I’d been holding forth in a seminar on how to get clear on what all the new stuff that shows up each day means for you before getting stuck in to moving things forward, and the remark from one of my participants came as a surprise. Caught off guard, I thought I’d best buy some time.
“You are telling us that we need to do this clarifying thing for something like an hour per day, right?”
The participant, a woman in her early forties, was not impressed. “That’s a lot of time, and I’m here because I don’t have much. All I’ve done so far is make lists. Good lists, sure. Better than anything I’ve tried before, but I’m not sure that it will make me any faster than if I just got stuck in and did some work with that time.”
I nodded again, and felt 21 people’s heads swivel slowly from her face to mine with more than a little expectation. It is a challenging question, and it doesn’t always get raised. Many think it at some point as they get started with using GTD, but it doesn’t always get put on the table during a seminar.
Feeling slightly pressured, I used my standard tack: “Well, it might help if you think about it this way: as someone who thinks and talks for a living there actually is no added time cost, you have to do the thinking and deciding anyways to be able to get into action. All we are suggesting is that you become aware that you need that time, so you can protect it and don’t end up having to do it between meetings, after work, or on the weekends.”
She seemed to take that on board, but I was left with a sense that I’d not gotten to the heart of the matter with my answer.
That incompleteness has been niggling at me for a few weeks. As often, her challenge to my certainty has forced me to go a bit deeper and clarify my own thinking on the subject. I know that clarifying things on the front end is the right thing to do from experience, but I don’t get paid to know it; I get paid to help others understand it in a way that makes them want to give it a try.
After cooking it in my subconscious and in a few conversations, here – in bulleted form – is what I wish I’d said in addition to the above:
- Speed is not the only variable. If speed was the only consideration, then it might be a close call, ROI-wise. But there is a lot more going on. Here some other variables that I see are in play:
- Quality of decision making – you won’t use more time, but if you protect the time each day to clarify what your incoming ‘stuff’ actually means for you there is a significant benefit in terms of the quality of thought and decision making. If you clarify things when you have time set aside for that and you are not stressed by things catching fire around you while you try to think and deicide, it simply gives you more of an…
- Overview – doing regular thinking about new stuff allows for at least an occasional overview of everything I’m committed to doing, as opposed to just the things that recently showed up or are currently exploding in my world. Having that overview tends to dramatically reduce my levels of…
- Stress – there may be way too much to do, but at least I know what it is, and I know that most of it is not actually due today. Which helps with…
- Prioritisation – the clarity that comes from thinking things through on the front end means I’m looking at reasonably complete lists, so I feel I’m making better choices. Which offers…
- Peace of mind – a sense that I’m not missing anything more important while I’m working on the thing that I’m doing, and…
- Satisfaction – I have a sense of satisfaction that – for a significantly larger amount of my time – I’m working on things that I want to be, that are important to me, and are pointed at things other than just more work.
Speed is only one consideration in the mix. But even on that score what my participant couldn’t see – yet – is how much she’d be moving forward if she simply processed all her stuff every day, and used the two-minute rule. That tip alone was worth the price of my first seminar back in 2004.
For leaders, the other thing that is challenging to understand before you are consistently clarifying things on the front end is that delegation is also happening earlier than it otherwise would, rather than as those things heat up or blow up. Because new topics are getting time and attention sooner, and there is time protected to think them through with more care, direct reports are getting more clarity about desired results much sooner than they otherwise would. This has a huge impact on the working culture of the team.
So as a leader you’d be stupid not to do it consistently, right?
Not so fast. One of the challenges that leaders have is that they can clearly see the time cost of clarifying, but the benefits of clear and timely delegation are much more diffuse, spread through time, and – here is the kicker – experienced in large part by others.
Hard to see perhaps, but all of those benefits are there, for a relatively small investment of time and attention. Give it a try – you have nothing to lose but your stress, lack of perspective, and stuck-ness.