This is a guest blog post by Skye J. Coleman, PE
These days, the modern engineering office is filled with cubicles stacked right next to one another. Two monitors sit on each desk and low-profile dividers barely separate one person from the next. For 8 to 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday, engineers young and old sit pensively at their assigned work station, cranking away at their to-do lists trying to meet or beat their next deadline.
If you’re an engineer in one of those offices, I hate to tell you… but your work output is pathetic.
Chances are, most of those deadlines will not be hit and if they are the resulting project work will only be partially finished. Distractions and fires from previously “completed” projects will take priority and the proverbial can will be kicked down the road to construction phase services where you’ll have to answer immediate RFI’s from the field distracting you from the design project assigned to you at that time.
A cyclical nightmare occurs, where you’re never working optimally and most of your time is wasted switching from task to task, each assigned an equal priority.
There’s some good news though, it’s not your fault.
The system is stacked against you, and we’ve been fooled into believing that we should be able to multitask. It’s sad that a term that was originally coined for computer operating systems with a much greater processing speed than that of a human brain is now synonymous with a skill that someone can supposedly learn.
I don’t want to bore you with all of the research showing how ignorant it is to believe that we can easily switch from task to task without it having adverse effects on our productivity. You’re not the one who needs the research anyways, it’s your project managers and bosses who need it.
What I’m going to show you instead is a system that I’ve found to easily double my work output. Like most productivity hacks, this one starts with a blank piece of paper.
On that paper you should list out everything that you can think of that needs to be done for the week. Don’t censor yourself and don’t worry if you forget everything, you’re going to continually add to the sheet through the week.
From there, we’re going to use the 3 D’s of Productivity to figure out what we should be doing.
The First D – Delegation
In order for any engineer to become the lead on a project they must first have worked under someone closely on several designs. There’s no greater way to learn something and it’s the only way you can become a Professional Engineer.
I’ve had several great mentors in my career and I still turn to them when I run up against something that I haven’t seen before. But this isn’t about you having a mentor; it’s about you becoming one.
Earlier this year I was put on a huge project with a short lead time (sound’s familiar I’m sure). The schedule was so tight that I had no choice but to take several less experienced engineers and have them work closely with me to get the design out the door.
My time was spent like a professor in school standing at the dry erase board explaining the theory behind the problem at hand and working through examples. The “students” would then go and crank out some work and come back when they were stuck or thought they were finished. I’d then “grade” their work and show them where things went wrong or suggest modifications to make things work better.
This was my life for 6 months and it was the greatest thing that ever could have happened to me. I spent a ton of time working with a lot of people who have extremely bright futures and I was forced to delegate.
These days, since I spend a lot of my time on the road starting up various systems I previously designed, it’s imperative that I have people back at the office that can help me out with the things I need. I now have a team of people who help me with tasks that I can’t complete due to my schedule.
My expense reports get done by one of the project assistants. My CAD designer is able to pull together 75% of the details and plan views that I’ll need for a project before I ever touch it. And one or more less experienced engineers are available to assist me on most every project I work on.
Now apply this concept to your to-do list that you’ve created.
How many of the things that you’ve got on your plate really need to be done by you? If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure that there’s at least a few that someone else could do and you could take the “professor” role for them.
I’m willing to put in a greater amount of time in training someone how to do a task than it’d take me to do the task myself.
Why? Because the next time they’ll be able to do it with less assistance, saving me time. Plus, they’re learning something possibly new, becoming a better asset to the firm and you’re getting some of the items off of your plate.
I’d suggest you try this with 1-2 items this week. Something that is a recurring task you have to do all of the time. Find someone to help you with it (obviously clearing it with your boss or project manager), and take the time to train them how to do the task right.
The Second D – Do it
We’ve already talked about how you’re not a computer and despite our best attempt we can’t just learn things but inputting a new source code into our brains.
Equally as true is that unlike a computer processor, having multiple tasks running at the same time does not allow us to complete both equally as good if they received our full attention.
If you’re anything like me, then you cringe slightly every time someone comes up to ask you a question. Not that I don’t want to talk with them, but I know that it’s now going to take about 10 to 15 minutes to get back to the task at hand and when I do it likely won’t even be back at the place I was before.
After I answer whatever the question was they had, I find myself going through a similar routine almost exactly each time:
- I get up to get another glass of water.
- I talk to someone else about something non-work related.
- I sit back down and check my e-mail, responding to whatever came in recently.
By the time this finishes, if I haven’t been further side-tracked by whatever I found lurking in my inbox, I will finally sit back down and try and go back over what I’d been doing and try to get back into the rhythm I had been shaken out of.
During my flight back to the home office the other day I was reading Gary Keller’s book “The ONE Thing”. In the first chapter he mentions this scene from the brilliant 1991 comedy City Slickers:
The truism presented, by an untamed old cowboy named Curly, sums up everything you need to know about being productive. Tackle one thing at a time, stick to it and watch the magic happen.
Pick one item. This shouldn’t be the first thing on the list necessarily, but the one item that stands out to you as the highest priority at that point in time. Put all of your undivided attention into that item and work on it as long as you can. Cross it out, and if it’s not complete, add it back to the bottom of the page. Then, pick your next task.
The Third D – Delete
We all waste time in our lives, we spend endless hours on things that don’t really matter and never help us reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves. We deceive ourselves into believing that if we’re “busy” we’re being productive.
For our purposes now, I’m not talking about the 10 full days a year you spend on Facebook… though you should probably cut back on that as well.
No, what I am talking about is all of the extra work that you take on that’s unneeded and don’t get me wrong, I’m still just as bad at this as the next guy. I have only turned down work a few times, and that was because I was so swamped I was already clocking over 50 hours per week.
Most people probably don’t realize this, but unless you’re just twiddling your thumbs at your desk without anything to do, you have a choice when you’re asked to do something.
Not every project or job that’s brought to you is going to be the best thing for you and the company.
Obviously the company’s desires are paramount to yours, but resource managers typically have some latitude on what they assign to people. Just because you’re the first one asked about something, doesn’t mean you have to necessarily accept it.
I’m not saying to just tell your boss “no” the next time he brings something to you. Surely you’ve got to think I have more intelligence than that!
Instead, I’m proposing that you paint a picture of why you shouldn’t be assigned to that work. Explain what you’ve already got on your plate, what upcoming project you’d really like to work on, and why it probably wouldn’t be ideal for you to work on that project.
In his book “Essentialism”, Greg McKeown states:
“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a discipline, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”
He goes on to describe that an Essentialist does not allow someone else to prioritize their life, they do it themselves. They turn down good opportunities so that they can accept the truly great ones.
So how exactly can we apply this to our to-do list?
After you’ve gone through your to-do list and knocked out everything that stands out to you as a priority, then you’re left with the nonessential. Chances are that some of these items still may need to get done, but they might be candidates for delegation.
But no matter what, suck it up and get them done. Just take those items into mind when your boss next comes to you with a job which might involve that task again.
I will guarantee you that some of those items you didn’t cross off don’t need to be done at all.
That’s where deletion really comes into play. You’ll start to recognize that not everything you think you have to do really needs to be done. The next time you sit down to write your to-do list, those items shouldn’t show up.
Congratulations, you just saved yourself some much needed work time. You’re now working smarter, not faster.
About the writer, Skye J. Coleman, PE
Skye helps engineers get more out of their career through tips and tricks ranging from how to pass the PE exam, get a new job, and even travel faster and smarter. Go to Skye’s blog now and sign-up for his 5-day productivity hack training to squeeze more time out of your workday.