Increase your personal effectiveness: put your own oxygen mask on first

Illustration Oxygen Mask (Pexels)

Make your responsibilities your priority

For many business leaders, their day in the office resembles drinking from a fire hose. Not only do they need to attend a large number of meetings (often back to back), they are also hit with a continuous stream of ad-hoc questions from their staff, peers, customers, and line managers which require their attention and action.

A couple of years ago I started to get really worried about my personal effectiveness. Despite the outrageous number of hours I spent at work, I found it increasingly difficult to complete my tasks and finish my projects.

In order to address this, I decided to analyze my workload to find out what I could do to change this.

Who do you work for?

The shocking outcome of my analysis was the realization that I spent the vast majority of my time doing work for other people. Even more shocking was my discovery that most of my work did not come from my line manager, but from my own staff, my peers and various people in staff and support departments.

This resulted in the situation where the only time that I seemed to have an opportunity to work on my own tasks and projects was after 5 pm…when the people for whom I had worked during the day, were on their way home…

Increasing your productivity does not solve the problem

I decided I needed to start seriously investing in my productivity. I read all the books about Personal Efficiency, Time Management, and Delegation I could lay my hands on, attended training programs and optimized my Outlook and Lotus Notes systems to automatically store messages in specific folders, send reminders, auto-fill emails with templates, track action items, etc.

Unfortunately, the only result was that I became even more productive in doing the work for these other people that created the problem for me in the first place. As I result of this, I was rewarded with even more work from them and still had to wait until 5 pm until I could work on my own tasks and projects.

All this changed one morning, when, in an inspired moment, I wiped out my whiteboard and started to make a list of the tasks and projects I personally was responsible for. I was not pleased with what I saw: I was significantly behind with my own tasks and projects, due to all the time and effort I had invested in doing the work for other people.

A new working pattern

From that moment onwards I changed my work habits. Ever since that day, the first thing I do when I arrive in my office is to look at my whiteboard. This now shows my projects and my action items; enabling me to start my working day with progressing my projects and my action items.

A typical example of my day started to look as follows. As soon as I arrived in the office I started with the first action item on my whiteboard: Writing a proposal for project X. ‘Mmm, I stil need the information John promised to give me about the budget required for this, let me send him an email to remind him’. After spending 2 minutes on writing this email, I move on to the next item on my whiteboard: filling a crucial Finance role. ‘I do not seem to get enough internal applicants for this position, let me drop an email with the job specification to Anne at executive search company Z and ask if she can call me between 1–4 pm this Friday to discuss this’.

In this mode, I worked through each of my 10-15 projects on the whiteboard. Usually this took no more than 30 – 60 minutes. Once this was completed, I was able to work much more relaxed on projects and actions initiated by other people, knowing that my projects and action items had been addressed.

If you are also suffering from lack of personal effectiveness you might consider following the same strategy. Of course, you do not have to use a physical whiteboard. A piece of paper or electronic task list might do the job for you. The most important thing however is to start every working day with reviewing your tasks and your projects, not those from other people.

Is this egoistic? No!

A former colleague of mine always uses the analogy of the safety instructions on the airplane when we discuss this topic: “Before you assist others, always put your own oxygen mask on first.” This is the same thing firemen do when they start fighting fires: they know their effectiveness might literally determine the fate of others, and they are well aware of the fact that effectively helping others requires them to put on their oxygen masks first. The same is true in business; most often we will be in a much better position to help others if we can give them our undivided attention, rather than to have a nagging feeling in the back of our minds that the issues we are responsible for have not adequately been addressed.

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