At work there is a specific set of data that my team must collect and organize every month. Over the course of many years, there have been changes in collection methods, spreadsheet organization, analysis, and who receives the final product. Due to some changes in organizational structure, for several months now we’ve had no idea who we are supposed to be sending this data to, what it is supposed to look like, or what it’s purpose it. However, we have been assured that it is important to keep making these spreadsheets and parking them a file on our company server. So every single month we are spending a decent amount of time putting together something that no one is doing anything with, and yet we have not been able to obtain permission to stop. We also discovered last week that it is entirely probable that a different department in a different building is looking at the same set of data in a different format for a different reason. Although we aren’t sure what that reason is.
Sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, we all find ourselves wondering if we are wasting our time. Sometimes the answer is a resounding yes. Other times you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Still other times the question is not “Am I wasting my time?” but “Is there a way that I can stop wasting my time?” That leads to another set of questions:
Can I decide not to do this, or to do it differently?
Sometimes, we do this to ourselves. I’m not going to say that I sometimes find the most convoluted and labor-intensive ways to get things done, except actually I am going to say that. Because sometimes I do. Sometimes the answer is as simple as stopping and thinking about your process and finding out if it’s actually your own fault. You also have to consider whether the effort you’re choosing to expend is necessary and worthwhile.
A few years ago, I had one of the most miserable long-term training experiences of my entire career. Nobody that I was training wanted to be there. Nobody was interested. I was facing a group of adults who were acting like teenagers at the beginning of an inspiring teacher movie. Except that I wasn’t in a movie. And, again, they were adults. It is really something to be trying to deliver information to a group of people who just don’t care. My first reaction was my typical response to challenges: Work harder. Keep pushing. You can do this. And boy, did I try. I’m not sure that I have ever put more effort into being creative, relevant, engaging, etc. Before every session I revised and re-revised my presentation and materials, searching for the answer of how to reach these people. I even practiced in front of a mirror, and then in front of long-suffering friends (who, by the way, were more interested than the people whose job it was to learn this stuff). How did that work out? It didn’t. My training sessions continued to fall flat. Eventually, in session seven, I looked around the room and noticed that not only was almost everyone on their phones, talking to their neighbors or, I kid you not, sleeping, but that the supervisor of this department was doing the exact same thing. At that moment, I realized something very important: Nobody cared but me. I didn’t start phoning it in or anything, but I sure as heck stopped putting a bunch of extra effort into trying to solve a problem that I clearly couldn’t solve.
What do I do if it’s not my decision?
Other times, things aren’t in your control. I mean, while I could decide not to put extra effort into that awful training experience, I couldn’t decide I wasn’t going to do it at all. In the same way, it is not up to me or my team whether or not we compile this data. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels on something that is a directive or a policy or someone else’s plan, it’s worth asking why. It might be because there is a hoop and therefore we must jump it. On the other hand, sometimes things that feel pointless to us actually do serve a purpose, and it can be really helpful to find out what it is, even if it’s simply because it is important to our boss, family, significant other, or whoever. It’s also possible that addressing the issue might help others to realize that it isn’t something that needs doing anymore, or that doesn’t need to be done the way it’s always been done in the past.
Do you just have to grin and bear it?
Let’s be honest, if we all had a dollar for everything we’ve ever done that we thought was stupid and pointless, a lot of us would no longer be working for other people. Sometimes, there is no alternative but to spin your wheels until your time on that particular treadmill is done. In that case, try to spend as little time as possible on it, while gritting your teeth and smiling. Then you can make fun of it on your blog. That helps.
How do you cope with what you consider time-wasting tasks?