Fighting Busywork: Techniques for Prioritizing Tasks in a Tactical Job

By Trent Gardner, MTI Contributor

What Causes Busywork and Burnout?

I had a subordinate once who was a known slacker. Terrific person, everybody liked him, useless if work needed doing. But one quarter, he decided to change that. He busted his ass, hopped at every opportunity he found, and worked consistent sixty-hour weeks. And the reward for this work? Nothing. Passed over for awards, performance report the same. Everybody in the organization saw him working hard, but it never translated into success with leadership. And after that quarter, he never worked hard again, burnt out by the lack of recognition for tremendous amounts of work.

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon; restricted to the Air Force, the DoD in general, or even the broader tactical world. Why does this happen? The root cause is a divergence between the true organizational priorities and those communicated down by leadership. To get the most out of your team, you need the ability to find the true priorities of your organization, and the ability to help your subordinates prioritize their personal work. 

How to Identify Priorities

Let’s start from the top, because this is where the power and decision-making exist. As leaders, and subordinates, the ability to discern what’s important to our boss is crucial. Ideally, we can change our bosses’ priorities to match ours. Failing that, we need to ensure that we have a clear understanding of what the priorities are.

Basic cues exist that hint at where priorities lay. Many of the below questions can give insight into the value of your work:

  • Is there an explicit deadline? 
  • Will it block other work if not done?
  • Is someone tasked to follow up and track the status of the work?
  • Are there continuing discussions about the future usefulness of the work?
  • Is there any effort to document the work?

For example, my subordinate was once asked to get updated security paperwork for everyone in the unit. Answering the questions:

  • No hard deadline was given, nor was urgency suggested.
  • The paperwork was 2 years out of date, and nobody was using it.
  • As his leader, I wasn’t even aware he had received the task till he told me about it! Whoever told him to do it never asked about it in staff meetings.
  • There were no plans for future uses of this paperwork.
  • No effort was made to document the work, or plan a method to keep it up to date as unit personnel changed.

Nothing ever came of the work my subordinate did on this task. If they had asked these questions before starting, they may have saved themselves hours.

What to do as a Leader.

As the leader, communication is the key to helping your subordinates avoid this. Clearly communicate deadlines, follow up on important work, and emphasize prioritization. If you don’t explicitly tell your troops what needs doing now, and what would be nice to do, some will decide everything is the priority, and try to do it all. Fight this by clearly specifying answers to the questions in the above section. Using my subordinates experience as an example, a high priority task should answer the questions in this manner:

  • “All this work needs to be finished by November 14th, so we can review it for our inspection on the 16th.”
  • “Our self-inspections can’t be completed until this is done, so it needs doing with enough time to complete the self-inspection.”
  • “My deputy is going to contact you twice a week for status reports, if you run into blockers let him know.”
  • “While you’re doing this, think of how we can maintain this paperwork so we don’t have a last minute rush again.”
  • “I expect you to keep a document with all personnel’s status on this paperwork.”

This clear direction signals to even the most oblivious subordinate that you need this done and done right. It communicates priority. In contrast, you can also communicate a lack of priority by answering the questions, like so:

  • “There’s no deadline on this, it should be done slowly in your spare time.”
  • “There’s no priority work relying on this, work at your own pace.”
  • “Let your leader know what your work plan is on this, and he can update me if anything changes.”
  • “Don’t worry about maintaining this in the future, it should be one and done.”
  • “No need to document anything, focus on getting priority work done.
The Subordinate’s Role

In dysfunctional organizations, these questions won’t help. Likely, the organization is dysfunctional because these questions don’t get systematically answered. In these situations, you have to “Manage Up”. The first step is understanding the big picture your boss is looking at. Take a bird’s eye view of their priorities and order your work according to that. Identify reasonable deadlines (that you can achieve), define reporting standards, and plan to document what you’re doing. Once you’ve done this, take it to your boss. Show him your priorities, the deadlines you’ve identified, and solicit their feedback. Provide them answers to the questions they haven’t even asked. In all likelihood, they’ll be ecstatic that you’ve done the hardest part of their job for them. 

Using my subordinate’s experience as an example, they could have realized that none of these questions had answers. Instead of diving in, a better approach would have been to step back, and assess what the big picture needs were. From there, they could have:

  • Assessed how long the security paperwork they had assigned would take.
  • Prioritize all the work based on their understanding, and define deadlines.
  • Identify additional work they were going to do to document everything.
  • Identify what other aspects of their work would suffer because of this paperwork.
  • Go to their boss and lay out their work plan. Point out the unimportant tasks that wouldn’t get done fast, and get buy in for their work plan.

By doing this, they would have ensured that they were on the same page as their leader. When it comes time for their annual rating, they could point to the plan they had made, and show how they had met it. Essentially, if your boss won’t give you expectations to meet, create your own.

The Bad Boss

Some bosses set unreasonable expectations, and refuse to accept that manpower is limited. In that case, the first question to ask is if this is the overriding culture you work in? If the culture of your job is for 80-hour weeks, and everybody’s doing it, you’re not going to have much luck reducing your workload. The real takeaway is, don’t join Seal Team 6 expecting work-life balance.

If overload isn’t your jobs’ overriding culture, there are ways to manage your boss’ expectations. 

  1. First things first, get it in writing. If it isn’t in writing, see if they follow up on it. 
  2. Second, present a solution that implicitly de-prioritizes un-important work.

I had a situation where my boss assigned me work that he wanted done over my weekend. Instead of coming in to do it, I found a solution where it could be put off till I was scheduled to be back in. By giving them a solution that gets the work done “well-enough”, they’ll be unlikely to push too hard on the exact timing of it.

Finally, if your boss is dead-set on having you do unimportant work, detail how it will take away from your important work. As an example: “If I do this now, I won’t be able to finish the End of Day report by 1700.” Make them explicitly choose their priorities. And whatever you do, don’t discuss hours worked. Start with the assumption that you’re working 40 hours a week, and state simply what you won’t have time to do everything. 

Conclusion

None of what I’ve described in the above paragraphs is easy. It will always be tempting to skip all the thinking and dive into your work. This is a grave error, with consequences that compound the more times you do it. Sit down, ask questions about what you need to do, and build a mental model of your organization’s priorities. To quote the hoary old proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Born and raised in California, Trent G. grew up surround by the mountains of the Sierra Nevadas. This environment developed an enduring passion for the mountain environment. After college, he joined the Air Force as commissioned officer. During his seven years on Active Duty he flew and instructed in the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. After separating from Active Duty, he moved to Denver to work as a Software Engineer specializing in Software Assurance for DoD programs.

A competitive wrestler for many years, he took up skiing and trail running during his time in the military. He has summited the highest points in five southwestern states, including Mt. Whitney. He is a long-time MTI subscriber, and use’s Rob’s programming to further his goal of summiting Mt. Denali (and maybe skiing down). 

 


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