This Sunday’s Dilbert exposes a serious workplace hazard: T.W.L. or “Theoretical Workload Limit.” As Dilbert explains, in layman’s terms, T.W.L. means your brain is full. Your calendar is full. Your desk is overflowing.
What do you do when your boss sticks her head in the door, or your colleague shouts a question over the cubicle wall, or your direct report walks in your office with a problem, or a new client calls? Do you drop everything and respond, or do you do something else?
Here are five questions to ask yourself:
What actually is being requested? What actually is the problem? Can the scope be redefined?
A few months ago my printer died. I defined the problem as having to replace my printer. That involved research into printers, looking at my budget, trips to stores, learning how to use the new printer I bought.
I could have defined the problem differently, as “how do I get printing done?” or “do I even need to print out documents I am now printing?” Either of those questions could lead to another set of possible solutions that may save time.
Who is best suited to do this work? Is it someone else’s role? Someone else’s favorite task? Can you delegate to someone? Should you outsource it?
Above all, avoided the dreaded “upward delegation,” which occurs when you take on the task of solving a problem for someone who reports to you and who should be doing the work. Giving in to your desire to be needed or to your belief that “if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself” is a surefire road to T.W.L.
Urgency is the crack cocaine of the workplace. If it sounds urgent, usually we drop everything and do it. Work that is more important but not as urgent goes to the back burner. Heroism prevails over planning and prevention.
How do you deal with urgent demands? What do you do when the phone rings, when the baby cries, when your boss or a client requests a meeting today?
How do you distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent but not important?
Which brings us to the next question: why do this thing anyway? Where does it fit in your priorities? Answering this question will help frame how you respond to the other questions.
A client calls and says the IRS want to audit her books. Of course, this is important, but why? If you are a public accountant developing your reputation in tax matters, and if this is a good client, it might go to the top of your pile. If you are a public accountant but you don’t deal in tax matters, then you want to delegate or refer. If you’re a real estate agent about to close a sale, what does the client really want from you? A referral to a tax advisor? A discussion of whether this might affect her ability to close the sale? Sympathy and handholding? Don’t assume you know.
If this client no longer fits your “preferred client” profile (you do have one, don’t you?), this may be the perfect time to refer this person to someone better able to help.
Just because it’s important for the client doesn’t mean it’s important for you.
Get your priorities straight before deciding on an action.
Finally, once you have decided the scope of work you are going to do, how will you go about doing it? Can you do it more efficiently?
One-time tasks tend to be very time consuming. Can you ask someone else for guidance?
If this is something you do frequently, invest the time now to figure out how to do it more efficiently each time you do it in the future.
Re-think how you design your work.
Each of these five questions raises one big meta question: the work of designing your work.
How much of the way you do things has developed over time in an organic, ad hoc, haphazard way? Perhaps it’s time to re-think how you do your work and how you design your work.
“Design” implies that you are intentional about how you do your work. “Design” means you invest the time, energy, and perhaps the expense of a consultant, to systematically look at each of these five questions.
Dilbert’s sidekick Wally is very intentional about how he designs his work. Wally knows his priorities (avoiding all work). Hopefully your priorities are different. But Wally’s a good role model for intentionality and consistency.
Post these five questions on your wall.
Each time a new task comes your way, ask yourself each of these questions before jumping into the task. That’s the best prevention for T.W.L.