If we were in a room together and I asked everyone who feels that time is in short supply to raise their hands — I feel everyone’s hands would rocket into the air. Of course, there are many reasons for feeling that time is short because it is. The logic can be as simple as not being organized or taking on too many responsibilities. But what we want to do for higher productivity is work on reducing phantom workload.
For some individuals, the lack of time is something more profound, like not focusing on the appropriate activities at the right time. That’s likely the most common reason why so many people struggle with time management. There are multiple reasons why the latter is so common. Everything from not identifying your priorities to procrastination are leading culprits. But, consider something called “phantom workload.”
The words phantom workload were coined by Marilyn Paul, Ph. D., and David Peter Stroh. Phantom workload “is the unintentional work created when people either take expedient but ineffective shortcuts or avoid taking on such as essential.” Examples include difficult tasks like:
- Clarifying mission, vision, and values
- Asking questions that challenge what is ambiguous or unrealistic
- Identifying and resolving conflicts
- Clarifying and streamlining decision-making processes
- Providing candid, constructive feedback
- Differentiating people with sanctions and rewards
- Launching innovative projects
- Making decisions that require disinvestment in programs or projects
When not addressed, the phantom workload leads to a variety of consequences such as rework, unproductive meetings, organizational conflicts, and fractured relationships. It’s also a leading source of wasted time since you’re working on “the same problem over and over again.” Eventually, phantom workload “leads to greater stress and a further reluctance or inability to engage in difficult tasks.”
So, yeah, phantom workload needs to be acknowledged and squashed sooner than later. But, how exactly can you reduce your phantom workload? Here are ten areas that you should focus on.
Set a limited amount of realistic goals.
“Clarifying the unique contribution you want to make enables you to set a limited number of goals,” writes Paul and Stroh. Everyone from purposeful managers to aspiring entrepreneurs to employees should “work toward one to three goals at a time.”
It sounds simple enough. But, it’s a tried and true way to eliminate multitasking and ensures that you’re currently focused on the right activities. Furthermore, it assists you in managing the following tradeoffs:
- Short-term vs. long-term
- Urgent vs. important
- Easy vs. difficult
- Comfortable vs. unpleasant
“These tradeoffs are tough because we often prefer the left-hand column,” add Paul and Stroh. To address the items in the righthand column, you first need to know what tasks you’re avoiding and be able to separate the urgent from the important. Additionally, you need to determine what you’re essential tasks are and when they’re due.
Most importantly, I would add that when setting goals separate those that should be SMART and ones that you can achieve. If the goal is too large, then break it down into more manageable tasks.
Change your behavior.
It’s inspiring that you want to manage your time more effectively. But, just because you want to doesn’t make it so. Goals are not as easy as just making a goal. Goals involve changing your behavior so that the change will stick.
To get started, you first need to ask and answer why you want to change. Often the answer includes listing the benefits of the change. For example, reducing phantom workloads would make your meetings shorter and more meaningful. As a result, you’ll have more time to spend on more critical activities. But, the by-product is that the meetings themselves are more effective and efficient for participants.
Identifying your “why” has another perk. The why will keep you motivated to follow through with the changes you’re making.
Next, you’ll want to create a vision. If you’re stuck, this is your “long-term, big-picture aspiration.” Athletes tap into the power of visualization every day to help them reach their goals. To get to the target, they need to practice and hyper-focus on what they’re working on at the moment. An example would be where an athlete gets to the weight room every other day and do the sprints and speed on the odd days. Business, just like athletics means you can’t just lift the weights and hit the field the same day. Lengthy preparation and follow-through are essential.
After you’ve created your vision and plan, take stock of what’s really preventing you from getting time in control. Because the reasons will not be the same for everyone. You may think you are brutally honest with yourself — but to be sure — consider soliciting feedback from others. It’s no easy task to ask for feedback as you may feel vulnerable — but it’s essential to “think” with someone besides yourself. With outside feedback — you’ll likely get to the root problem faster and easier.
For example, you may believe that to be successful; you have to work 24/7/365. In reality, the most productive people take frequent breaks to rest and recharge. They also know that they don’t need always to be “on.” Productivity experts — and indeed the finely-tuned business people I’ve watched — set boundaries on when they’re working and when they’re not. It’s another proven way to reserve energy. The energy reserve allows them to tackle the more critical responsibilities because there’s only so much time in the day to complete them.
Plan out your day.
Imagine waking up and having no direction for the day. How productive do you think you’ll be? Do you believe that this strategy will encourage you to spend your time wisely? Of course not.
Make the planning for tomorrow a part of your evening routine. It’s probably one of the best ways to reduce phantom workloads since this encourages you to schedule out your entire day properly. What’s more, a concrete plan will help you maximize your day around when you’re most productive.
For example, if you’re prime times are eight am to one pm and then from three pm to six pm, those blocks of time would be reserved for your most important tasks. During lulls, you can take a break, grab a snack, meditate, or focus on less important tasks like responding to emails.
Be more protective of your time.
Since time is our most valuable asset, it should be protected as much as possible. Reducing distractions and interruptions, such as turning off smartphone notifications and closing your office door, is a great starting point. So is saying no to time requests that aren’t serving a purpose.
These may not seem like big deals. But, if you’re answering every email as soon as it comes in, you become more focused on your inbox instead of your priorities. The same is true when helping others or accepting each and every invite. These pull you away from the activities that deserve your complete attention.
Clap back against procrastination.
Although not always the case, sometimes we delay working on more important tasks because it feels better than feeling overwhelmed. It’s also the better option when we dread working on unenjoyable tasks or work that we don’t feel qualified to do.
Overcoming procrastination isn’t nearly as complicated as you would believe. You need to figure out why you’re putting off a specific task. From there, you can find the right solutions. You could also practice mindfulness, and self-compassion, and schedule your hardest tasks when you have the most energy.
Other techniques would be to change your thinking from I have to do something to I choose to do it. Also, give the five-minute rule a spin — this is where if a task takes under five minutes you should just get it done and over with.
Break any competing commitments.
Coined by organizational psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, competing commitments is resisting change by unconsciously redirecting energy to obligations that are in conflict with our goals. For example, you decide not to say “no” to time requests because you don’t want to offend anyone — even though this is causing you to neglect your own priorities.
If you’re in a leadership position, you can help your team get to the bottom of what’s getting in the way of change by:
- Guiding “employees through a set of questions designed to uncover competing commitments.
- Having “employees examine these commitments to determine the underlying assumptions at their core.”
- Employees start “the process of changing their behavior.”
It’s fairly straightforward. But, it will take time to go through this process. Ultimately, it will be worth the investment since it will help drive successful change.
We all have those off-days when you wake up and don’t feel like doing squat. As a consequence, you’re going to do anything but your essential work for the day. When feel like this is occurring, regain your motivation by visualizing your long-term goals, practicing positive self-talk, and establishing a reward-based system.
Moreover, find inspiration through quotes or Ted Talks. And, knock out a simple task to get some of the momentum flowing.
Help others help you.
There’s no shame in asking for help. It’s a part of learning and growing. So, take advantage of requesting help when you need it. Learn this skill early in your career. You can find help if you work your guts out all the rest of the time.
For example, ask a coach or mentor how they successfully managed their time. Ask family members to help out with household chores. And, delegate some of your workloads to those who are interested or have the skills to get the job done.
Use helpful tools.
There are a variety of tools that you can use to help you reduce your phantom workload. For example, Calendar is a scheduling tool that eliminates those back-and-forth communications when scheduling a meeting. It pretty much automates your scheduling for you.
There are also project management tools, like Basecamp or Monday.com, that streamline managing all of your projects. And, there is no shortage of tools that can automate everything from billing to posting social media updates.
The key is to find out where you’re wasting time on repetitive and tedious tasks. Then, you can find the right tool to help solve this problem.
Find what works best for you.
Finally, experiment with different time management and strategies. There will be some trial and error involved. But, it’s the only way that you’ll discover what works best for you.