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power points

Setting priorities on the many activities begging for your attention is vital. Indeed, it might well have prevented the US$5.5-billion collapse of Archegos Capital.

Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University, warned in his latest book A World without Email about the “hyperactive hive mentality” that envelops us these days and prevents us from being effective, as we spend a third of our working hours in our inbox, suffering through constant context switches that sap mental energy and divert us from deep work. He followed that by arguing recently on his blog it’s what led Archegos Capital to default on margin calls from several global investment banks, including Credit Suisse.

The analyst at Credit Suisse and the accounting manager at Archegos fell into a communication rhythm that is common when we’re so busy these days: sending each other e-mails but not bothering to read the documents exchanged, meet, or act.

“I couldn’t think of a better case study for the illusory, performative pseudo-value generated by the hyperactive hive mind. The players in this story were for sure feeling very productive: furiously typing on devices, messages moving back and forth, bases being touched, plates spun, their industry palpable. But the actual activity that mattered, the realization that they were short on collateral and urgently needed to reduce their investment exposure, was missed. Ad hoc, back-and-forth, unscheduled messaging kept everyone busy. But it didn’t actually work,” he writes.

That may sound familiar. Indeed, it might describe your day – even if the stakes aren’t as big.

The MoSCoW method of prioritization might help by at least giving you a way to evaluate the swirl of demands on your time. It has nothing to do with Russia – it’s an acronym, developed by Dai Clegg, a data modelling specialist who came up with the approach while working as a consultant at Oracle. It offers four specific categories with actionable meaning:

  • Must: These are the non-negotiable items to tackle as soon as possible. It’s where the default conversation at Archegos belonged. On a project, it’s the requirements considered critical for success, Ness Labs’ Anne-Laure Le Cunff points out in her summary of the system.
  • Should: This category includes important requirements that are not as critical. They can potentially wait until another work session on a project or be delayed for attention down the road as you schedule your life. “Working on these would improve the project’s chances of success, but is not essential,” she explains.
  • Could: This is where you list all the “nice to have” ideas that can be safely ignored in case of lack of time and resources. It’s not a place for margin calls.
  • Won’t: These items can be removed from your task list or put on your Not-do-do list if you have one. They don’t fit your overall goals.

The acronym is derived from the first letter of each of the four categories, with the letter O added twice to make the word pronounceable. It needs to be combined with your calendar, scheduling in the items – starting with the must category. She warns, however, not to schedule yourself too fully, as some items will take longer than you expect. On a weekly basis, review tasks to make sure they are still in the right categories.

Prof. Newport, who teaches at Georgetown University, says most of us tackle our work day in what he calls the “list-reactive” method, filling in time between scheduled meetings and calls reacting to e-mails and occasionally trying to make progress on items pulled from an unwieldy task list. Developing priorities and scheduling activities – what’s known as time-blocking – keeps you more focused and less likely to get diverted by distractions. It also reveals how much time you actually have available for actual work in a day. But he warns it’s more cognitively demanding, requiring more concentration that the list-reactive approach.

Quick hits

  • Can I buy you a coffee? With everybody so busy these days, executive recruiter Gerald Walsh warns that job hunting stratagem falls flat – it asks for too much time from the person whose advice and assistance you are seeking. Try to get an introduction from somebody who knows you both, and ask for a limited time commitment – 20 minutes being about right.
  • To stay visible when the rest of your team is in the office, marketing strategist Dorie Clark advises you to overdeliver. That includes reinforcing in communication that you’re meeting or exceeding deadlines.
  • Your inner critic has your best interests at heart and served you well over the years, suggests executive coach Ed Batista. Yes, there were unpleasant moments but it protected you from embarrassing oversights and fateful missteps. But your life has changed since the critic first emerged and now is the time to renegotiate your relationship with the critic, collaborating rather than trying to banish it from your life.
  • In many cases, improvement is not about doing more things right but doing less things wrong, notes Atomic Habits author James Clear. Don’t look for things to add; look for things to eliminate.
  • Executive coach Joel Garfinkle says you should expect to cut a lot of the material in your first draft of a presentation – half the bullet points, half the slides, half the summary. To develop a powerful message, you must be clear and concise.

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