Think about your job description. Does it read like this?
Have an empty inbox and no loose papers on the desk.
I'm guessing it probably doesn't and instead has something to do with building customer satisfaction, keeping superiors or clients informed about the status of ongoing work, producing results on those projects on time and under budget, etc.
It's hard to remember to do, but if you're like me, you need to let go of the illusion that your job will be done properly when you're "all caught up". Dig out that job description and the comments from your last review and see what the real measure of "things going properly" should be. Put it in priority order. Write it up and discuss it with your boss to refine it as necessary.
What you want to end up with is a touchstone you can pull out when you feel overwhelmed, adrift or unrewarded. This kind of a list is particularly crucial for anyone whose work doesn't reach regular cycles of completion and congratulation on a weekly or monthly basis.
Stick it up on your wall and refer to it whenever you need to decide what should be worked on next.
Here's an example list for someone maintaining a sales team's software demonstration machine:
- All reported problems with demo server investigated and resolved or resolution in progress.
- Status of problems reported to stakeholders.
- Aware of demonstration schedule (to avoid conducting maintenance during demos).
- Software on demo server up-to-date.
- Server status webpage on intranet current with software versions, known issues, and links to demo scripts.
- Aware of coming software updates including new examples which will need to be set up.
- Aware of operating system/hardware requirements for coming updates and shortcomings reported to manager with a plan for their correction.
- Maintaining familiarity with products being demonstrated.
- Maintaining familiarity with operating system and hardware being used, particularly with security and backup needs and techniques.
- Keeping an eye out for ways to improve workflow for self and co-workers.
- Progress on long-term, non-timebound projects.
- Progress on professional growth goals.
So, imagine our hypothetical sales engineer after a wild morning of resolving some surprise software issue before an important demo. He's coming up for air and trying to remember what he had been planning to work on today instead of the crisis du jour. What he shouldn't do is start trying to completely resolve everything reflected with an email in his inbox.
Instead, he should run down this prioritized list of conditions and do what needs to be done to achieve that state for each one in order.
He's going to scan his inbox and voicemail for any newly reported or unresolved issues on the demo server which require his action. He's going to make sure he's let the necessary people know where everything stands now, any pending actions and who is doing them. He's going to take a quick look at the demo calendar to see if there's anything new he needs to prep for. He's going to check the status on development and if there is new software coming, he will work around the demo calendar to schedule the next software update, again notifying the necessary people and adding any downtime to the calendar. He's going to look to see if he needs or wants to do any other operating system or server maintenance at the time of that update. He's going to take a quick look over the intranet page he maintains and make sure it's current.
Then he can start looking to the non-urgent mail from the development team or listservs which keep him up-to-date on what's coming in the longer term. He can thus plan accordingly and send out any necessary questions to the developers to help avoid last minute crises. Once all these conditions are met, he can broaden his activities to gaining deeper knowledge of his company's products and of the tools he uses or might want to start using. He can also take this knowledge and propose improvements to his own and others' workflow. He may prepare a description of a longer term project based on these ideas or continue working on an already approved such project. When all is in order and moving forward properly, he can also take time to work on professional growth such as the acquisition of new skills, participation in professional activities such as conferences or publication, or other activities he and his manager have identified as desirable for his continued growth and success.
What is very important to note here is that he can reach the bottom of that list – he can be doing his job beautifully – with lots of mail in his inbox and lots of papers on his desk. Those things are not the measure of a job well done.
However, they may be very distracting, so tomorrow I'll be back with some tips on cutting the clutter to help yourself stay focused.