Survival Skills for coping in a doing-more-with-less environment

In the November-December 2012 issue, we looked at the pervasive business culture of “doing more with less” and how, many times, we are trying to fool ourselves and our organizations as to how much can be done with limited resources (see “Doing More with Less? Myth vs. Reality” page 15). While we gave some suggestions on how to change this environment, the reality is that most of us must learn to cope with this situation. In this article we will discuss some survival skills for navigating this difficult issue.

Unfortunately, there are no “magic bullets” that completely solve the issue for most of us. Certainly, one could focus on being more productive through diligent use of daily to-do lists or use of one of the popular time-management systems on the market. However, with the workloads that many are trying to meet, most will find they still run out of time to get to everything that needs to be done.

Instead, the survival skills discussed here are geared toward understanding the full scope of the workload and then prioritizing for the most effectiveness that you can generate as an individual and as an organization. The skills necessary for survival and, hopefully, flourishing in this environment include the following:

  • Identify all task responsibilities,
  • Measure time allocation,
  • Prioritize tasks, and
  • Negotiate resources.

We touched on all these points in the previous article, but in this edition we will focus on the prioritization aspect.

The Problem

One of the greatest challenges that each of us faces in this era of constant communication and overabundance of information is how to prioritize where we spend our time. There is so much pressure—either externally imposed or self-imposed—to be in constant contact, to respond to text and email messages within minutes, and to never admit that there is more on your plate than you can handle, that we find ourselves constantly behind the curve and dashing from task to task with little time for thought or reflection.

As a result we often find that we are never able to get to very important activities and tasks, both at work and in our personal lives. A couple of years ago I was speaking with a group of professionals in our industry on this topic and asked for a show of hands as to how many in the audience would say they are satisfied with their work-life balance. Of the approximately 75 people in the room, not one hand went up. I asked the same question of a different group two days later and got one hand raised out of the fifty people in the room.

For as much as we talk about the importance of work-life balance, it seems pretty clear that not many are achieving this desired state of being. But, this goes behind guilt about not spending enough time with our significant other or our children. You will find the same types of responses when you ask a group of people questions like:

  • Are you spending adequate time making sure you develop yourself professionally?
  • Do you make time to work on new ideas that you think could have a significant, positive impact for your company?
  • Do you devote the needed time to your direct reports? Do you make time to give them feedback, listen to them when they have a problem, and engage with them?
  • Do you set aside time each week for relationship building both within your organization and within your professional network?
  • Is your work aligned with your stated performance objectives for the year? How much of your effort is in support of those goals?

When those questions get asked, you find out just how hard people are working and yet failing to spend hardly any time on some of the most important responsibilities they have to accomplish.


Prioritization requires the ability to synthesize the tremendous amount of information that bombards us, each and every day, and distill those action items that will be the greatest benefit to us and our company. From our work with clients across a wide spectrum of size, market segment, and geography, we find the inability to prioritize to be a chronic problem.

What typically occurs is that we try to prioritize too many items. For instance, in training and awareness programs, it would be a considerable success if you could get every single one of your employees, including part-timers, across the country to consistently execute three to four actions every single time. Yet, many programs try to communicate far too much. We once had a client who wanted to communicate almost twenty-five separate training points on electrical safety alone…in one month.

If you overreach, your net effect is marginalized. Better to solve those three to four issues that are most impactful to your company and then, and only then, move onto the next set of highest priority issues.

In the print media there is a saying for this: “All emphasis is no emphasis.” To say it another way—if everything is in bold, nothing is in bold.

A Prioritization Framework

To help us prioritize those items that are essential to our long-term success, let’s use a framework suggested by Stephen Covey back in his classic 1989 publication titled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There are many nuggets in this work that keep it in the ranks of best-selling business books even today. But, the most useful point in the entire book happens to be about prioritization (see sidebar below).

In his chapter on “Put First Things First,” Covey suggests a simple grid that has two axes. The vertical axis differentiates between things that are important and those that are not. The horizontal axis is based on whether things are urgent or not urgent. The resulting grid (below) yields four quadrants.

Time/Priority Table

Quadrants I vs. II. When I’ve asked audience members to identify where they should spend most of their time, the usual choice is quadrant one. After all, quadrant I contains those items that are both “Important” and “Urgent.” These are the things like pressing deadlines, the crisis that erupts unplanned, a new order from an important client, a health problem for you or a loved one, and other significant events that have to be addressed here and now.

However, Covey maintains, and I agree, that the things that are most important to your long-term success actually occur in quadrant II. These are items that are “Important,” but “Not Urgent.” Think about what goes into this bucket. Here are some suggestions to consider:Examples

  • Long-term planning
  • People development
  • Relationship building
  • Spiritual life
  • Personal health or exercise
  • Prioritization
  • Professional development, such as attending a conference
  • Family time

No doubt, you can add many more items to this list both in the professional and personal arenas. Few would disagree that these are important items, but you will notice that most of them do not have a deadline attached to them. These are the things you have to make room for on your schedule if you hope to accomplish them—especially in the era of “doing more with less.”

There is also a distinct relationship between quadrant II and quadrant I. The more time you spend in QII, the less time you will likely have to spend in QI.

For instance, if more time is spent planning a process and training the appropriate personnel, the less likely it is that they will make errors that require “fighting fires.” The more time spent maintaining your health, the less likely it is that you will need to be rushed to the emergency room for care, which is clearly a QI situation. The more time you spend developing your people, the less likely it will be that you will have to step in, last minute, on a project they are running that is going badly.

Of course, in our line of work there will always be a crisis to be addressed. Some of that is the nature of our industry and job responsibilities. But, even in areas such as theft, more time spent on training, prevention, and education activities is likely to result in fewer incidents that need to be investigated.

Urgent, but not Important. Quadrant III activities are things that are urgent, but not important. How can that be? Usually, that’s because it’s urgent to someone else, but not important to your goals. These are interruptions, distractions, time wasted in non-productive meetings, and other demands that are usually foisted upon us by someone else. These can also be the endless emails that you are copied on that don’t really need your involvement or attention.

To reduce our time in this area, we must learn to say “No.” How often has someone asked you to be involved in something—a task force, a committee, or a special event—that is a few months down the road and, without much thought, you say “Yes”? Then, as it gets closer to time, you start asking yourself, “What was I thinking?” Keep in mind this one little rule—”A ‘Yes’ to one thing is a ‘No’ to another.” And, that other thing is often a quadrant II activity that you no longer have time for in your schedule.

Not Urgent and Not Important. Finally, Quadrant IV activity is mindless time-wasting. Sitting down and relaxing in front of a television show might be a good release for you, but you might question the value of following a dozen reality shows. Checking and rechecking Facebook or Twitter over and over again out of fear of missing something will do little for your long-term success. Capturing a handful of photos of your child’s soccer game is reasonable, while snapping 300 photos of one game just creates a cycle of time commitment to manage them that is very low on the yield curve.

An Action Plan

Use this framework as you plan out your work for the week, month, and year…you are planning your work, right? Try to spend at least 10 percent of your time on QII activity, both at work and at home. Ideally, try to get the number up to 30 percent. This is not easy in a “do more with less” environment, but you will begin to notice that you start to get ahead of the curve. You might even find yourself being truly “proactive” now and again.

The results won’t be instantaneous. You won’t suddenly find yourself getting all of your work done in forty hours a week. But, you’ll find all kinds of benefits that save you time.

  • A new opportunity will pop up as a result of reconnecting with a former colleague.
  • You will implement a new process at your company from what you learned at a professional conference you attended.
  • You will get rid of the high-cholesterol medicine you’ve been taking because you have spent some time in the gym.
  • You will find time in your schedule because you can remove yourself from projects that your subordinates are now able to manage as a result of the time you spent with them on training
  • and development.

You are also likely to find that you don’t really miss “Ice Road Truckers,” “Dance Moms,” or the various pawn-shop shows. You might find that actually engaging with the other people you are with at lunch is more rewarding than checking the score of the baseball game on your phone, checking every email that buzzes in, and tweeting a photo of your plate of lasagna.

Finally, and probably most importantly, when your boss comes to you and says, “Bill, we are going to have to do more with less,” you can quickly show him where you are spending your time, what priorities you are pursuing, and ask him to weigh in on what items you should drop off your list.

Can you imagine having one of your employees having that type of information at their disposal? Can you imagine them having concrete priorities that have been well thought out to share with you? Can you imagine them coming to you to get your input on the items they have in the different quadrants?

As a manager of people, I can’t imagine anything better.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

By Stephen R. Covey

This book was the first of a series of highly acclaimed titles from Stephen R. Covey, who was recognized by Time magazine as one of the twenty-five most influential Americans. The book has sold over 20 million copies in thirty-eight languages and appears near or at the top of most lists that rank the best business books of all time.

The book discusses moving from a state of dependence to independence and then interdependence through the following seven steps:

Habit 1—Be Proactive Making the decision to improve one’s life by making changes where one can versus reacting to external forces.

Habit 2—Begin with the End in Mind Developing a personal mission statement based on principles that can form the basis of long-term goals.

Habit 3—Put First Things First Spending time and focus on the key items on your personal mission.

Habit 4—Think Win-Win Seeking relationships and agreements with others that are mutually beneficial.

Habit 5—Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood Putting oneself in another person’s place and listening empathetically to both feelings and meanings of what is being expressed.

Habit 6—Synergize Finding ways to leverage individual differences to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Habit 7—Sharpen the Saw Taking time for renewal and balance of one’s physical, mental, social, and spiritual dimensions.