Solving for “What Do I Do Next?”

No matter who you are, at various times in your day/week/year/career, you will run into this question:

What do I do next?

This an unavoidable question that people will coach you to avoid at all times. There are a variety of things that happen to drive this question.

  • You finish a major project without planning the next one

  • You need to shift your focus because you are stuck on a difficult project

  • You are waiting for new work to be assigned

  • You are responsible to setting the priorities for your team

  • You lose your job or change roles

  • You are bored or burnt out

Whenever you encounter the “what do I do next” question, it’s not fun. It feels like you are lost, or like you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. It causes folks to pause, to look away, or to worry.

But there are solutions. There are easy ways to answer the question when it comes up, and easy ways to prevent it from coming up as frequently. All it takes is a little foresight.

Here are a few solutions to the “what do I do next” problem:

  1. Ask someone.

  2. Keep a priority list.

  3. Long-term items.

  4. Research.

  5. Lend a hand.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into each of them.

Ask Someone

Who you ask depends on your particular situation. But there is almost always someone you can ask that question to.

It might be your boss, who can tell you with certainty what he or she wants you to be working on. It might be your spouse, who can help guide you through a rough career patch. It might be a peer, who can share what they are working on and offers ways that you can join in.

Regardless of who you ask, this solution is great because often times the worst outcome of the “what do I do next” problem is that we stew in silence for hours or days. This solution gets you out of your own head so you can solve the problem quicker.

Keep a Priority List

A priority list is a list of items to be completed, in order of highest value to lowest. If you have one, you will always know what comes next.

Sure, this solution requires some foresight and planning on your part (or the part of your manager). But if you have a list like this, you will never have to worry about what you should do next.

Long Term Items

Most of us have short term assignments and long term projects. How we work our way through them depends on the urgency and value of each item on our plates.

The beauty of long term tasks is that there are almost always ways to break them down into smaller chunks. And these chunks will serve as backups to whatever short term assignment you are working on now.

If you need a break from your current task, or you get stuck, just turn to the next piece of that long term project and check that off the list.

Research

Take advantage of breaks in the day to day work and learn something new. Research a topic related to your next project or pick up a new skill that will add value to your team.

When you are not sure what to do next, it never hurts to do a little self-improvement.

Lend a Hand

There may come a time when you don’t have anything to work on next. In those cases, you can do yourself, and your team, a big favor by finding a way to help out someone else.

Great job completing your assignment. Now look around you. Chances are, not everyone is finding the same level of success. Find out how you can help a friend or coworker complete their current task and build a bond that will benefit everyone going forward.

Make an Impact Today

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There is a good way and a bad way to become more productive.

The bad way is to become a box checker. The box checker makes a long to-do list just so they can cross things off the list. It feels good, the act of checking a box. So they maximize that feeling by creating a slew of low level, pointless tasks that they do each and every day. And at the end of the day, when it comes time to sign off and go home, they can rest easy knowing how many “tasks” they completed. They feel productive.

The good way is slightly different. There may still be a long to-do list. But the things at the top of that list are value tasks. These are priorities, both for the individual and for the company. They recognize that these tasks may not be things that can be completed in one sitting, one day, or one week. They may not even be things that can be completed by one person.

But the crucial difference is, when these tasks are completed, they add value to the business. They add an immediate impact to the organization.

These are the tasks that get people promoted, that get teams noticed, and that get individuals raises.

Each and every day, you have a chance to make an impact on your company. Don’t squander it checking boxes. Instead, be deliberate about how you spend your time.

How?

  1. Prioritize your workload, putting those items first that will have the greatest impact

  2. Divide large tasks into smaller sub-tasks and set milestones

  3. Block out time on your calendar to work on those tasks and advance them as far as you can

  4. Set reminders for team members whose input or assistance you need and stay on top of them

  5. Automate or delegate items that don’t add impact, but that must be done anyway

When you focus your efforts on adding value, your company benefits. When your company benefits from the things you are doing, you get noticed. When you make an impact every day, you become indispensable.

Encourage Your Team to Be More Productive

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It’s not always possible to spend more money. And it’s not always possible to hire more people. But your boss, and your company, still expect sales to grow – month after month and year after year.

How is it possible?

As a leader, you have to do more with less. You have to become more efficient. And you have to coach your team to do the same.

Here is a blueprint that you can use to encourage your team to be more productive this year:

  1. Prioritize

  2. Cut

  3. Automate

  4. Outsource

  5. Test

  6. Start

Prioritize

What do you do that adds value to the business? Where is the cross-over between your personal strength’s and the team’s goals? Everyone should focus their energies on those tasks that add the most value, knowing there is not enough time in the day to do everything. Approach each and every day with one goal: make an impact.

Cut

The flip side of focusing only on those items that add value is the need to cut out tasks that don’t add value. These are the kind of box ticking items that fill your day but don’t move the needle.

Can they be automated? Delegated? What would happen if this simply was not done anymore?

It’s also possible to cut time spent on other things that don’t add value. Reduce meetings from an hour to thirty minutes. Turn off notifications. Only check your email at certain times of day.

Automate

Technology has advanced to the point where if you have regular, process-oriented tasks that don’t vary much from day to day, there is a high likelihood that task can be automated. Automating tasks frees you up to focus on more important projects.

Weigh the amount of time it takes to automate something against the amount of hours you spend on it over the course of a month or year. Chances are, it would be beneficial to automate.

Outsource

Most people are not paid to do busy work. Lower level tasks that can’t be automated yet are candidates for delegation. These may be delegated to other departments within your organization, more junior members of your team, interns, or outsourced completely.

Paying an hourly fee for someone else to do lower-level tasks also frees up your time to focus on more important items.

Test

Teams spend far too long analyzing and forecasting before making a decision. That time is better spent preparing and executing. To move more efficiently, we must be willing to test new things. Try them out, measure the results, and decide what to do next.

Don’t waste time debating potential outcomes when it is just as easy to try something out and see what happens. And be willing to fail. Don’t over-invest in things that don’t work.

Start

Do whatever it takes to get started. The biggest productivity killer of them all is delay. We delay for all kinds of reasons.

Block out time on your calendar for intensive projects that require your attention. Tackle the most difficult tasks first thing in the morning so you don’t push them to the bottom of your to-do list. Say no to meeting requests if you don’t have the time. Seek out help immediately if you are not sure how to proceed.

A Simple Matrix to Prioritize Your Marketing Efforts

One of the most difficult things to learn how to do as you grow your career is manage your time. That is because your responsibilities change with the roles that you serve in, the value you bring to the team, and the expectations put on you by various managers.

When you are just starting out, the expectations are often clearest. Someone else is setting your priorities, or at least defining clear goals. So the most difficult part about managing your time is learning how to do things correctly in the shortest amount of time.

But as you move up from that first position, more will be asked of you. You may serve on different teams, and wear different hats. You may have competing priorities, in service of different, but equally important company goals. Here, it is important that you learn how to prioritize your time on the most important matters. And often that means learning how to automate, delegate, or eliminate lower-level tasks.

If you are lucky enough to move into a management role, where you are presiding over a team of people and have more of a say in your company’s strategy, this skill is critical. You will fail unless you know how to set priorities. And you will be expected to help others set priorities as well.

Unfortunately, this is a skillset that is not taught in any class. It’s one that you are expected to learn on your own. If you’re lucky, you have a manager or mentor who can help.

If not, let me offer a simple 2x2 matrix you can use to determine where your team should focus it’s time and energy.

The Matrix

What you need to do to start out is create a full list of all the projects you are considering. Usually, this list is far too long for the size of your team and the resources allotted. That’s a good thing – a sign of an ambitious agenda. And it’s the precise reason that we need the matrix, to help us prioritize.

For each item on the list, then you are going to rate it’s potential impact and its level of effort required. For both, you are either going to list them as High or Low. For example, if you think a project is likely to lead to big gains in revenue but take your whole team six months to complete, you might rate it High for both impact and effort.

To construct the matrix, we need a sheet of paper with four quadrants. On the vertical axis, we are going to put “IMPACT”. On the horizontal axis, we are going to write “EFFORT”. Then divide them up into High and Low, so that you are left with something like this:

 

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Once you have everything on your list categorized into one of the four quadrants, you are ready to prioritize.

High Impact/Low Effort

Always start working on projects in this quadrant. These are your easy wins. That you expect high returns for low cost, or low effort, is a sure sign that these are the projects where you will get the greatest “bang for the buck”.

Focus on these first and ignore the others until everything here is done.

High Impact/High Effort

We always want to maximize our impact. With that in mind, though some might argue to focus next on the other projects that don’t require much time or resources, I would recommend jumping to the high impact, high effort projects. These are those priorities that will require a significant amount of investment, but when all is said and done, your company will reap the rewards for your expenditure.

Low Impact/Low Effort

Low impact projects may not mean that much to your company in terms of improvement on the grand scale, but if it doesn’t take much to achieve incremental gains, they are still worth doing. These projects may make even more sense if your team is under pressure to produce short term wins, or lacks the resources to complete your higher impact projects.

Getting these items done checks a box and moves you in the right direction, even if it is in smaller steps.

Low Impact/High Effort

Anything that winds up in this quadrant should stay off your to-do list. It’s going to cost a lot to get done, without providing significant benefits to your team or your company. This is grunt work, and if you find yourself working on grunt work, you are ignoring potential successes elsewhere.

How to Accomplish More in Less Time

Productivity is a buzz word when it comes to management consulting. Businesses want to get more done with less. It’s the best way to grow in any market. And we all want to know how to be more productive with our time.

The problem is, most of us are unwilling to take the steps necessary to become more productive, even when they’re presented to us. So my only hope is that this advice does not fall on deaf ears.

The first thing to do is to admit to yourself that some of the things you do each day don’t have to be done. You may have gotten into certain habits that are difficult to break. You may want to do something that you convince yourself you need to do.

For example, I had become accustomed to running specific daily reports that would take the first thirty minutes of every morning. They would tell me at the top level how business was the day before. When someone asked me to evaluate the need for those reports, I realized it was not necessary to do them every day. I pushed them back to once a week on Fridays. It takes the same amount of time, I get the same information, but I opened up two more hours in my work week.

This is where most people give up and say, “everything that I do HAS to be done.” My response is, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have something that they couldn’t cut from their daily routine to make more time for more important tasks. So be tougher on yourself.

Next, identify things you can automate. What tasks do you complete manually that technology could do for you?

The third and final thing to do is become a better planner. Make daily, weekly, and monthly task lists. Make sure everything you do has a greater purpose, leads to a goal of yours or the business. Stick to your lists, adding tasks that come up out of the blue, and don’t stray. Cross them off the list as you go.

Most employees and workers are least productive when they’re not sure what to work on next. Don’t let yourself reach that point.

The more productive you are, the more money you will make!