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5 ways to ensure you spend time on the right tasks at work

Successful professionals dedicate their talents to areas where they make a difference. Here's how you can add value, too, according to business leaders.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Managing your work time effectively is just the starting point. Once you've found extra space in your calendar, you must focus on things that deliver the biggest bang for your buck. Five business leaders told us how to ensure you spend time on the right activities.

1. Focus on the big rocks

Nigel Richardson, SVP & CIO Europe at PepsiCo, told ZDNET it's important for professionals to manage their energy. If you're tired from working on too many things, you won't improve the business.

Richardson said you must ensure your energy is directed to what he calls big rocks: "What are the few things that will make the difference?"

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As well as being important to you, these big rocks need to align with the aims of the broader organization.

"I share with my team the five most important things I'm working on," he said. "And I then have a very rigorous process to document things weekly and monthly. I do a check to say, 'OK, did I spend the right time on those things?'"

Richardson said people who don't focus on big rocks could be distracted by smaller, non-value-adding activities.

"Manage your energy, be clear on the focus areas, and share it with all the people who matter, so that everyone else knows the targets and can be very disciplined in the execution."

2. Categorize your tasks

Toby Alcock, CTO at Logicalis, said it can be easy to think that ticking off a completed task on your list means you can move on to something else. However, it's important to work with more haste and less speed.

"The tyranny or urgency is always the biggest trap for any leader," he said. "It's common to think that getting the most important thing done means you get some strategic time back."

Alcock said professionals who climb the career ladder will find their diaries full of a complex mix of strategic activities and day-to-day requirements. Categorizing those tasks is crucial.

"My role is strategic," he said. "I must look to the horizon and know what's coming next. But like anyone else, I can get bogged down in urgent requests. Having something simple, like color-coding my diary, is something I've found powerful."

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Alcock also told ZDNET that networking with connections, peers, and colleagues will help you understand important activities.

"Operating in an ivory tower means you're guaranteed to fail," he said. "We've got 7,500 staff around the globe. I want to spend time with them seeing what they're doing for our customers because they're coming up with great ideas. So, I think networking and being intentional about strategic time is critical to focusing on the right activities."

3. Take a data-driven approach

Tim Lancelot, head of sales enablement at software specialist MHR, said it's easy to feel swamped by tasks in a modern professional environment. One way to avoid sinking is to ensure you know how smaller issues fit into broader business concerns.

"Start with the whole and move to the part," he said. "Make sure you get the 30,000-foot view before you get stuck into the finer details. From there, get to a point where you can measure. Be data-driven in your decision-making."

Lancelot said facts and figures that prove the criticality of a business problem will help you make smart decisions rapidly and effectively.

"Don't get overwhelmed by the number of problems you face," he said. "Use the data to objectively say, 'Well, by some measurement, this is the biggest problem to fix.' That approach means you're spending your time and resources as effectively as possible."

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Lancelot told ZDNET this methodical stance helps you spend time on the right activities.

"Don't try to solve 10 problems at once," he said. "Try to solve at least one problem to an acceptable level and move on to the next one. You might come around the loop and solve that problem to a deeper level later."

4. Concentrate on long-term goals

Jessie Sobel, VP of strategic growth initiatives at Freshpet, said the best way to ensure you spend the time on the right activities is to choose a few priorities.

Sobel's role at Freshpet is to identify new business opportunities. She focuses on prioritizing the initiatives she believes will help the company grow.

"The majority of my role is focused on looking at some long-term initiatives but also implementing and executing them. The number of initiatives we execute is limited based on priorities," she said.

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Yet even someone like Sobel with tightly defined core roles and responsibilities has to deal with other peripheral issues: "We have day-to-day needs for the business, but that's just the mix of everyday working life."

Sobel told ZDNET she tries to keep her eyes on the main prize as much as possible, including Freshpet's recently launched Custom Meals proposition, which creates personalized orders using Ordergroove's API technology.

"In this project, that's not necessarily just about market opportunity," she said. "It's about managing some of the capabilities we build on our digital platforms. It's also about knowing where to build out some of our resources in the organization, too."

5. Follow your passion

Richard Wazacz, CEO at foreign exchange specialist Travelex, told ZDNET that being passionate about an activity makes it easier to focus on areas that will give you experience, mastery, and credibility.

As a chief executive of a fast-growing business, Wazacz uses his entrepreneurial aptitude to ensure his time is spent on value-adding activities.

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"I always go back to the question, 'What are the biggest problems my customers and colleagues face? What part can I play in unlocking them?'" he said.

"Sometimes that approach is about making sure I hire the right people. Sometimes it's about creating the right environment. Sometimes it's about rolling my sleeves up, looking at the data, and seeing if I can generate a hypothesis for the problem."

Spending time on the right activities involves a blend, said Wazacz: "There's no magic answer, such as allocating a percentage to different things."

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