In all workplaces, we pay taxes - of time and attention - to get to our real work. How can we keep these taxes to a minimum?
Years ago, when I complained that I had to sit in a long work meeting, my boss taught me about time taxes. Up to that point, I thought all taxes were financial. He explained that every job includes, alongside things you like doing, other things you don’t like doing but which are inherent to the job. He asked: Are the taxes so high that you’re willing to give up your 'net work' in order to avoid paying them?
I thought of these taxes when I met Michelle, the manager of a small business I walked into when visiting a small town in the US. She and her employees worked hard and, throughout my visit, the phone didn’t stop ringing. Michelle answered each call briefly and scheduled appointments for customers without checking or writing any notes on a computer or even on a scrap of paper. She answered each call very politely. But her main occupation was not answering phones. These were taxes.
I found this scene both impressive and confusing. How could she make appointments without looking in the calendar? And how could she manage all those calls without pausing her delicate work or getting confused?
When she answered the phone she did a few things quickly. Each thing she did was either attached to her body or was low maintenance. She scanned with her eyes how many people were already in the store, looked at the wall clock in front of her, wrinkled her forehead in concentration while she calculated and said: Come at 1pm. Then she hung up and kept working. When she did these things, Michelle completely stopped what she was doing. For about one minute.
Was she completely accurate in her calculations? No. Some customers had to wait a little after they arrived. Did it make any difference to them? No. Because the wait time was reasonable and the place was great. So, it was worth the wait.
As she explained to me, she manages only what she has to manage. She has no shortage of overheads to take care of, like electricity and water. She does not add to these a calendar or a website, because then she will have to work on them as well. She built a system for her business in which she paid minimal time taxes, making sure they remained a very small percentage of her net work time.
I left wondering: How much of what we add (e.g., meetings, gadgets) to support our work really does so?
To experience how used we get to including the tax as if it were the work itself, try this exercise: Draw a pie. Write down on one side the word "tax" and on the other side "real work." Now, write down, close to the relevant category, everything you do at work on a regular day (e.g., take calls, manage staff, manage up). Finally, draw lines to mark the slice of your day that goes on tax and the slice that goes on work. Tough to do, right? If it's also hard to look at once you're done, then it's time for a change.
Dr. Chava Shane is CEO at AmplyPhi