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.