This article was written by Michael Neece, Director of Statistical Programming at Gilead, one of Virtual Work Insider’s clients. 

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Have you ever started your day with optimism and a long to-do list only to finish with a deflated or perplexed feeling and most of the list undone?

This is a common story, especially now that most of us are working remotely and are suffering from meeting fatigue and email overload.  The good news is that it can be remedied with a small investment of time.

If you know one building block for “getting it done”, namely Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, you have learned to group tasks into four categories: 

  • Urgent, important work 
  • Non-urgent, important work 
  • Urgent, unimportant work 
  • Non-urgent, unimportant work. 

Taking this simple approach, you can declare victory, right? You just put tasks in the correct order (urgent/important is at the top, non-urgent/important is next, dump the other two), and get it done. And everything is easy! 

Except that it isn’t.

Rory Vaden’s Focus Funnel

A fan of Stephen Covey and an organizational expert in his own right, Rory Vaden has written best-selling books about managing work. His book Procrastinate on Purpose gives you the advice:

  • Time flows regardless of anything you do, and you cannot manage time’s flow
  • You can only manage you

So how can you do that? Vaden gives us the ultimate self-management tool, a short, multi-step process called the Focus Funnel. Here’s how you start:

1. Categorize

Take every task you can find from every stick note, to-do list, email inbox, and mental storage space and arrange them in front of you.


2. Ask These Questions

Of each item, one by one: 

  • Can I eliminate this? (i.e. ignore it), if not then . . . 
  • Can I automate this? (i.e. invest in something that does it for me), if no, then. . . 
  • Can I delegate this? (i.e grow my people by teaching them this), if no, then. . . 
  • It looks like I must do this! But. .  .
    • Can I deliberately procrastinate on purpose (or “POP”) this? (i.e. put it off until the time is right?), if no, then. . . 
    • I have to concentrate on this now

Again, the above is collectively known as the Focus Funnel. Think of pouring all your tasks written on tiny pieces of paper into the funnel top, watching some items fall out at the top layer, others at the next layer, etc. until the only things coming out at the bottom are the Must Do list (either now or later).

Is it really this simple?

You can make this work, but only if you promise to yourself that you will follow through on what you agree is the right course of action on each item.

Examples of my own Focused Journey

This really does work. Vaden says that pursuing this method results in giving you back more time tomorrow. And it happens!

1. Eliminate

I’ve stopped going to a couple of meetings that other teammates also attend or that don’t directly impact my group. I also stopped producing a custom weekly report that nobody uses. I have saved myself at least 2 hours a week on these eliminated tasks. That’s 5% of my weekly time!

2. Automate

My email has inbox rules that delete select items, forward other items, and stamp important on a select few. This saves me 20 minutes per day. I also used to send weekly emails to my team that were near-copies of prior sent emails. I set up an automated system to send those emails without my intervention. That adds up to another 5% of my week!

3. Delegate

I have taught several of my teammates how to handle a few duties I used to handle. That’s great because as a supervisor, I am (to some degree) a steward of their growth and development, so they need to know more things. Even if I didn’t feel authorized to delegate though (if I were not a supervisor), sharing tasks to teammates who can do them faster and better and getting tasks from those teammates in return that I can do faster and better (or training each other how to do these tasks more efficiently) is a similar idea. All told, I have saved myself at least another 10% of my time per week through delegation.

4. Procrastinate

Early in my career, if I got an assignment due in 6 months, I would do it as soon as possible only to see it canceled, or drastically changed, two weeks before it came due. Either way, my initial effort was wasted, and I had to re-do the work or kiss the lost time goodbye. These days, I copy upcoming tasks that do not require immediate attention (i.e. can be procrastinated on purpose) into my Outlook calendar a reasonable number of days or weeks ahead of the due date. This saves me time now and puts the time and effort squarely where it belongs—at the appropriate point in the future. It’s hard to estimate how many hours this saves me each week, but it is at a minimum of 15%.

5. Concentrate

These are the Covey “important” items, but deeply evaluated and considered, and they are items that only I can do (not a colleague, not an email inbox rule-set). These tasks are the right items for me to be doing and are at the right time. I have a lot of examples, from supporting and mentoring more junior people on my team to working out a new process with our chief partners.

If you add up the time saved in the examples above, you might have noticed that I save myself about 35% of a workweek every week. That’s 14 hours, almost two business days of my time.

The Only Way to Make this Work

If you want this to work, you must believe with all your heart in the following things:

  1. I have already evaluated every legitimate request made of me. Anything else coming my way needs to go through the same process, each day. It takes only a few minutes to push things through the Focus Funnel, so if something pops up midday that I suspect cannot wait, I give it the same treatment.
  2. When I focus on a task, a task filtered through this process, it is the right task for right now, thus anything that would usurp it would violate this whole system…and should be ignored until later.

The implications of #2 are staggering. It means that if your phone beeps, your email dings, or a coworker sends you a chat (or comes into your office), you must trust that you’ve made good decisions about where your focus belongs in that moment…and ignore the beep, ignore the ding, and ask your coworker to put time on your calendar for later.

Side Note: Regarding beeps and dings, trust yourself…and turn them off. You know you will check, but do it when you are ready, not when your device tugs at your sleeve.

When you give yourself permission to focus, to concentrate on one item at a time, it means you lose virtually no time to cognitive switching.

It means that you can and will complete items without interruption.

It means that the only legitimate time to evaluate the unexpected pop-up tasks is when you have a break between expected tasks, not in the middle of something that already has—and already should have—your full focus.

Caveat: If a coworker comes to you with an emergency (if they are crying, if your building is on fire), then your new “Concentrate” item is that emergency. Clearly.

But if it’s not an EMERGENCY, why would you allow it to take over your focus in that moment? You shouldn’t. Period.

Setting up a Focus Funnel is easily done using OneNote or the Microsoft To Do feature. I use OneNote for most of the five choices, though (as noted above) when I procrastinate an item, it ends up on my calendar with sufficient time blocked out to accomplish the task and enough buffer time before the due date so I don’t risk missing completion by the correct date.

Let me know how the Focus Funnel works for you. If you have suggestions on other ways to eliminate, automate, delegate, or otherwise evaluate tasks that come your way, please get in touch with me via LinkedIn


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