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Does the work you do matter?

How do you know?

If I were to ask your boss today which person on their team was making the biggest impact for your company, would they say it was you?

We all want to feel like the work we do is important and that we are a necessary part of the team we work on. But most of us struggle to find a balance between the things that move the needle forward, and the things that actually take up most of our time.

This is something I have struggled with in my career, and the worst part is – I didn’t even realize it was a problem until recently.

You see, I used to pick the work I did based on a combination of direct instructions from my boss and my best guesses about what would make my boss the happiest and get me the most praise.

I preferred to keep my work vague, so that I was never wrong; I never gave status updates, because I didn’t ever want to have to admit something wasn’t done or that I was doing something I liked first, just because I liked it. I never knew or asked what was important or critical; I just did whatever I thought would get me a pat on the head.

And for a long time, this actually seemed to be totally working for me; whatever projects I ended up working on, I did well, and if I ever missed something, I could always do it fast enough to get it in on time.

I was always “close enough” to knowing what I should be working on, and got enough of the right things done that people couldn’t say I wasn’t doing a pretty good job.

But was I doing work that mattered? No – I definitely wasn’t.

Once I joined Popforms, where our team is just the two of us – me and our CEO, KateM – it suddenly became loud and clear how unproductive and even harmful it was not to know and do the most important work possible every day. But that didn’t stop me from trying; I still operated under the same “I’ll just give this my best guess” strategy simply because it was what I’d always done.

As a result, for almost all of our first year in business, I struggled to work on the right things at the right times. I would constantly be working on one project and send it to my KateM, only to have her reply back, “That’s what you were working on?”

It turned out she never knew what I was doing, and I was almost never doing what she thought or hoped that I was.

So that’s where I was starting out. I was working really hard and not getting the recognition and praise for my efforts that I was chasing, because the work I was doing wasn’t the work that was most important to get done.

Like me, many people take the easy road of giving our work our best guess and calling it a day. Whether it is choosing to prioritize tasks we like to do over those that are important to do, or pursuing the instant gratification of answering emails and going to meetings, too many people let their career get taken over by work that just doesn’t move the needle.

Luckily, Popforms is in the business of creating tools to help people be better at their jobs. So we decided to work a little bit of Popforms magic on this problem and created a strategy that we use ourselves, and that can help you make sure the most important things for your business are identified, get done, and successfully recognized.

The plan consists of a three step cycle that I’ll teach you today:

  • Communicating up
  • Advocating for communication down
  • Instituting a Monday Ninja Planning Session

Step One: Your boss has no idea what you do all day

It’s true; most managers are just too busy to know what every single person on their team is doing every single day. In fact, if they do know, it’s not because they are really great at their job; it is because they are micromanaging. A really good manager gives you the tools to do the right things and then trusts that you are doing them without hovering over your shoulder all day.

So it is your responsibility to make sure that your manager knows what you are working on, and to let them know when you A. don’t know what you should be working on or B. need help with your work.

However, a lot of us like to live in the grey area, where our boss knows we are working, but they don’t quite know what we are working on. It feels safe and comfortable; after all, if no one knows what you’re doing, they can never tell you you’re doing it wrong!

But nobody succeeds in the grey area. You might get by, you might do okay, but you will never be exceptional.

It is your job to step up and make your work known to the people who have the most influence over your career.

Share your priorities. Your manager should know what you are planning on working on every week. Whether you tell them in a weekly status mail or in a 1:1 meeting, you should be talking about everything on your plate that week, big and small. This gives your manager a chance to tell you if your tasks should be re-ordered at all so that you give priority to the most important tasks and don’t waste time on things that won’t make an impact or that can wait until later.

It can be really hard to hear that something you thought was important or something you were looking forward to working on isn’t actually something you should do this week, so many of us avoid the conversation altogether. But isn’t it better to have that work well-received later at the right time, rather than being ignored or criticized because it was completed at the wrong time?

Surface problems and ask for help. I have always hated talking about problems I’m having at work, and I especially hate asking for help. After all, asking questions can feel a lot like failure. By asking a question, you’re admitting to another person, “Hey I need help with this” and revealing that you don’t actually know everything.

But here’s the thing: your boss knew you were human when they hired you. You haven’t been fooling them into thinking you were perfect this whole time, and if you ask for help now it won’t blow your cover. Nope. Everyone needs help at work, because everyone has different specialties and skillsets and levels of experience, and it is part of your manager’s job to answer your questions and make sure you have everything you need to succeed.

So yes, you should try to solve problems on your own, but you also should be willing to admit when you need assistance, and then be prompt about asking. It’s efficient, shows that you’re open about your work, and makes sure you aren’t creating last-minute problems that you or your manager will have to deal with later.

Step Two: Do you know your manager’s priorities?

Whenever I found out I wasn’t working on the right thing at Popforms, I never thought, “Hey, I should be asking more questions.” Instead, I would think something like, “I need to get better at intuiting what Kate wants.”

But the thing is – I can’t read minds. And unless you can, there is simply no better way to make sure you are working on the right things than to just ask what the most important things are. No matter how closely you work with someone, or how often you email or chat or drink coffee with them, you can never be 100% sure what they are thinking unless you ask.

Most managers share an ongoing stream of information with their team, through meetings and emails, and sometimes it can be hard to parse what is a strict directive and what’s more of a “just think about this” idea.

KateM does this A LOT. She’s big into “just noodle on this” kinds of brainstorming; if she sees or hears or has a good idea, she sends it along, so it’s saved in our collective brain trust. But for a long time, I would get these random emails and wonder, “Is this a real idea? Is it a directive? Or is it just a thought?”

And I was afraid to ask. I’d guess at what kind of response she wanted, and ended up either working on projects she had just meant to be “think about this” suggestions, or I’d disregard something that was actually a big idea.

The next time you’re not sure how to translate the information you’re receiving from your manager, instead of trying to guess what they want you to do, make it a part of your routine to go over questions and make sure you are working on the right priorities or if things have changed at all.

How to ask good questions. Once you’ve gathered all the information you have questions about and have picked your best priorities for the week, use your status email or 1:1 meeting with your manager to ask questions that help them clarify the week’s most important tasks.

Try to phrase your questions in a way that leads to concrete answers and are easy for your manager to answer.

So instead of, “What should I be working on this week?” (since your boss – and no one who isn’t you, actually – doesn’t have insight into every single option you have in front of you), try asking, “What are your biggest priorities for our team this week?”.

Or “I am thinking of working on X, Y, and Z. Do these sound like the right priorities to you? Are there things I didn’t mention that you think are more urgent or important?”

If there were instructions you got during that week that felt confusing or unclear, bring those up so your boss can add clarification (because otherwise, they probably don’t even know that they weren’t clear). Try something like, “You mentioned XYZ in our meeting this week; is that a priority I should be working on?”

You can’t control the behavior of other people, and you can’t make your manager change the way they communicate priorities with you if they don’t want to.

But what you can do is help them to help you wrangle the stream of information and turn it into something that’s useful for both of you.

Step Three: Your assignment is to do a Monday Ninja Planning Session every week for a month (and stick to it!)

This is how you take what you learn in the first two steps and turn it into a super-productive week of work on the most important things.

First, you need to set aside 10-30 minutes every Monday morning to plan your week.

Lots of people can find it hard to justify setting aside time just for things like thinking or planning, but it is so key that you devote time every single week to this strategy.

After all, work changes week by week. Your plans need to be evaluated and updated regularly or else they won’t keep up with what is happening in the real world, and you’ll lose touch with the most important work.

Make an appointment on your calendar, and keep it at all costs.

Think about the goals.

Try to identify the biggest priorities your company or your team has for the week or month. This is where talking to your manager and helping them communicate down comes in handy; you can’t just guess about what the biggest priorities are. You have to know them, since you can’t hit a target that you can’t see.

At Popforms, we have been setting a monthly priority; in recent months the goals have included increasing sales of our email courses called sparks, increasing traffic, and increasing the number of signups on our email list. These help me focus on which tasks are most important to do first, and which ones – even though they may feel big or important – can wait until later.

Next, figure out the steps that will help you achieve that goal.

These will be the things you actually do at the office every day. Think in terms of tasks you’ll put on your to-do list.

For example, in growing the Popforms email list, some of my tasks included things like adding an email signup form to our most popular blog posts and brainstorming content we could turn into a downloadable ebook.

The better you can break down big priorities into small steps, the better you’ll be able to visualize what you need in order to accomplish those goals. You’ll also make better time estimates, which ensures you are giving your manager the right expectations about your work and not falling short or behind schedule.

Create milestones in your work.

Think about what you can realistically accomplish in a week. Too many people bog themselves down with unrealistic expectations for what they can do in 8 hours a day, and as such, set priorities that they’ll never be able to achieve.

Keep an eye on what you are able to do in a normal working day, and then set up your to-do work according to what you are actually able to accomplish, not what you wish you could accomplish or think you should be able to accomplish.

Then set your priorities accordingly. This could mean having a new feature built by the end of the week, or a brand new blog layout set up by this time next month.

Write down these milestones, and check in with them during your Monday Ninja Sessions. Are you on target to hit them? Are you falling behind? By checking in along the way, you ensure you can ask for help or reset milestones before the last minute. I find myself pulling out my list to align my priorities throughout the week, and I am often surprised to realize the thing that should come next isn’t what I would have picked in the moment.

Talk to your manager.

This is where the cycle starts all over again! Once you have laid out your priorities and tasks for the week, do a check-in with your manager to make sure that you are working in alignment with the most important tasks for the week.

Make your ninja planning session happen

KateM and I complete this cycle every single Monday. I sit down and make my Monday Ninja Plan for the week. Then we hop on the phone, and I tell her my priorities. She then shares her biggest priorities for the week, and helps me refocus mine to be in alignment with the most important moves our company needs to make that week.

It took some time for me to learn how to turn big picture priorities into realistic to-do’s, but by keeping up the routine over time, it gets easier and easier to stay in the rhythm of what’s most important in your company. Your contributions will be more meaningful, and your manager will be able to recognize and promote your awesome work because they’ll totally understand it.

Nobody comes to work with the goal of working on things that don’t matter. Make sure that you are doing work that moves your team forward and moves your career forward. Make a Monday Ninja Planning Session part of your weekly routine for the next 30 days, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself doing more of the work that matters and feeling better about your career.

For more tips and techniques on strategic planning

Tags: better leader, improvement, productivity, reflection, Strategy, success,

3 Responses to “Does the work you do matter? Use this 3-step ninja planning process to make sure you do the *right* work.”

  1. Niki

    I love this idea. I think I do something similar which my boss appreciates but I’ve been busy the past couple of weeks so I haven’t done it for awhile. Might be a good time now to start again.

  2. Libby

    I just stumbled across this article as I was reading another article on your website. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as sometimes I feel that when I have 1:1 with my direct reports that we aren’t always on the same page. I’ve just shared it with them and am looking forward to diving into this on our next 1:1 to see what we are doing well and what could we incorporate to make our work matter even more.