On a daily basis, do you know what to focus on at work?

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The notion of a work task list is a pretty big deal, if you think about it. You can call it a ‘to-do list’ or ‘priorities’ or whatever else, but the fact of the matter is: you’re rolling in at 8:57am every day (or 10:21am, naitch!) and you have a series of things you need to do. Ideally, those things — micro activities, or tasks/deliverables — would align with the bigger picture of what your company is trying to achieve, i.e. its long-run strategy. The alignment of strategy and execution is crucial to basically every business in every industry, and yet most companies are horrible at it. They have no idea what to prioritize in terms of a work task list for those who actually do the work (rank-and-files), creating a vacuum where various middle managers can create their own priorities and claim they’re “extremely urgent.” In reality, no one remotely near the top of the chain salary-wise or decision-making-wise would ever deem that thing a priority, but it doesn’t matter so long as the revenue growth is there and the bonuses are fat. Most of work is just invented digital paper-pushing as is — remember, based on technological advancement alone, we should all be working about 11 hours/week now anyway. (Economists in the 1930s predicted we’d be working less than that by now, but they forgot the mind-altering impact of worship at The Temple of Busy.)

Let’s get back to this notion of a work task list, though. How meaningless is yours?

The work task list: A personal example

I’ll lead with a story. At my last gig, I came in on most Fridays and sent out an e-mail to most of the company with digital analytics from the previous week — and at the end of a given month, it would be data from the past month. The cool thing about this e-mail is that no one told me to do it. It was a company that had no clue about digital and made money in other ways, so I thought having a weekly reminder about digital — “Hey, this thing over here still exists!” — might be helpful. I’ve done this at other jobs too. I just add it to the ol’ work task list.

Over time, I put jokes and pop culture references in this thing, and of course I got called on the carpet for that a few times. Performance improvement plan, baby! But the point is, this thing took me 60–90 minutes to write — and believe me, I can write a good, thorough e-mail in about six minutes if I’m in the zone. I spent a lot of time on these analytics e-mails.

Part of it was because I cared and wanted them to be good and informative.

Another part is that whenever I was done, I had nothing left to do that day.

See, it was one of those jams where no one really comes in on Fridays — “Working from home,” but then you can’t reach ’em till Sunday night — and if I got in at 9am and finished that e-mail at 10:30am, I was basically done for the day. I worked across the street from a Flying Saucer (beer bar) and I used to hit there for lunch for about 1.5 hours around 2pm. Then I’d come back and fire off a few meaningless e-mails and leave.

The point of this whole arc is, for 20 percent of my work week I had basically no task list to achieve. So mostly I dicked around, yes, but I also created work for myself. Now allow me to blow smoke up my own ass. The work I created was value-add. The work most people create is just more process and BS.

I’m not using this section to claim I’m a good employee — I’m often not, to be honest — but at some point you need to stop, think, and ask yourself this question: What is work, anyway?

At the most basic level, it’s a task list that drives forward the overall organization — and hopefully yourself, individually — in some way.

But what about when it’s not?

The task list and shallow work

So much — so much — of the work people do at their jobs, almost regardless of industry and title, is shallow work. That’s logistical stuff. Spreadsheets. Moving projects from A to B. Updating things. Following process. It needs to be done, yes, but it’s not real work — and when we talk about automation as a fear, the smart companies out-source this type of crap. Your task list for a day shouldn’t be eight meetings and 17 spreadsheet updates. If it is, you did nothing productive that day.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, although it should scare them — check out some research that Microsoft did on a high-growth tech company, for example. They essentially found that even though the company was growing and making money, 1 in every 2 actions that base employees were taking had no value to the company. In short, the company was making money in spite of itself. It was growing, but all the task list actions making up day-to-day weren’t value-add at all. They were just crap shallow work, in all likelihood invented by middle managers as they patted themselves on the back whispering in their own ear, “Yea baby, leadership…”

Harvard Business Review has a new post called “Stop Doing Low-Value Work,” which is mostly generic and buzzword-laden. Here’s the problem with the title itself: it’s nearly impossible to “stop” doing low-value work, because most people’s days are meetings and calls — and meetings and calls aren’t real work, hence they’re low-value work. Also, let’s not gloss over the fact that no one actually shows up to a meeting or call actually prepared for it, so they’re usually even more meaningless.

What can be done about the task list?

This is a tough one because it requires effective management — essentially, a manager who understands the big picture and how a task list would relate to that big picture. Thing is, most managers are hair-on-fire paper-pushers looking to justify their own worth and kiss the right ass in the process. Those types of guys and gals will never prioritize work properly down a chain, and thus any task list you receive is probably BS. If it has 10 items for a week, I’d assume 7–8 probably could never be done and the company would be fine and still make money.

Hey, look — I ain’t bashing having a job. That’s super important in a capitalism, so if you can have a job with a meaningless task list and still make your $75,000 a year — eff it, more power to you. (Just please don’t tell me how busy you are all day.) I got laid off from that gig I referenced above in November 2015 — same day as the Paris shootings, actually — and I was flipping shit for a while about where money would come from. At that moment, I would have sliced off my left arm for a meaningless, shallow work task list in exchange for some compensation — and I think that’s how a lot of people in the first world approach their jobs.

We talk often about purpose and mission and values, but people really just want to be somewhat respected and taken care of — and if the task list is all stuff that probably doesn’t really need to be done, eh, so be it.

That said, there can be a better way through all this muck and muddle as regards work and priorities — but we need layers of management that understand how to link the big picture and growth paths with the actual day-to-day task list work.

What other thoughts do you have?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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