You can do things, or you can get things done

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Imagine you work for an organisation where, on average, people have six things on the go at any given time.

Let's assume that, again on average, each of those things takes a week of your effort to get done.

Given that – and it doesn't feel too outrageous – we should be able to deliver a thing a week, shouldn't we?

But that doesn't seem to happen in real life. Why not?

Well, essentially, we have two choices: we can do things, or we can get things done.

Do things

Here's what happens if you do things.

The more you do, the less you achieveBusy people are not productive

So you start off with a few things. At first, progress is good. The team is enthused, it's a fresh, energising challenge. After a week or two, you're halfway there on a couple of things, and the others you're working on – which are not quite as sexy so, be honest, you're not really putting your heart into them – well, even they are progressing OK.

So that's when new things, shiny things start appearing. Because you're progressing well with the first things, you can take new things on.

But then one of the new things is really cool, or really urgent, or your boss just really really wants it so … you make good progress on it, at the expense of the things you've already started. But you're busy, everyone know you are, and your input is really valuable.

And so it goes … every week, new things turn up, demanding your attention. You get the older things out of the way eventually but that last 5%, that's the hardest shift. The bit you really need to roll up your sleeves for. Because that's where the detail is, the work left undone, the technical debt, the little bugs and glitches that are infuriatingly frustrating to … just …. get … done.

So you're human. You put that work off because, well, there's new things. And it's almost done …

Get things done

Here's what happens if you get things done.

Get more done by starting fewer things in the first place
Productive people are not busy

You  pick a thing. You do it until it's done.

You don't start anything else. You don't take anything else on. You queue it up. I'll do that next.

When you start something, you don't stop until it's done. If it takes longer than a week, that's fine. Something else will take less. We're talking averages, right?

And if it takes less than a week, you have some slack. Use it. Give someone else a hand. Read a book. Watch that webinar you've been meaning to.

You will still get more done than if you're busy.

Doing things is the opposite of getting things done

The more you start, the less you finish.

It seems counterintuitive in our multitasking world, but by attempting less we can do more. If a thing is blocked because you are waiting for a reply to an email or some specialist input, focus your attention on removing the blockage rather than starting something else instead.

In the example above, we did in fact get six things done in six weeks.

In the first, busy, graph, we got one thing done and quite a few nearly done and thing 6 is going really well but thing 3 is still only 40% done because Dave in Accounts hasn't gotten back to me after 4 weeks and thing 7 is really cool so that looks way more interesting than the last terrifically dull bit of work I need to do on thing 1. Which I started 6 weeks ago.

And is still not done.

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I'm a service designer in Scottish Enterprise's unsurprisingly-named service design team. I've been a content designer, editor, UX designer and giant haystacks developer on the web for (gulp) over 25 years.

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