Have you heard that compliment for someone? “He is always on top of things!” It sounds really good, doesn’t it? Are you that person? Maybe, maybe not. Do you want to be?
Staying on top of things is a direct consequence of putting the first things first on your calendar each day. More information here. But there is more than that. You need to unlearn to operate in crisis mode and you need to learn to operate strategically. This is not easy, but, like everything else in life, it is a self-improvement process.
This article is about learning how to anticipate the important requests that may (or may not) come your way in the future. And how to prepare for them in advance.
Time to read
Time to read: 8 minutes (based on 150 words per minute).
What is the benefit of being on top of things?
Why do we always praise our colleagues who are always ready? Because it is easy to work with them. They help move the needle in the right direction. And they ask the right questions. But let’s take a step back. I think that there are two types of people – those who improvise (and can improvise) and those you cannot improvise. I can openly say that I belong to the latter type. And I cannot just show up at an interview and ace it without hours of deliberate practice and preparation.
I would argue that the first type (improvisors) can fake being on top of things for a long time. But eventually, the world will know that they are faking. Especially when a decision has to be data driven and the decision-makers need to make sure that they have considered all potential consequences.
This is when the second type of people come into play. Those who have done their homework and have came prepared (to an interview, to a meeting, anywhere).
How can you be more on top of things?
Below, you can find some tips on how to achieve that status in your company, your circle of friends, or your family.
1. The value you bring
First and foremost, you need to know what type of skills (or knowledge, or information) you bring to the table. For example, if you are involved in a discussion about the future of your product,and you are the go-to person for statistical data. Then, you need to have that data prepared days and even weeks in advance.
You need to know your strengths and weaknesses. If we continue the example above, and you are not a data person, then it does not make any sense to try and come up with the data or the analysis of the data. If you are disorganized it does not make sense to try and propose to your spouse how you want to organize the closet (or the summer house, or even your suitcase).
3. Think weeks in advance
I am sure that most of you have demanding jobs. Typically, a person is stuck working on urgent (and not necessarily important) tasks. Steven Covey writes about the four quadrants. I – urgent & important, II – urgent & not important, III – not urgent & important, IV – not urgent & not important. The more you stay in quadrants I and II the less “on top of things” you can feel, because you are operating in crisis mode. And of course, the more you operate in II and III, the more you feel in control of your life and career.
This is why you need to learn to think weeks in advance. Do you remember when you were in school and your parents kept urging you to do your homework on Saturday (or even Friday) so that you can “have the whole weekend free”? Well, this is the same. If you have an important report due two weeks from now why wait until Monday on that week to start? Because if you are ready with the report by then, you can start working on another important task which is two two weeks later.
4. Schedule, schedule, schedule
I do not remember how many times I have said that, but I believe in working with Most Important Tasks (MIT, more info here). Please not, most important tasks, not most urgent tasks. If you want to accomplish anything, make time for it. If you want to read a book in preparation for a conference, make time for it. And, If you want to polish your presentation skills before the All-hands meeting speech that you have to deliver, schedule some time for deliberate practice.
5. Work in blocks of time
When you want to do something, you have scheduled time for it, and you need to concentrate, make sure you have one or two hours to fully immerse in the task. Close the email, turn off your phone, even put your headphones on. This way you will remove all the potential distractions and you will achieve most of the work in a fraction of the time it would take you if you were distracted every few minutes.
6. Review with peers
The main benefit of preparation is that you have a ready product that you can circle around for feedback. If you have to prepare a report and you are ready a week in advance, use the time to gather feedback from some stakeholders and polish the message. If you are in charge of planning the family trip, share it with you spouse and your kids, before announcing it to everybody.
7. Invent and simplify
You mind constantly tries to find better, easier, and faster ways to do something. If you get into the habit of picturing everything as a process with moving parts (cogwheels), then you will start noticing small improvements that can save hours and days if implemented. If you rush to get the status for all projects in the last 2 hours before you send out the report, then your brain will be stressed out and will not notice automated ways that you can use to get the data.
8. Delegate and automate
Last but not least, learn to seek allies and to delegate things that are important, but someone else can do that faster, better, or just instead of you. If you can automate any of the steps (gathering data, getting feedback), do it and never worry about it in the future. This way you can achieve the so-called multiplication factor, which means the ability to own and deliver a lot of things, without actually having to own most of them.
Staying on top of things can greatly improve the way your peers perceive you and the value you bring to the organization. Do you want to be that guy, who is always behind? Or that other guy, who is always prepared and appears to control their life and have time for everything. The difference between being stressed out and always working in crisis mode and feeling happy and in control can be just a few tips and deliberate planning session each week.
What are the next steps?
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