Stop Wasting Your Life at Work

By Doug Kirkpatrick

Time is our most important non-renewable resource. Once a year has passed, it belongs to history. The choices we made as individuals about how to spend those 8,760 hours define us in the present and shape our future. Did we learn? Grow? Deepen relationships? Create value? How we spend our time matters. The question of how we spend time at work is profound.

The Management Lab estimates that the excess cost of bureaucracy in the U.S. is approximately $3 trillion dollars per year.[1] That’s one-seventh of the entire U.S. economy. It’s not just an economic cost, it’s a moral cost. Human beings are consuming precious time on activities that don’t matter—time that they might have preferred to spend with their families, friends, communities, and civic organizations.

And what of that time spent at work? Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen spent three years studying knowledge workers and learned something important: people need to stop doing unimportant tasks and replace them with work that actually adds value. Their research found that, on average, workers spend an impressive 41% of their time on discretionary tasks that are not personally satisfying and could be competently performed by others.[2] Encouragingly, they also found that executives could dramatically slash low-value work hours through conscious effort.

Crankset Group founder Chuck Blakeman has been successfully working for years with a process he calls Freedom Mapping. He has leaders and staff identify the components of their work processes and ask two fundamental questions: 1) Is what I’m doing right now the highest and best use of my time? 2) If  not, how do I do it for the last time?[3]

The driving force behind HumanCentric Labs, Michael Grove, developed a software application (CollabWorks) that decomposes roles into relatively higher- and lower-value activities, allowing individuals to optimize their work in the pursuit of self-managed value creation. This process greatly leverages the time and energy of traditional managers, allowing them to become coaches and mentors. As individuals transparently pursue higher-value activities, the enterprise benefits from their aggregate efforts in the shape of superior business performance. The upshot? Bureaucracy essentially becomes irrelevant and begins to melt.

Birkinshaw and Cohen note two forces that perpetuate the cycle of wasted time at work: people cling to tasks that make them feel busy and important, and bosses load people up with work in the name of efficiency (until they break, of course).[4] Overcoming these forces will take objective insight at the personal level and visionary leadership at the organizational level.

The stakes are high, and time is always slipping away—never to return.