I struggle to balance the operational aspects of my job with the strategic. Despite my best intentions the day-to-day requirements of my job often distract me from the bigger picture tasks I also need to focus on. Do you have any tips for effectively juggling both?
This is such a common challenge that most of us face at one time or another. The CEO of a large multi-national I used to work for referred to this as the ability to be ambidextrous; looking to the future and being strategic whilst getting the right things done for the immediate success of the business. He always said that it was one of the most important skills to master for success not only for the business, but also for the individual. And he was right.
The day to day can be so overwhelming that it can seem like there isn't a single spare minute to focus on anything other than the immediate to do list – which of course, is always urgent.
I recently had a coaching client with the same challenge. She had mid to long term strategic work that both she and her boss wanted focus on, but it kept getting pushed aside with her daily and weekly tasks, fighting fires, answering other peoples requests and filling their needs, and just keeping up.
Here is the advice that I gave her, that worked extremely well. It is based on my own experience of being a business strategist with operational accountability, which meant dealing with this very issue.
- Get clear on your strategic priorities. What are the three to five major projects or initiatives that you have to deliver for the next 6-12 months? If you can narrow it down to 3 or less that is even better. We often know we need to be strategic and focus on the long term, yet we don't have clarity of what that actually means. Get clear and ensure that these are the areas that you and your boss agree on. You will free up significant energy just by doing this.
- Start your day here. It is habitual for many people to start their day with email, often before even getting out of bed. (Yes, I have been guilty of this too.) The danger in this is that you are in instant reaction mode, and it can be hard to get out of that mindset once you have started running in this direction. I suggest carving out time every morning to work on your strategic projects. You need to decide the time allocation, however if you can allocate one to two hours each morning for your top three strategic projects, you ensure that each day you are making progress against your goals. To start with you may only be able to find 30 minutes. But that is better than where you are now. Carve out the time, lock yourself away, turn your email and phone off, and focus.
- Get more efficient on your day to day. When working with my client on her focus and productivity issues, we determined that a large part of her day was spent reacting to other peoples needs, and taking on work that was not her responsibility. We analyzed her workload, devised how to get the work that was not hers off her desk, and developed methods to ensure she did not fall into this trap again. This may not be your issue. However analyzing your day-to-day operational workload, and determining where you are being productive and where you are losing time and energy, is time well spent. If you need to, review this with a coach, mentor, boss or peer, to help you be objective. I find by doing this exercise with clients we often find chunks of time that can be reclaimed, or multiple mini time seepages in a day that can be salvaged. Spend some time really looking at where your time goes.
By getting clear on what you want to focus on strategically and how much time you can allocate to that, whilst also streamlining your operational day to day, you can ensure you are making time for the longer term projects that matter, whilst also getting the immediate job done. Track this over a few months, reviewing both the short and long term outcomes, and adjust where you need to. Hopefully this will give you more satisfaction, provide greater business outcomes and significantly lesson your frustration. Learning to be ambidextrous may not be the most natural skill to build, but it is certainly one of the most critical.