2021/04/30 Book Review: The New Corner Office, Chapter 1 – Manage by Task, Not Time

This is the first in a series of blog posts, where I’ll be reviewing & giving a breakdown of a chapter from a book I got on Kindle, called “The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work From Home”, by Laura Vanderkam (not an affiliate link).

I came across the book from a personal finance blog I follow. Each weekend they share Kindle books that are on offer, and that they think may be of interest to their readers. The title caught my eye, it was only 99p at the time (and still is, at time of writing), and I figure, I’m going to be working from home for a long time going forward (I can’t see me being 100% office ever again).

It’s only 79 pages long, and I got through the whole thing in a single sitting, in under 2 hours. For me, that’s a good thing, as the longer a book is, the more daunting I find it, as well as having to remember where I was and potentially have to re-read parts I was on. And if I never read it again (I will!), 50p an hour is very good value for any form of entertainment and learning.

I will be covering each of the chapters and subheadings below in the order of the book, so if there was a particular section you like the sound of here or in the book, it is easier to jump to it.

I ended up breaking this down into a series of blog posts, as by the time I finished getting to chapter 2, I was over 3000 words. No blog should be at risk of being 7500 words long, as few people would read the whole thing. It also means instead of writing it all out and then publishing it, I can complete a chapter per week, share it with you, and make it more manageable for me as well.

Manage by Task, Not Time

Laura shares an example of a company where they focus on what tasks need to be done, rather than how long something will do. Each day they ask what work are they wanting to do? What result are they looking for? What does success look like?

I love the idea, where instead of thinking “What will I do for 7 hours?”, shift it to “What am I going to do today?” If the tasks I have only take 4 hours, which may be due to them being easier than I planned or simply because blockers I expected never happened, is it right to stretch them out to simply fill 7 hours? What happens if it would take 8 hours? Do I stop at 7, and hope I can continue it the next working day?

Why are all meetings 30 or 60 minutes long? It’s because people don’t plan their meetings, with tight agendas, and so activities simply fill the time, because it is easier to block out periods of time.

I see this, all the time at work, and with Zoom it is worse as if you have concurrent meetings and they are always 30 or 60 minutes long, when do you get a chance to get a drink, go to the toilet, or just stretch your legs like you would in a physical office moving between meetings?

Why in a company which values face-time, is it more acceptable to be deleting old emails for 30 minutes than go out for a 30 minute walk, when both don’t directly add anything, yet the walk is likely to help someone feel refreshed? But as one involves being at the desk, it is seen to be more valuable.

When I was in the office, back in the pre-COVID days, a couple of my peers would go out for working walks, discuss ideas, and find it better than sitting in a meeting room or similar space. I joined them a couple of times and at first felt guilty, but as one of them was a manager I could always play that card if needed (it wasn’t).

Plan on Fridays

When working from home, self-direction is critical. One way that Laura does this is planning her week out, and using Friday for the day to do it. Her reasoning is that whilst each day in a week can vary, the week overall is more consistent and repeated. Look at what tasks you need to do, and when in the week this will work for you. Then, once the week is planned, as each day happens you can review the next day the evening before, and see if any tweaks need doing.

I’m very reactive rather than proactive when it comes to work, which can lead me being unfocused when it comes to doing work. But if I think “Tuesday hasn’t got anything in, and I have X activity to do during this sprint, I will plan for that day to be doing said activity.”

How to Make a To-Do List

To-do lists have a habit of turning into wish lists, and the problem with wish lists are that they get too big, and that they aren’t good for morale, as we just end up with a bunch of incomplete tasks to do.

By having three to five things, the list is constantly moving, and whilst there could be lots more on it, it allows them to be focused on making those things happen. It also acts as a contract with yourself, where you are saying to yourself that you will get it done by the end of the day.

It feeds into the chapter theme too, as the to-do list you make for the day can help you know when it is done. You might finish early, but practice can help with that. But even so, giving them junk tasks to fill out the rest of the day won’t help anyone feel engaged or motivated.

I don’t make to-do lists, but by combining with planning my week out, it should help me think about building one, for both work tasks (run X tests), but also home tasks (load washing machine).

Rethink Meetings

“Meetings proliferate beyond the point of usefulness because people persist in managing by time, not by task.”

Vanderkam, Laura. The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work From Home (p. 21). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.

I wanted to quote this exactly, as it is so correct, as in the Zoom-age we live in, for me it feels it has gotten worse. I’m not sure if there are more meetings, or just feels like we are, but either way it feels like it diminishes rather than improves things.

One suggestion Laura gives is to get back to calling people where appropriate, rather than going for Zoom, where you wait for people, do what is needed, but then feeling like you have to use up the time because it was booked for an hour. Having a period of time where you show you are able to be called, and treating it like you would leave the door to your office open, is a way to get things happening faster than a meeting, or repeated back and forth emails.

We use an instant messaging tool internally which helps, though I have had people ask if they can call as it will be easier than typing. But I’ve been to meetings where I am there more as an observer, and it has felt like it has been a waste of my time.

Focus on Results

This goes back to your to-do list, or “ta-da” list, as Gretchen Rubin calls it, where you see what you have crossed off. But as well as the planned tasks being there, add and then cross off the unplanned tasks too, to give yourself credit, as well as remind yourself on days when feeling unproductive, all the things you actually did do.

I know I’ve had some days where if someone asked me what I did that day, I would struggle to answer. But if I were to make to-do lists, as well as record additional things I’ve done, I could not only answer, but feel good about it. And if I genuinely couldn’t say what I did that day, then I would have a bigger problem to solve.

Rethink Urgency

People may worry that being remote means there is a trust issue, and that they have to respond to emails and messages immediately, otherwise they may wonder if they are instead busy watching Netflix. Yet no-one is productive with someone over their shoulder yelling “Hurry it up!”.

By giving yourself time and space to reply, instead of giving a fast response that could be incorrect, you give them the answer they need. This could be done by saying emails are answered in 24 hours, and phone calls are for urgent items.

When I’ve been doing personal development, I have set my out of office to say I am busy and will respond to emails later that day or the following morning. If it is super urgent (and it never is), there are always ways to get hold of someone.

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.

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