Like many knowledge workers, I began my career in an office. I had a desk with a computer on it, in a room with four other people. There were no windows.
I attended two or three meetings each week that required collaboration with others, but most of the time I just worked at my computer, at my desk, by myself. Why exactly did I need to be in that windowless, fluorescent-lit room in order to do my job? I didn’t.
As a recent college graduate, I was a master of self-management. I had just spent the past four years being one-hundred-percent responsible for my own time: going to classes, attending study sessions with fellow students, and completing my own work by a given deadline. Then, suddenly, all that autonomy was stripped away.
At work, my supervisor regularly made the rounds just after 8 am and just before 5 pm to make sure that no one was coming in late or leaving early. The work culture dictated that responsible, productive employees spent as much time sitting at their desks as possible.
I struggled with this. My best work had always found me curled up on a couch with music playing loudly, and that was no longer an option.
Moreover, I also do my very best thinking while in motion—long walks in nature are my go-to for brainstorming, weighing the pros and cons of a decision, or just generally doing any sort of deep brain work. Now, as a professional? No more walks. I was expected to do optimal work under what were, to me, sub-optimal conditions.
This continues to be the stark reality for many knowledge workers today, who remain office-bound more by convention than any reason related to the quality of their work.
Making the Leap From Inputs to Outputs
Office-based work is often heavily input-driven. Think of inputs as things you do in a day:
- Check and respond to emails
- Attend meetings
- Submit reports
- Read articles and publications
- Interact with business software
Being at your desk for eight hours a day (or more) can also be seen as an input. These activities represent the time that you are putting in each day.
Often in work cultures, performance of the input is deemed more important than the quality of outcomes that result from those efforts. Thus, moving from an input-driven workday to an outcomes-based workday requires a radical shift in mindset.
Fortunately, we are starting to see changes in that direction. CultureRX, a consultancy headed by Jody Thompson—one of the cofounders of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) management strategy—describes a workplace focused on results rather than inputs.
Or, in simpler terms, as a place where “Employees are treated like adults, not a bunch of overgrown children.” According to them,
“Transitioning to a ROWE requires giving up deeply held beliefs about the way work should happen...It’s uncomfortable because it attacks everything about work and the workplace we hold to be true.”
Both people and institutions have a lot invested in believing that our professional practices are there for a good reason. To suggest that work quality has no direct correlation with being in an office Monday through Friday is often met with deep skepticism.
The good news is that outcomes can be set in ways that are easy to measure. Did you do what you needed, by when it needed to be done, and achieve the results you were aiming for? Then bravo! In an outcomes-based work environment, nothing else matters.
Finding What Works for You
When I joined Toggl, I transitioned from an inputs-based to an outcomes-based work culture. It took me a while, however, to fully realize the possibilities.
Early on, I felt obliged to maintain a “normal working schedule,” even though I found myself engaging in time-wasting activities that, while work-related, were not contributing significantly to my outcomes. According to the Gallup Workplace report from 2018,
“Outcome-based cultures (OBCs) let leadership define the end goals and then leave it to individual contributors and their managers to determine processes.”
But in this world of endless productivity apps and tools, being more responsible for your own time and work can be a bit...overwhelming. What works best will be different for each person, and determining what works best for you may take a bit of trial and error.
Here are some of the steps I’ve taken so far in an attempt to optimize my outcomes-based workday:
1. Determining A Schedule
I’ve experimented extensively with my schedule and am slowly honing in on what routines work best for me.
Mornings give me the most time-zone overlap with my globally-based colleagues. I also liked the idea of checking off those work to-dos early in the day. When I work in the mornings, I easily get into a flow state—time zooms by.
However, I found that I was mentally worn out, just like I would be at the end of a traditional workday, and didn’t have the energy or motivation to take advantage of my personal time in the afternoon.
50/50 Split: 6am-10am & 2pm-5pm
I still get that morning overlap with my colleagues, but give myself an extended lunch break for personal activities. This worked better. I still had energy mid-day, but felt that my mornings were not as productive as I wanted them to be.
Because I started my day catching up on team communication, I found it difficult to move into more focused deep work during my morning work block.
Spread Out: 6am-8am, 1pm-4pm & 7pm-9pm
This schedule breaks my day into blocks so that I can focus on one priority task during each work period. My morning work block is always spent on communication, like emails and slack chats.
Both the afternoon and evening work blocks then go to a specific task. This is the schedule that has helped me maintain the most focus on outcomes-based actions, while also feeling that I have time to accomplish my personal, non-work-related goals.
2. Staying Focused on the Goal
It was difficult to truly embrace the idea that inputs don’t matter. Putting time into proactive communication with your colleagues is essential for ensuring that everyone understands and agrees on goals and processes.
But other than that, if an activity isn’t directly contributing to your defined goals, then it’s likely not worth spending time on. Two strategies have really helped me structure my time in an outcomes-focused way.
The Eisenhower Matrix
Created by the 24th President of the United States, this simple organizational practice helps you ruthlessly prioritize your next steps. Each item on your to-do list is categorized into one of four buckets:
- Urgent-Not Important
- Not Urgent-Important
- Not Urgent-Not Important
Items that you categorize as “Urgent-Not Important” should probably be delegated to a more appropriate person, while “Not Urgent-Not Important” items get permanently crossed off the to-do list. You can then dedicate your focus to the “Urgent-Important” tasks and schedule time to work on the “Not Urgent-Important” tasks in the near future.
This practice leads to my next strategy.
Once I have identified what I should be doing, now and in the coming weeks, I open up my calendar and block out time to work on specific tasks. Because I used the Eisenhower Matrix to do my planning upfront, I can dedicate my mental energy exclusively to the task that I have assigned myself for a given work block.
In my case, each day gets a 2-hour block in the morning for communication. I consider this my daily “Checking In” time, after which I assign a task to both my afternoon and evening work blocks. This helps me stay focused by removing the need to decide what to do every time I sit down at my laptop.
3. Finding the Right Tools
I have a good sense of how long different types of tasks will take, and can allocate space in my calendar accordingly because I track my time. I can look at past time reports to see how long it took me to complete certain activities and have a good sense of how much time I will need for comparable tasks.
Another key strategy that allows me to carve out large chunks of time for deep work is the automation of repetitive tasks. By setting up workflows through Integromat that automatically pull a specific set of Google Analytics data into a spreadsheet, or post necessary information to the relevant Slack channel, I can redirect my time to more outcomes-oriented tasks.
Experimentation is Key
As more work cultures transition from focusing on inputs to focusing on outputs, employees can expect to be treated like adults and have more opportunities to take charge of how they structure their day.
If you are interested in transitioning to a more outcomes-based workday, I encourage you to experiment with different schedules, processes, and tools to find what works best for you. Remember, everyone is different, and your mileage may vary.
Join Integromat and Toggl on Thursday, February 27th for a live webinar demonstrating how Integromat can import Toggl time tracking data into your billing and invoicing software for improved accuracy and customer transparency.