The Importance of Documenting Everything You Do

You have probably been in the situation at some point in your work life where you simply feel overwhelmed by your duties. Perhaps you’re on a team and everyone feels the same way. After speaking with your supervisor or manager about it your take-away task is to document what you do during your day to show your workload. You probably felt as though the sky was falling because on top of the crushing weight of your duties and your panicked efforts to simply keep up, you now have to take the time to write down everything you’re doing. That sinking feeling just got worse.

This is known as “the whirlwind” in 4DX (Four Disciplines of Execution) and represents all the urgent tasks that you are expected to complete throughout the day. 4DX is a complete system to help chip away at the important items you want to accomplish while dealing with the whirlwind. And there is a difference between urgent and important tasks. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President, said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” I recommend reading his thoughts in more detail as this is an important concept in prioritizing and executing work.

There are other, similar systems, like Getting Things Done by David Allen, and many books like Essentialism, by Greg McKeown or The One Thing, by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan or Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy that attack the same idea in their own ways. However, what they all have in common is increased productivity as a goal. From my own personal experience, documenting what I did during my day is one of the most important things that made more time for myself. It is counterintuitive but it really works.

The first step is to simply use a tracker of some sort. Use pen and paper, a spreadsheet, a calendar, a text document, or all of them, or anything with which you feel comfortable, and stick with it. Evernote and OneNote are both great for this type of thing. Both have the ability to create and use checkboxes, which are tremendously helpful when you have daily to do lists, or a list of tasks to complete to reach your weekly goals.

Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a log of each action you took during your day, written down the minute you did it. Depending on your job, you can probably fill in some things ahead of time and write in the extras as you go, or at the end of the day. I strongly recommend writing down ahead of time all the things you know you will be doing through the day just to relieve some of the pressure of documenting your chores.

Also, set goals. Start by scheduling everything you want to accomplish for the next week ahead of time. Once you have three goals written down, write down what you need to do each day of the week to reach those goals. Be detailed, but not too wordy. Brevity in this area is a plus. As you complete the daily tasks you scheduled, just check them off the list.

One of the main tenets of 4DX to combat the whirlwind is to define “X to Y by WHEN.” I like this idea very much. Break it down. If you are currently at X location in your project, you want to be at Y by the end of the week. Set a due date to keep yourself focused.

However, if the unexpected arises and something or someone interrupts your work flow don’t be afraid to adapt and evolve with the situation. Move or change the “X to Y by WHEN” to accommodate the new details. Also write down why you had to move or change the details of your goal so you can explain yourself. You probably won’t remember three days later why you did that when your boss asks about it, let alone six months later when you’re doing your self-assessment.

As you work through your week update the tasks you prepared ahead of time. Keep checking off those completed items. You should also document meetings, conversations, note significant information from emails received etc. After a few weeks or months have passed you can look back at all the notes and see the progress in your tracker at what you have accomplished. You can identify bottlenecks or repeated interruptions, and can plan ahead accordingly. If one particular person or meeting or event seems to be causing problems with your productivity you can approach your boss about it to get help finding a solution.

At the end of the year you can look back at your notes and you have a tremendous amount of material to use when writing out your self-assessment, and this is the reason you started writing down everything you do in the first place. This is the make or break moment. Rely on those notes to show your boss exactly what you did during the year with specifics. The next step is to put a dollar figure to as much of it as possible. Since you already have the time involved in most tasks, you can attach a dollar amount as well. If you made a change in one of your processes that shaved 5 minutes per day off that process, you have saved X dollars over the course of the year.

Once I started using this method to track myself I found that my actual job description took perhaps an hour of my day, while the rest of my time was spent on the “above and beyond” projects, and that is where promotions hide. There’s no need for long days! Stay focused and you can get done with everything in the eight hours provided, and then go home to enjoy your family and friends.

The Importance of Documenting Everything You Do

Time Management versus Detail Management

Time Management

For several years I had a relatively easy method of tracking my efforts because my job required me to do specific things at specific times of the day, every day. I simply created a checklist to manage the items I absolutely needed to get done. There were some things that could get done at any time of the day, and other items on the list that had to be completed at specific times. This is time management.

My job also required a mastery of “multi-tasking,” a concept that many people are currently writing negatively about. Their contention is that multi-tasking is A) impossible because no one can do more than one thing at a time, and B) even if it were possible it would probably do more harm than good to one’s productivity… I agree with both of those views, but I think both are also misplaced.

There’s really no such thing as multi-tasking in the purest sense of the word, but my experiences taught me that what we refer to as multi-tasking has a place in the work force that is valuable in some positions, though not for all positions. I would also define it as constantly prioritizing a rapidly changing task list to make sure the most important items remain at the top of the list.

In addition to my static list of daily to-do items “fires” would spring up that I had to put out – constant interruptions that forced repeatedly prioritizing the list. There may be 10 things on the static list, and as I worked through them any number of other things could happen; “hot” requests from a state government agency or a boss, computer or network malfunctions, co-workers asking for help, meetings, processes that broke and needed fixing, more meetings, distractions from other departments and people, fire alarm drills, even more meetings, tornado drills, etc…

In this environment I made sure the boxes on my checklist were getting checked off and those things that absolutely must be done at a particular time were getting done on time. I’m not a perfectionist or obsessive-compulsive, but I do watch the details and I sweat the little things. That’s why I was good at the job. In the end, my job description, what I was hired to do, only took up around 30 minutes of my day. The rest of my time could be used for special projects thanks to effective time management.

Detail Management

My current job is very different and requires documenting and managing nearly countless details for hundreds of requests and small projects. When I was promoted to this position I inherited a list of items on four different spreadsheets that had been passed around the company for over a year. It was my job to drive these requests forward to completion. They may be as simple as finding the answer to a question, or as complicated as documenting a large software enhancement and working with the developers to implement it. It was and still is overwhelming in many ways due to the sheer number of the requests (100 when I was given the list, 175 at this time). I had to learn new systems at least at a conversational level, processes in parts of the company with which I was completely unfamiliar, the people who managed these systems and processes, the people who managed the hardware that drove the software, etc. This is detail management.

I went from tracking a list of to-do’s on an hourly basis to tracking different items on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I still track everything that I do daily, but I’m organizing my days and tracking both what I want to accomplish and also what gets done, as well as setting goals on a monthly and weekly basis (see my previous post for an example).

I do it this way for two primary reasons. First, it’s simple productivity tracking. I can keep my days more organized ahead of time. I’ve learned that I also need to give myself deadlines on the requests on my task list. That helps keep me focused. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by 175 requests and projects that have to be organized and completed, which is the second reason I organize my days like this… I don’t like the feeling of being overwhelmed. This system helps me keep things in perspective.

To track the details of each of the 175 requests on my list I use Microsoft OneNote. I have a page for each request, and another one for tracking my time on a monthly/weekly/daily basis. I break it down that way to keep the big picture in view, in addition to tracking all those details. Of course, I also have a spreadsheet that acts as an index for all of those requests and I keep that updated as well so I can see the overall status of each item in a summary view.

By doing it this way I can keep my boss and all the other stakeholders updated as to the progress I’m making on these items.

Conclusion

Each person has to justify his or her position in a company. It’s just a fact of life in today’s work force. In larger corporations it is increasingly important to distinguish one’s self from co-workers as a dependable, reliable employee to not only sustain employment, but also to earn higher pay, to be rewarded with higher bonuses, promotions, etc. Determine if your job requires time management or detail management and build a system to track it all for yourself. Yes, it actually takes time to do it that you feel you don’t have, but by organizing properly it will free up even more time than tracking it will use. Work smart! And good luck!

Time Management versus Detail Management