How to break free from the tyranny of the to-do list

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There’s a special place at the bottom of every ‘to do’ list reserved for tasks of a certain type. Much as you’d love to devote time to them, the scale or complexity of the challenge means they remain just out of reach, pushed ever further down the queue as more pressing items fill in from the top.

Emails, social media updates, Slack messages and WhatsApp notifications all pile on top of one another, each demanding some kind of response or, at the very least, a share of your increasingly stretched attention span. A quick desk-based lunch and a couple of unnecessarily long meetings later and the day has run away from you again.

For marketing and digital teams, it’s no wonder then that the day-to-day demands of the job are so frequently cited as a barrier to being more productive. 

Stifling innovation

Ask a colleague how they are, and we’ve all now become so accustomed to hearing a response along the lines of ‘I’m busy’ that any other answer has a slightly jarring effect.

The endless to-do list can, however, have a damaging impact. Individual items combine to create a singular task of seemingly insurmountable scale, and the person on the receiving end can feel paralysed by what’s in front of them. Others might choose to tackle the challenge head on by throwing hours of additional time at it but, even then, they often only succeed in shovelling themselves into an ever-deeper pit of frustration as their efforts yield little progress. In the worst cases, not being able to escape can even have a negative influence on mental wellbeing.

Beyond this personal impact, the burden of a bogged-down workforce also ripples through to the wider business. Being busy can certainly be a positive indicator that you’re in the eye of the storming phase, but teams that are struggling to lift their heads above water are unlikely to be fostering the right kind of environment to deliver services and innovations that meet customer demands.

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Finding some headspace

Research conducted by Deloitte identified and explored the phenomenon of the ‘Overwhelmed Employee’ in the modern workplace, advising companies that they need to simplify the work environment in order to create more time for thinking and to increase productivity.

Even for companies working with agency partners, where there is a predefined route to outsource some of this pain and gain access to creative minds, the potential remains untapped. Time and effort spent dealing with internal struggles can compromise the ability to truly exploit the talents of external teams, even when they are available at the end of your fingertips.

So, in the face of such challenges, what steps can be taken to equip today’s workers with ways to step outside of their daily routine and start to answer some of the more fundamental customer challenges that are so crucial to business success?

Identify the barriers

Various stars need to be aligned and concepts adopted if teams are to operate at true high-performance levels, including purpose, goals, skills, leadership and communication. Interrogate your own strengths and weaknesses to clarify the issues that are preventing you from delivering excellence to customers. The scale of barriers and their impact will reveal the areas to be addressed as a priority.

Learn from others’ lessons

Rest assured, you are unlikely to be alone in finding space and time to innovate. Other businesses and industries face similar issues, which means there are opportunities to look across and learn from how they have dealt with - and overcome - the challenge.

Creative problem-solving as a collective

Getting everyone from your team together, ideally in the same place, can present a logistical challenge, but group workshops are powerful vehicles for creative thinking – if done well. Make sure to eschew tired, formulaic approaches in favour of unexpected techniques that will bring new energy and uncover new perspectives. For example, if you’re struggling to find the perfect answer to a business problem, it can sometimes be helpful to flip things on their head - by considering how not to solve a problem or even ‘reverse brainstorming’ ways to make things worse, you can often illuminate the characteristics of what ‘good’ looks like. And at every workshop, don’t forget to follow Jeff’s two-pizza catering rule.

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Prioritise your answers

While ‘no idea is a bad idea’ (in theory at least), there will be a need to review all of the workshop output to decide on the best route forward. This is the time where egos and subjectivity are cast aside in favour of an objective evaluation the strength of the ideas in relation to the business goals you are seeking to achieve. A scoring system based on various success criteria will bring focus to the process and enable the strongest concepts to bubble to the surface.

Despite having gone through the process of refining your ideas down to a winning strategy, you can still be left with what feels like a mountain to climb.

Break down the steps

At this point (and apologies for mixing metaphors), it’s important to remember that you can’t eat an elephant all at once – break the task down into a series of smaller next steps, each of which has the potential to make a big difference.

Reaching this point in the journey may not be easy, and sometimes the biggest hurdle can simply be getting started. But by finding the space to break out of the day-to-day and bringing fresh perspective to the challenges lingering on your to do list, you can begin to unlock exciting answers. And not only will they deliver better work and results, the process will leave the team feeling rewarded and refreshed.

That email will have to wait.

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