critical meetings a day gives you something to do without having to produce anything. It’s a lazy person’s productivity hack.
“Six hours of meetings. Finished. I earned a few drinks today.”
We like to bitch and moan about the relentless pile on of pointless urgent action items, but let’s face it. Focusing on someone else’s urgent tasks relieves you from having to create, generate ideas, and taking risks.
What Is Meaningful
How do you determine if your work is meaningful or not? Just because your boss plops something on your desk doesn’t mean it’s pointless. We need to evaluate the projects that occupy our time.
It’s far easier to determine what is not meaningful. Almost all urgent meetings are not significant. They might be useful, but they are rarely transformative. Projects, conferences and other activities can be pointless, meaningful or anything in between. These questions help you distinguish.
What outcome are you hoping to achieve? Do you even have a result in mind?
Why are you doing this effort in the first place? It sounds basic, but you’d be surprised at the number of different answers you’d get from different people on the same project team.
What do you have to show for your efforts? What will you have to show for your efforts once completed?
Take a long view of the work you are about to undertake. Is there a finished product you expect to roll out? Will you be sharing something with the world? Most meaningful requires time and effort before it makes its way out into the world. What do you expect the finished product to look like at the end? Do you even have a deliverable in mind?
Can it fail?
This one might be the most controversial, but in my opinion, it’s the most important. Is there a possibility your finished product might fail? When an author puts out a new book into the world, there is a good chance it will fail in the marketplace. When a software company introduces a new piece of software, there is a strong likelihood it will fail.
The most innovative, world-changing, community changing products and services were risky endeavors. If your project cannot fail, it is probably not meaningful. Here is a real-world example.
Several years ago, a company I worked with undertook a massive process improvement project. It cost over seven figures. By all measures it was successful. That’s because it was structured in a way so that we could not fail. All we had to do was finish the project and it would be deemed successful. There were no measurable improvements to the business, other than some meaningless metrics. We put the new process in place, and we all received a nice bonus at the end of the year for our successful results.
Reduce Urgent Work
By urgent work, I mean the pointless critical work. I don’t think it’s realistic to eliminate it. Sometimes we’re forced into it. When someone in power insists we work on their project, we often have no choice.
We often do have the power to expose the meaningless work to our superiors by asking the right questions. You’d be surprised how often big projects are given the go-ahead without any due diligence. See the list of questions earlier and below.
Make Meaningful Work Urgent
If we could reduce the meaningless urgent work, we’d have more time to work on important work. What if we could take it one step further? What if we could make meaningful work urgent work? This transformation is more difficult than it sounds. Recall what we stated earlier. It takes a long time to see results from meaningful work. Our bosses might think we’re not earning our keep. On a personal level, we may not feel like we’re achieving anything.
There are three steps you can take to add urgency onto your meaningful work.
First, create a sense of urgency around your project. You must be able to answer the questions:
Why are we doing it?
Who is it for?
What will it do for them?
What will it do for us?
Next, create interim deliverables with deadlines. You will need to market your interim deliverables so that they feel urgent to your audience or superiors. These interim deliverables are not always apparent.
If you are writing a book, you can release finished chapters early. If you are creating software, you can deliver proof-of-concept and development versions to a select group of users.
Interim deliverables generate a sense of urgency for the stakeholders and excitement for the ultimate consumers of your end product.