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When I talk to people about time management and planning their priorities, 8 times out of 10, the first response is, “This sounds great in theory and I understand those people prioritizing their time and scheduling out their weeks, but what I do is SO much reactive, I can’t possibly plan.”

I have a simple system to help folks reframe this way of thought:

  1. Get a baseline — Talk through the actual role, actual priorities and urgency/criticality of ‘reactive’ tasks.
  2. Rethink the reactive so it becomes proactive — breakdown these 5 questions:
  • What are the knowns?
  • Where can we get creative?
  • Who can we train and delegate?
  • Where/when can we push back?
  • What is the expectation?

Below I will explore this a bit more and walk you through my process. Although I’ll use a real example of one of our credit union clients, the basics are all the same. We use this at our IT company, I’ve used this with retail store managers, and though the exact issues the individuals face may be different, the root of the problem and the solution, is generally all the same.

When someone tell me their job is so reactive, they can’t get their ‘actual priorities’ completed, I always start with the same few questions:

  1. Tell me about what you do. What is your role? What are the key priorities in your role?
  2. Tell me about the reactive items that come up.

As we walk through these reactive items that arise, we dig a bit deeper:

  1. Are these reactive items that arise of a high priority?
  2. Is there someone else that can handle these?

Here is how this scenario played out during a project management training with one of our clients recently:

To set the scene: We are discussing the idea of sprints. In order to determine what you will accomplish during a sprint, it’s necessary to break down each priority into measurable segments of time.

Loan Officer: I understand those people prioritizing their time and scheduling out their weeks, but what I do is so reactive, I can’t possibly plan.

Me: Tell me a bit about your role.

Loan Officer: I oversee loans for our credit union. When a person wants to open a loan for a home or car, I must approve it. There is a lot of money on the line so I can’t put that on hold just because I am working on something else.

Me: Tell me more. What is involved in approving the loan? Must the customer be at a physical location to request a loan, or can it be done online or over the phone? Do you have other individuals who work for you?

Loan Officer: Typically yes, the people are in the building, so I have to meet with them to approve the paperwork to offer their loan. I have three people who work on my team, but they aren’t able to approve the loans; that is part of my role.

To reflect on our two questions at the start of this post, this Loan officer’s answers were:

  1. Yes, these are reactive items are high priority.
  2. No, there is not someone else who can handle them.

Now to me, this is the fun part. How do we take a role that has very important, but reactive aspects to it, and be able to actually plan our schedule to maximize productivity?

How do we turn the reactive into proactive?

I ask the following questions:

  1. What are the knowns in these situations? Does the member fill out paperwork ahead of time and schedule an appointment with your team? Can your team communicate this information to you ahead of time so you can block it out on your calendar and plan around it?
  2. Where can we get creative in utilizing the team to take some of the load off your plate? What CAN we give them? Are there smaller parts of the approval process that can be handed off to your team? Can a team member gather documents for you? Or can they review everything and make the recommendation on the loan and bring it to you?
  3. Where can we train them to take over parts of the reactive work that you do, even if only small tasks? Are there some amounts of loans that you would be comfortable having them approve? Can you start with a low value, let them build confidence, let you build confidence in their decisions? Over time, as you build that confidence in their judgement, you can make that threshold higher. Even if it’s only a few loans to start — it’s some reactive hours that is taken off your plate, and hopefully that number would increase over time. This also helps to build your bench for growth opportunities.
  4. Where can you push back on your team to push them to make decisions? Are you always “available” for them? Does the team come to you for things that either they know and they are not totally confident about, or come to you and ask questions because it’s “easier”? Where can you start pushing back (where appropriate) and challenging them to make some decisions or walk you through their thought process instead of just coming and asking questions and turning ownership of something over to you? This is similar to the above #3, if you start pushing back and challenging your team to find information for themselves, or go with their gut to make choices, they will build confidence. Slowly you will see these reactive questions coming to you because your team will be able to make them. Hopefully you will have built up trust in them to make the right decisions — or end up using it as a teaching moment.
  5. On average how many of these reactive hours come up in a given week? In looking at all of the time you spend on reactive work, how many hours or what percentage of your week do you think it is? 8 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours? There are only so many hours in a week (typically 40 work hours). So, if it’s 8 hours of reactive out of that 40 hours, plan into your schedule that you will spend those 8 hours on reactive and therefore have only 32 hours to spend on projects and other priorities. This doesn’t have to be exact, but try it for a week or two and see how close you are to this estimate. If you’re grossly off, adjust it going forward. By doing this exercise, you now account for that reactive time. Even if you don’t know exactly when it will pop up, you can account for knowing that X percent of your time is going to be reactive, instead of letting the reactive things control you, you can start to account for that time and plan around it.

In our scenario with the Loan Officer, we went through the questions above. Here was the outcome:

Me: So tell me about the process, what are the knowns in these situations?

Loan Officer: My team does schedule appointments with members applying for loans, they know when they are coming in to meet with them — I definitely can have them “invite me” to the appointment so I can know when I will be needed and distracted with these loan application processes.

Me: Great! What about marketing? Do you ever do marketing push or promotions that increase loan application volume at specific times?

Loan Officer: Yeah, we do and that definitely increases the volume.

Me: Awesome, so that to me would be something that is pretty predictable, if the marketing campaigns are scheduled out and communicated to you when they are going to happen, maybe you plan more reactive time after the promotion hits, or maybe you train your staff to ensure they have all their questions about this promotion answered so they aren’t coming to you with them all reactively.

Me: A few of these small change can add up and go a long way. What else? Where can we get creative in utilizing the team to take some of the load off your plate? What CAN we give them?

Loan Officer: There is some amount of prep work that goes in it for me, when I am reviewing the paperwork and determining whether to approve that loan or not. Maybe my team could start that initial review and bring a recommendation to me or highlights of things I should pay attention to. That could take some time off my plate.

Me: Awesome. We’re beginning to free up some of your “reactive” time now and make it more proactive in scheduling it out. Where can we train them to take over parts of the reactive work that you do, even if only small tasks?

Loan Officer: I think I would be comfortable having them approve certain smaller loans and reviewing it with them afterwards and coaching them.

Me: Absolutely, and even if you aren’t initially comfortable, just start asking the questions that get them thinking and you can gauge where their current judgement level is. For example, just ask them what they would do with this application, would you approve them? Tell me why or why not. This gets them to take some ownership of the decision without you having to give them the power right away. You can coach them without really losing anything except for a few minutes of coaching time. Over time, they will start coming to you with what they think or would do — and at that point you can hopefully feel confident to hand off all loans under a certain amount!

Loan Officer: That’s a great idea we can start working with.

Me: Next question to reflect on- are you someone who is “always available” to them? Will you always answer their questions? Where can you push back on your team to push them to make decisions?

Loan Officer: Yes, I am definitely guilty of always being available. It’s so hard to turn off being available, but I guess to help them grow and to help me, I can start doing this so they become more self-sufficient and confident.

Me: On average how many of these reactive hours come up in a given week?

Loan Officer: Probably 12 hours per week.

Me: Great, let’s try factoring in 12 our of your 40 work hours next week for them to be reactive. You may not necessarily know when or what will come in, but at least you will not overbook your schedule and plan 40 hours of project or other priority work in addition to knowing that you’re going to get reactive items. Or you may be someone who doesn’t plan at all because the reactive becomes overwhelming and not accomplishing your to-do list after a while is pretty defeating. This way you are setting yourself up for success by setting expectations accordingly and based on facts and historical patterns or data.

Loan Officer: Wow, I think I can do a few of these easily. Some of the others I may have to work on and get used to, but I think they are all do-able.

In the end, we all generally have reactive aspects to our jobs, its our responsibility to try to recognize the reactive when it happens and think, “What can I do to plan for this the next time”? Can I train someone else to assist? Can I give someone a bit more license to make decisions? Is there a small piece of this process that can be improved? In the end, all of the little things really do add up and sometimes feel like they are taking over.

Not sure how to get started? Do some reflection, run through the questions listed above and just jump in and make any of these small adjustments — my guess is you can at least make a few small tweaks. When you do, give it a try for a few weeks and see how it changes your workflow and productivity.

Thanks to Colin Davis.