We’ve spent the past three years studying how knowledge workers can become more productive and found that the answer is simple: Eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and replace them with value-added ones. Our research indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time—an average of 41%—on discretionary activities that ofer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others. So why do they keep doing them? Because ridding oneself of work is easier said than done. We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we’re willing to accept.
We believe there’s a way forward, however. Knowledge workers can make themselves more productive by thinking consciously about how they spend their time; deciding which tasks matter most to them and their organizations; and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest. We tried this intervention with 15 executives at diferent companies, and they were able to dramatically reduce their involvement in low-value tasks: They cut desk work by an average of six hours a week and meeting time by an average of two hours a week.
And the benefts were clear. For example, when Lotta Laitinen, a manager at If, a
Scandinavian insurance broker, jettisoned meetings and administrative tasks in order to spend more time supporting her team, it led to a 5% increase in sales by her unit over a three-week period.
While not everyone in our study was quite that successful, the results still astounded us. By simply asking knowledge workers to rethink and shift the balance of their work, we were able to help them free up nearly a ffth of their time—an average of one full day a week—and focus on more worthwhile tasks with the hours they saved.
Why it’s so Hard
Knowledge workers present a real challenge to managers. The work they do is difcult to observe (since a lot of it happens inside their heads), and the quality of it is frequently subjective. A manager may suspect that an employee is spending her time inefciently but be hard-pressed to diagnose the problem, let alone come up with a solution.
We interviewed 45 knowledge workers in 39 companies across eight industries in the United States and Europe to see how they spent their days. We found that even the most dedicated and impressive performers devoted large amounts of time to tedious, non-value-added activities such as desk work and “managing across” the organization (for example, meetings with people in other departments). These are tasks that the knowledge workers themselves rated as ofering little personal utility and low value to the company.
There are many reasons why this happens.
Most of us feel entangled in a web of commitments from which it can be painful to extricate ourselves: We worry that we’re letting our colleagues or employers down if we stop doing certain tasks. “I want to appear busy and productive—the company values team players,” one participant observed.
Also, those less important items on our to-do lists are not entirely without beneft.
Making progress on any task—even an inessential one—increases our feelings of engagement and satisfaction, research has shown. And although meetings are widely derided as a waste of time, they ofer opportunities to socialize and connect with coworkers. “I actually quite look forward to face-to-face meetings,” one respondent told us. “A call is more efcient, but it’s a cold, lifeless medium.”
Organizations share some of the blame for less-than-optimal productivity. Costcutting has been prevalent over the past decade, and knowledge workers, like most employees, have had to take on some low-value tasks—such as making travel arrangements— that distract them from more important work. Even though business confdence is rebounding, many companies are hesitant to add back resources, particularly administrative ones. What’s more, increasingly complicated regulatory environments and tighter control systems in many industries have contributed to risk-averse corporate cultures that discourage senior people from ceding work to less seasoned colleagues. The consequences are predictable: “My team is understafed and underskilled, so my calendar is a nightmare and I get pulled into many more meetings than I should,” one study subject reported. Another commented, “I face the constraint of the working capacity of the people I delegate to.”
Some companies do try to help their knowledge workers focus on the valueadded parts of their job. For example, one of us (Jordan Cohen) helped Pfzer create a service called pfzerWorks, which allows employees to outsource less important tasks. We’ve also seen corporate initiatives that ban e-mail on Fridays, put time limits on meetings, and forbid internal Power-
Point presentations. But it’s very difcult to change institutional norms, and when knowledge workers don’t buy in to such top-down directives, they fnd creative ways to resist or game the system, which only makes matters worse. We propose a sensible middle ground: judicious, self-directed interventions supported by management that help knowledge workers help themselves.
What Workers Can Do
Our process, a variant of the classic Start/
Stop/Continue exercise, is designed to help you make small but signifcant changes to your day-to-day work schedule. We facilitated this exercise with the 15 executives mentioned above, and they achieved some remarkable results.
Identify low-value tasks. Using our self-assessment (at right), look at all your daily activities and decide which ones are (a) not that important to either you or your frm and (b) relatively easy to drop, delegate, or outsource. Our research suggests that at least one-quarter of a typical knowledge worker’s activities fall into both categories, so you should aim to fnd up to
10 hours of time per week. The participants