Michael MacDonald

Leave It In My In-Tray

In Business on December 1, 2009 at 8:16 am

When I first started working in “the enterprise” one of the first things I learnt was how to prioritise. I called it my in-tray method. It worked well but it isn’t something I advocate. In fact, if you find yourself using this method then it’s time to find another job!

The in-tray method worked like this: whenever someone came to give me new work I’d ask them to leave it in my in-tray. Then I would completely ignore it. I would only deal with it if they came back for it. Most of the time they didn’t. Using this technique I could easily figure out what were the real priorities and simply forget the rest.

This worked because of the environment I found myself in. It was very reactive and the organisation lacked clear direction. We were trying to do too many things all at once and everything was a top priority. There was no one pushing back and saying no.

I happened upon this method by accident. Naturally, I was conscientious and I wanted to do a good job but things were hectic. By the time I finally got to the items in my in-tray I discovered that no one cared anymore. No one had followed up on them, they weren’t beating down my door or hounding me to get them done. These tasks obviously weren’t important so why should I waste my time on them!

Guaranteed, for the times when a task really did matter, people were very quick to follow up with a “have you finished [that task] yet?”. I would then quickly dig it out of my in-tray and get onto it straight away.

This technique worked well for me but I wouldn’t recommend it. Why? Because if you find yourself having to use it, then you are probably in a reactive and stressful workplace, fighting fires or spinning your wheels but never actually doing something concrete and useful. Doing lots of small and unimportant tasks is simply a waste of time. Your work should be organised and valuable. Your daily, weekly and monthly goals should be known in advance. Each day you should be working towards and contributing to the overall business plan and goals.

Of course there’ll always be unplanned tasks but these should be the exception, not the rule, and they should be critical to the business (emergencies like getting the phones working again in a call centre or re-enabling credit card processing in your online store). Everything else that can wait, should. You can be responsive without being reactive.

Now, I’ve talked about in-trays but of course you can substitute email inboxes here instead. It’s the same thing. Are you already practising this technique, perhaps unwittingly? Look in your inbox. Is it full of work requests that you haven’t responded to yet?

Finally, don’t confuse this with the in-tray assessment. It’s a similar thing but my technique was to ignore all incoming tasks unless someone chased them up. The in-tray assessment is apparently a technique used by recruiters to gauge your ability to prioritise, handle interruptions and stressful situations. I say, if the job is like that, then I don’t want it. I believe it is much more efficient to focus on single tasks at a time that contribute to a clear goal. I’d rather do one task well than ten tasks poorly.

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