Talk to any white-collar worker and their gripe list will read like: workload, chronically full email inbox, thin and stretched teams in departments, ‘monster’ bosses that never think about the welfare of their staff, working late and on weekends.
It is true that the modern organisation will not stop churning out work to its employees. This is made worse by the internet age, gadgets like smartphones and tablets, and the resulting 24/7 lifestyle we all live. Many white-collars workers fail to draw boundaries between their professional and family (social) spheres. Are you one of those that read emails coming to your iPhone/Galaxy Inbox at midnight?
The cost to the white collar worker and their family of this so-called modern work style is heavy. Let us list some of the premia you pay to follow the modern white-collar work cult:
- Stress to the white-collar worker, moreover extended courtesy of being a dad & husband, to all the poor souls living and sharing life with the worker
- Strained marriages and delinquent children
- ‘Parenting by Television’ model – with the television quickly becoming an invisible parent, social-teacher, and nanny – you know the kind of child this has brought on the world
- Decreased productivity related to working long hours, but not in a SMART manner
- Addiction to gadgets and contributing to the vast fortunes of Apple, Samsung, and Increasingly Tecno – consumerism at best!
- Chronic diseases like Diabetes and Heart Disease, all down to not exercising enough
- High medical bills for the employee and employer
And yes, the white-collar worker and those close to them demonise the ‘job’ as the source of all their woes. This monster called ‘job’, much as it puts bread and butter on the table, is the source of all white-collar task management challenges. Monster ‘job’ gets bigger and bigger every other day, more complicated and has denied us entitlement to ‘work-life balance’. Well, we need to be careful about demonising ‘job’. While I cannot completely exonerate the monster ‘job’, I believe that the white-collar worker needs to explore if they are not part of the problem. Perhaps, the time is right to stand in front of that large mirror and take a good look at ourselves in regards to this job riddle.
Is the white-collar worker contributing to the task management challenge at the modern workplace?
I have observed the white-collar work environment in East Africa, to answer the question: ‘what prevents the white-collar worker from delivering tasks effectively and efficiently (i.e. SMART-effectiveness)?’ On many occasions, white-collar workers drown in ‘out of control’ task-lists. The immediate consequence of the latter situation is: delayed tasks, missed opportunity, frustrated clients both internal and external, stressed and at times ‘hysterical’ white-collar workers, the white-collar worker ‘plugging-in’ their family (innocent as they are), and overall, a compromised organisation value-chain.
As already mentioned above, the temptation is to blame the ‘job’ for the above situation, yet in many instances the white-collar worker is to blame for creating this workload-mountain for themselves.
In this blog, I want to blame if I may, the colonial education system for the situation the East African white-collar worker is in. The colonial education system in East Africa, that most citizens have or shall undertake at some point, raises more questions than answers to the subject of this blog. The colonial East Africa education system preaches ‘listening and acting as instructed by the teacher’ and not ‘enquiry, critical thinking, and the individual search for solutions’. Apparently, as a product of East Africa’s colonial education system, I am more than likely to prefer following the active guidance of my boss than my own initiative. In East Africa, when you come across creativity, it is from a slightly constricted lens. For example: consider a scenario where my boss asks me to explore new market opportunities for a mature product in the company’s product range; I proceed to execute the instruction from the boss and suggest plausible alternatives for new markets; however, you may notice that it is only after instruction from the boss that my ‘creative-DNA’ kicks in. This is different from the opposite paradigm where, on my own intuitive, I consider alternative markets for the mature product and not wait for instruction from the boss.
The typical product of the colonial education system is not always adept at effective and efficient task management in an increasingly complex world of work. To manage our tasks effectively and efficiently, calls for taking a birds’-eye-view: appreciating the environment; anticipating, and asking the right questions; and only then, get on with planning, organisation, and task execution. I have witnessed situations where the white-collar worker in East Africa plans and populates their task list, before appreciating the overall environment as well as asking the right questions. In many instances, this results in botched tasks with all the negative consequences described earlier on in this blog.
Sadly, the above examples are not uncommon. The first example confirms that East Africans are born with that ‘creative-DNA’, but the education system shapes us into products that need a ’trigger’ before we put to use our ‘creative-DNA’ – it is simply latent. Unfortunately, as the white-collar labour market becomes ever more global, and many bosses coming from abroad, there is increasing intolerance to this dormant-‘creative DNA’ paradigm.
There is good news though. A cadre of East African white-collar worker that espouse the opposite paradigm is emerging. With the traditional product of the education system struggling, we should explore how to leverage this emerging talent, to deliver the required critical mass for the labour market in East Africa.
Tips for effective task management:
There are various paths to task management, others like GTD have been turned into formal models, and pretty good ones at that. For those that want a quick guide, find below a quick but effective ‘art’ of task-management:
How to become an effective and efficient task manager:
- Create a ’task-bank’ for all your tasks whether they initially make sense to you or not [many use a simple notebook for this laundry list or the gadget fanatics your phone’s note-book]
- As tasks pile up from your email, phone calls or one on one meetings, deposit them in your ’task-bank.’
- Do not get distracted by emails and unplanned drop-in’s to your office – pause, if you have to, but to directly deposit the task into your task-bank
- Every end of the day, review the task-bank and assign tasks to days of the week [allow yourself enough time to deliver on tasks – no harm allowing a full month or more before you get to a task]
- Allow time for both desk-tasks and meetings [when clearing your task-bank, please have both task-manager and calendar in hand – or consider combining the two – either way, avoid double-booking tasks and meetings, as they both require your time]
- Get back to colleagues/clients expecting you to execute tasks/meetings, with a commitment to delivery timelines – this also helps you keep your inbox clean [keep a ‘zero-in box’ policy, courtesy of the task-bank]
- Define Operational and Strategic tasks [staff at officer-level are likely to have lots of operational tasks on their task list; middle-level cadres (managers) lots of ‘in-between’ operational and strategic as well as strategic tasks; executive-level staff will have their task lists monopolised by strategic tasks
- A comparison of ‘task-type’ vs. ‘your level’ in the organisation is a good litmus test on whether a white-collar worker is focusing on the right content at work
- Focus on one to three (maximum) strategic tasks per week
- Deal with one at most two strategic tasks per day; three days per week on average are spent on strategic business, allowing time for the mostly unplanned and non-strategic yet urgent tasks
- Depending on whether you are a ‘morning’ or ‘afternoon’ person, use your brain when it is at its best, to do strategic work; this leaves your less productive time for more ‘operational’ and ‘in-between’ operational/strategic routines, including ‘certain’ meetings
The pitfalls of effective and efficient task management:
- Not having a personal task management system
- Not creating specific time to plan task management i.e. cleaning your ‘task-bank’
- Falling prey to Email-distraction, drops-in to your office, unplanned meetings, long-winded meetings, social media and private email checking, etc
- Not using your most productive window of the day well
- Not saying ‘NO’ to unplanned tasks, especially meetings
- Not creating separate time for meetings and desk-tasks
- Too much clutter (Inbox + Desk), ending up in confusion [although other white collars thrive in clutter]
- The smartphone or tablet based task-management software is not the magic bullet; please use whatever system works for you – task management is personal and about style and comfort. One of the most effective task managers I know uses manual post-it notes to manage his tasks and time
My takeaway: Getting on top of the modern task management challenge starts with the education system and then you the individual. You alone can change it if you want, and do not fool yourself, it is quite an investment.
What can you change to become an effective and efficient task manager?