This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
How can we become better organized? This is a question that has occupied all our minds at different times.
A few years ago I did some work as a business coach, using a simple but powerful system. At its core it was about successfully compiling a ‘to do’ list. Sounds surprisingly simple, but it was robust and powerful in improving the management and structure of businesses. Overall, it was a more sophisticated technique than it might sound. It applies equally as well to the smallest firm to the largest organization – adjusting the scope to the size of the client.
I found that business coaching was a really hard business to break into, and so after a couple of years I returned to public relations. Imagine my surprise when I found the same technique to improve a business is being advocated by a leading US expert in management performance. The expert, Tony Shwartz, has written several books on management productivity, including the best-seller, Be Excellent at Anything.
Interviewed recently in the Harvard Business Review, Swartz confirmed his finding that people should approach work as a series of short sprints, not an all-day marathon. Humans are designed to be rhythmic and are at our best when we are moving rhythmically between spending energy and renewing it.
Schwartz encourages people to work in 90-minute bursts and then take a break to recover, just like athletes in training. He advocates that people should eat small, energy-rich meals every few hours rather than three big meals per day. Schwartz also believes that people should do their most important work first thing in the day rather than dealing with emails and other administrative tasks that we may use to ‘warm up’.
We all maintain ‘to do’ lists in one form or another. Without knowing what we need to do, we would be hopelessly inefficient. Schwartz and another efficiency expert, David Allen, believe that the secret to successful to-do lists is to break them down into small components.
Their stance echoes that old saying that the best way to eat an elephant (a big task) is to eat it in small chunks. Famous industrialist Henry Ford said much the same: “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”
The core of this technique is to break big tasks down and focus on smaller ‘next actions’ that are less intimidating. For instance, instead of putting just the name of a project in your diary or calendar, and starting on what you think is important, you break the project down into small steps and enter each small step regularly into your calendar so you can achieve them progressively.
For example, when organizing a media launch, you might start working on the items that have the longest lead-time to ensure they are ready in time, plus any venue bookings etc that need to be made well ahead. Then you can break down the rest of the project tasks into small components. In this way, you will accomplish regular progress in your project. The bonus is that by starting early and working regularly in manageable small chunks, you will come up with ideas on the way that you would not have if you had rushed it all in a tight period of time.
The psychology supporting this is that we really like to produce, to complete activities. It is much easier to complete a small chunk of activity than to face a big project entry in our calendar or diary. We can see the regular small progress results being achieved and therefore we gain greater motivation for completing the overall project and achieve greater satisfaction along the way.
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