[This post is part of a series on increasing your effective productivity. The introductory post is My Strategies for Maximizing Impact]
In the first post of this series, I said that my strategies can be captured as:
- Work on the things that matter most
- Maximize return on energy
- Spin the plates (i.e., keep things moving)
Today, let’s explore the final component: the ancient and magical art of plate spinning. [Warning: the music in this video is extremely stress-inducing]
Spinning the plates
You know those stage performers who have a dozen plates spinning on the end of sticks? And they run around keeping all of them spinning one at a time? On several occasions, I’ve thought that plate-spinning is a great metaphor for how I operate.¹
In plate-spinning, if you don’t give a plate enough attention to keep it spinning, it falls down and smashes.
In business, if you don’t give a project/initiative enough attention, then it stalls, stagnates, and dies.
In plate-spinning, if you don’t give a plate enough attention to keep it spinning, it falls down and smashes. In business, if you don’t give a project/initiative enough attention, then it stalls, stagnates, and dies.
This means you have to check in on things regularly to keep them moving. It means you never say “I’ll book a meeting next week to talk with you about that”, because doing so probably means your project is completely on hold until that meeting happens, and you’ve just lost 5-9 business days. It absolutely drives me nuts when people do this, because here’s what happens: there aren’t any meeting rooms available until 8 days from now; and the meeting’s booked for an hour, so magically a conversation that should’ve taken 10 minutes stretches to 60. And so on. Ultimately, a task that should’ve taken, collectively and in total, 3 hours of conversations, writing, editing, and lay-out ends up taking 3 weeks. Madness!
Never say “I’ll book a meeting next week to talk with you about that”
As an extension, keeping plates spinning means that you absolutely do not want to be the one holding back other people from getting their stuff done, ’cause then you’re just knocking down their plates.
Too many people equate being busy and unavailable with being important and irreplaceable. Sorry to break it to you, but every time you say “I’m swamped, so I won’t be able to get to this for a few weeks”, I hear “I can’t manage my own schedule”. They’re probably too busy because they’re not maximizing the return on their efforts and they haven’t built in any buffers.
Personally, I pretty much always prioritize things that have actual hard deadlines (and I ask what the deadline is when one isn’t provided), and I get those things knocked off early on, well before crunch time.
Here’s a recent example: on March 3rd I was asked to provide a bunch of answers for an RFP, with a deadline of March 13th. I had those answers back on March 6th. This means I’m not going to open the email on the 12th and suddenly realize that I need to track a bunch of people down, do some research, etc. It means that if my answers are inadequate, we have plenty of time to review. It means I can’t forget to do them and then have to scramble. Basically, I’m now free to work on whatever, without worrying about those RFP answers. Plus, I’ve given the RFP team what they need to keep on humming along, without expending any cycles reminding me, worrying about me, etc.
Efficiency and plate-spinning all around!
Another key concept here is to manage the stalls: you have many projects ongoing, and at any point in time a project might be waiting on something from someone else (e.g., review/edits, QA test results, a graphic, etc.). Your job with your own time and project management is to make sure that you don’t experience a situation where everything is stalled at once, because that is just wasted time. Instead, you need to stagger those dead times, so that they’re serialized, and you can do this by looking ahead and understanding when and why those dead times arise. Careful management will let you take on, and succeed with, far more than you might initially think.
And, combined with the other two concepts (working on the things that matter most, and getting the best return on your energy), spinning the plates means that you’ll be having the largest possible positive impact in your role!
¹For nerdier crowds I might use the metaphor of an operating system’s scheduling algorithm.