Work Smart During COVID: Choose How You Fill Your Work Box

We all have the same size metaphorical box in which to fit all of our life and work: its dimensions are 24/7/365 for every single one of us. When we first got sent home in March, many of us tried to replicate how we did work in the office at the kitchen table. It didn’t work. We failed to acknowledge that the portion of our box devoted to work had shrunk — because we had to fit new things into it, like every household chore imaginable and home-schooling little ones, but also because it was harder to focus on selling widgets during a global pandemic.

A smaller work box doesn’t necessarily mean less impact. For me, making an impact is a function of what I put in the box, rather than how much. I deliberately choose how to fill my box. This is what I like to call working smart (rather than working hard).

Six things you might want to consider as you actively choose how to fill your work box during COVID:

  1. Size your work box.  Pause before you attempt to do work the same way you did it yesterday. Observe that it takes more time to do things; that you need to accommodate your partner’s schedule; that you need breaks from constant zooming. Put all those things in the box (including the breaks). Then, acknowledge that the size of your work box is now smaller and that your definition of “how many things I get done in a day” must change as a result. Shift how you assess productivity from quantity to impact.
  2. Put the big rocks in first.  Drop your to-do list. Instead, make a big rocks list. Every week, think about the three or four big rocks (those things that make the most difference to your business, whether they are easy or hard to do) and list the next right action that you will take to accomplish them. Write your big rocks/next right actions on a post-it and put it on the side of your computer. It will keep you focused on working big.
  3. Limit the shoulds.  My very first boss once called me into his office and asked to see my calendar. He proceeded to pull out his blue felt-tip pen and cross out 50% of the meetings. “Your job is not to make people happy; it is to make American Express money,” he said. That was my first lesson in limiting the shoulds. I was filling half my box with low-impact activities because someone else asked or because I was trying to get noticed. Try playing the calendar game. Look at your calendar and ask yourself: “If I were quitting in six months (so there’s no one to impress) and wanted to leave the very best legacy, is this something I would be spending time on?” If the answer is no, then it’s a should. Take some of them out. You will make tons of room in your box.
  4. Leave some of your box empty.  I firmly believe that insight is always knocking on our noggin. The problem is that our brains are too full of the mundane to hear the knock. We admire people who make a big difference in the world – think Franklin, Jobs, DaVinci. Every single one of them was disciplined about making space in their minds for creativity and innovation. Schedule your thinking time and hold it sacrosanct. You are too busy not to.
  5. Don’t put things in your box that belong in someone else’s. There is a big difference between empowering and enabling. If a colleague or direct report is not performing (in your opinion) don’t step in and do their job for them. It’s a time drain for you, and lowers the collective productivity of the team. Trust others to do their jobs.
  6. Structure your work day. Work seems boundary-less right now. All the days and all the hours run into each other. It’s a recipe for burnout. Even if you’re working on only the highest impact things, structure your day. Set a start time and an end time. Build breaks into your day (I end all meetings I lead 10 minutes before the top of the hour to walk around my apartment). TAKE A VACATION even if you can’t go anywhere. In short, put your own oxygen mask on first.

At a time when everything seems out of control, control how you choose to fill your box (even when you feel you can’t). Take the reins. Commit to working to make a difference rather than to get the very most stuff done. And, when we emerge from all of this, don’t forget to take what you’ve learned back to the office.

If you want to continue the conversation, connect with me on LinkedIn or email


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