“In a bureaucratic system, useless work drives out useful work.” — Milton Friedman
Everyone is familiar with the useless red tape of bureaucracy. But you may be tangled up in your own version of red tape without knowing it.
How many tasks do you do on a daily basis that add nothing of value to your life?
How many tasks do you do on a daily basis that do not contribute anything of value to your business?
How many times have you spent hours looking for the perfect whatever-it-is, long after you found a perfectly good one?
I admit, I just caught myself on that last one. I was looking for a new planner cover, trying to find one between clear plastic and expensive leather. I quickly found one and ordered it. But then I kept looking. There were so many pretty options!
That just goes to show that you need to remain vigilant about cutting useless tasks out of your life.
A yearly review is great. But do you really want to be wasting your precious time and energy on useless tasks for a year before you get rid of them?
Here are four easy strategies to eliminate useless tasks:
- Vacuum pack
- Course correct
- Hands off
In the rest of this article, I’ll go into these strategies in detail.
Streamline your activities
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hofmann
I was watching an old Abbott and Costello routine, where Lou Costello was trying to tell Bud Abbott a joke. It started with a man going to the shore.
Abbott wanted to know what kind of shore it was. A lake? A river? An ocean?
An ocean, Costello told him. But before he could continue the story, Abbott interrupted again, asking which ocean it was.
They kept on in this way, Abbott continually interrupting Costello’s story to ask for clarifications, until Costello finally paused.
“What happened next?” Abbott asked. Miserably, Costello admitted, “I forgot.”
This is what happens to your tasks if they’re not streamlined. You get bogged down in so many extraneous details that you forget the point of what you’re trying to do.
In one of my jobs, I had to give a monthly presentation on our help desk statistics. When I took over the job, the process involved:
- marking up the previous month’s presentation
- giving it to the secretary to enter in the presentation software
- reviewing her new presentation for this month
- giving it back to her with corrections
- repeating the last two steps until the presentation was correct
- authorizing the presentation to be included in the meeting slides
The whole process took about a week and was horribly inefficient.
We streamlined the process by giving me access to the system used to create the presentations. That replaced the middle four steps with a single step, where I entered the changes in the system. The streamlined process took less than a day.
You can do the same for any of your tasks where the process flow is more like a process whirlpool, going around and around and going nowhere. A streamlined process flow contains no unnecessary steps.
Streamline an abundance of options
Often, the place where an activity bogs down is when a decision needs to be made. We want to make the absolute best decision. So we look at every possible option, until our minds are spinning. One of the easiest ways to streamline a decision task is to give yourself no more than three options.
To streamline a task:
- Set the basic criteria that are needed to be successful.
- Decide upon no more than two additional criteria.
- Select the first three options that meet the basic criteria.
- Rank those options according to the additional criteria
You need to set your basic criteria for success. There’s no point including options for consideration that don’t accomplish what you need done.
For example, my husband is currently trying to find an on-line to-do list application. His basic criteria include the ability to use it from both his phone and computer, to synchronize with his calendar, and to archive completed tasks.
You’d be surprised how many systems fail to meet these criteria.
The additional criteria that you select will be how you choose between those three options.
Often, if one of the basic criteria is a cost range, one of the additional criteria is the actual cost. You may be willing to pay up to a certain price, but you’d prefer paying less than that.
The other criteria is usually a subjective one, such as ease of use or appearance. It could also be a social approval score, such as average number of stars in a review.
If you’re just starting out, pick the first three options that meet your basic criteria, and rank them according to the additional criteria. If you’ve already been investigating options for a while, pick your current top three, and rank them according to the additional criteria.
Then make your decision and move on.
Vacuum pack your activities
“The most effective way to improve productivity is to eliminate work.” — William E. Conway, Jr.
Have you ever tried to pack for a long trip, only to have far more clothing than space in your suitcase?
In the old days of hard-sided luggage, the solution was to stuff the suitcase to overflowing, then sit on it to force it to close. That’s like trying to solve the problem of having too much to do by forcing yourself to do more.
Nowadays, there are high-tech packing cubes that you can stuff full of clothing and vacuum out the air. The clothes now take up a fraction of the space, because all of the air has been removed.
You need to remove the “air” from your activities.
What is air? It’s anything that artificially inflates the length of time or amount of energy that you have to devote to a task.
Do you have to attend status meetings, even though you don’t have to give a report? Read the meeting minutes and take back an hour of your day.
The task is not “attend the status meeting.” That’s just how the task was artificially inflated. The real task is “learn the latest project status.”
This is one of the reasons Netflix and other streaming television services have become so popular. They remove the air from the activity of watching a television program — the commercial interruptions. Once you experience watching television without commercials, you don’t want to go back.
Make a course correction
“Get rid of tasks and activities that occupy time but add no value to your life.” — Vladimir Elie
Sometimes, there are tasks and activities you participate in that are useful and productive, but they’re not aligned with your current set of goals.
These activities can creep in over time. Maybe at one time, they did align with your goals. But since then, you’ve shifted priorities, or pivoted your business.
The task that supported your old workload no longer supports your new workload.
Or, you might have thought that a certain project would get you toward your goal. Then, later, you find out you were wrong.
Instead of sticking with it because it was something you committed to, find a way to extract yourself gracefully.
One of the best ways to break a commitment is to recruit someone else who is willing to fulfill it. By finding someone more well suited to the activity, you’re actually doing a favor to both that person and the person in charge of the overall activity.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown tells a story of a pair of parents whose son got into Harvard.
When asked how he did it, they said that their son signed up for every extra-curricular activity he could. As soon as he realized it wasn’t a good fit, and that was not an activity where he would shine, he dropped the activity.
You may not be trying to get into Harvard, but you’re trying to get somewhere in your life. If you discover a task or activity is not moving you in that direction, get rid of it.
This frees you up to take on more tasks and activities that will move you in the direction of your goals.
Keep your hands off and hands down
“There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker
The final way that you can get rid of useless tasks and activities is simply never to start them in the first place.
Back in the Vietnam era, there was a popular song titled, “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero.” The woman singing the song was telling her boyfriend who’d just been drafted how to make it through his service in one piece and return to her. Instead, when the sergeant calls for volunteers, Billy raises his hand, and is killed.
You probably won’t face any choices quite so extreme. If you volunteer for something you shouldn’t, you won’t lose your life. But you can lose the life of your dreams.
Don’t feel pressured to volunteer for things, or to take up the slack for other people who routinely fail to get their tasks completed.
Helping someone out when disaster happens is a sign of generosity. Helping someone out because they can’t be bothered to manage their own time and productivity correctly is a sign of stupidity.
A popular quote says that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person to do it. Do not be the busy person everyone chooses to ask.
Hands off and hands down is the motto to remind you to keep out of anything that you don’t need to be involved in. The next time you’re tempted to hit “reply all” on an email, take your hands off the keyboard. If you don’t need to be involved in this loop, hit delete instead.
There are four simple ways to get rid of useless tasks and activities.
- Streamline your processes to remove wasted time and effort.
- Remove the “air” from your tasks and activities, so that you only do the essential portion.
- Correct your course and drop any activities or tasks that are not aligned with your current goals.
- Keep your hands off and hands down, leaving things alone to get along without you.
Routinely examine your tasks and activities to find ways to streamline and vacuum pack them. Drop any tasks or activities that are not moving you in the direction of your goals. And don’t volunteer for things you don’t need to do.
Ready to have a better tomorrow?
I’ve created a cheat sheet to help you gain control of your life, increase your confidence, and become optimistic about the future. If you follow this daily, you will change your life very quickly!