Focus on What Matters Most

This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Working Easier.

The proper focus is essential to working easier. A collection of individuals – no matter how many – will never achieve lasting productivity by attempting to expend superhuman effort. Even assuming this were possible over the long run (which it is not), misguided efforts cost money, sap energy, demoralize staff and make it difficult to achieve even adequate results, let alone exceptional ones.

Work is comprised of functions – such as fund-raising, product development, budgeting, community outreach, board recruitment and relations, management of others, and so forth. Functions are comprised of tasks – such as identifying new potential donors, writing letters, making copies, preparing budgets, reviewing financial statements, issuing paychecks, evaluating staff, writing newsletters and a nearly infinite variety of other tasks.

Hand holding magnifying glass

Some tasks matter a lot. Others matter less, and still others don’t matter at all. Unfortunately, every day at work, most of us spend more than a little time on tasks that don’t matter a lot. Some of the things we do don’t matter at all; others don’t matter as much as the tasks we leave undone.

At work, we all have a tendency to do what we’ve always done or what the person who had the job before us did or what we think the boss wants – as opposed to what makes the most sense in light of what the organization is trying to accomplish.

Focusing on the tasks that matter most is not complicated and it’s not difficult. It does, however, require:

  • A clearly articulated and well-understood mission
  • Clearly articulated and well-understood goals
  • Prioritization of the tasks that matter most via task analysis, categorization and retooling

Prioritizing tasks is the first step toward working easier, but prioritizing cannot be done in a vacuum. In and of itself, no one task is inherently more important than any other. What makes prioritization possible is a clear understanding of mission, purpose, goals and strategy.

As nonprofits know very well, mission is meaning. Just as we need meaning to inspire interest and support from donors, board members, customers or audiences and other constituencies, we also need it to inspire and excite staff to job satisfaction, energy and productivity. As individuals and as employees, we all need to understand why it will be better if we do our work well than if we do it poorly. The kind of high-energy commitment that flows from belief in a compelling mission is a prerequisite for working easier.

Until staff members understand and believe in what their organization is trying to accomplish, they may be motivated, but they won’t be inspired. They may do what you ask them, but they won’t naturally act in alignment or take the initiative to think creatively about what to do and how to do it. They may do what’s urgent, but they won’t gel into a high-performing team capable of working easier to create and maintain lasting productivity.

This is not because employees are bad or lazy or uninterested in accomplishing important organizational goals. It’s also not typically because people are incompetent or unable to do better. Most of us go to work every day and do what we think matters.

The problem is that too often we aren’t given – nor do we demand – a clear, shared sense of the purpose behind any given task. Only with a common sense of purpose and an understanding of how each task fits into the whole can an employee – or, for that matter, an entire organization – focus on what matters most.

Mission is why it matters that we achieve our goals. Goals, strategies and aligned, effective efforts all cascade from – and are given meaning by mission.

Mission alone, however, won’t be enough. To be able to prioritize tasks effectively, organizations and employees also need goals. Mission articulates why the existence of the organization makes compelling sense. It is not time-sensitive or time-dependent. Goals, in contrast, articulate desired outcomes for particular periods of time.

At Reading In Motion, for example, the mission is to get at-risk kindergarten through third grade kids in Chicago up to grade-level reading skills. This is a terrific mission – it will always be inspirational and, given economic and social realities, it will probably never be fully achieved.

Related goals for this year include achieving certain improvement benchmarks in those kids’ literacy skills, expanding certain aspects of the supplemental reading curriculum and identifying new sources for recruiting teaching artists. Related goals for future years may be the same or they may change as needs and circumstances change. That won’t be a problem – the mission is roomy enough to encompass a variety of goals, as well as a myriad of strategies and tactics for achieving them.

Once the organization has articulated its mission and its goals, every staff member can consider tasks in context – and make good decisions on what to prioritize. How? Each person will be able to ask herself how the task at hand ties to achievement of the mission and the goals for the current year. If she can’t easily and clearly explain the tie, she can ask the necessary questions to find out. If the task doesn’t tie compellingly, she and her colleagues can question the need to do it. If it has to be done, they can seek a way to do it that does tie compellingly.

The point is to get people thinking about why their work matters – and, if it doesn’t, to stop doing it. We also want them to start thinking about how the tasks that do matter might be done more effectively or efficiently or easily.

Obviously, however, the decisions to stop doing certain tasks or to change how they’re being done must be made in a coordinated way. We want people to take initiative, demonstrate leadership and function independently, but we do not want chaos.

The way to assure that we get the results we want without creating chaos is to undertake a task analysis and review process. This process will identify where staff time is actually being spent. By doing so, it will permit the organization to make coordinated decisions about which tasks to prioritize, which to back-burner and which to eliminate. It will also permit the group to make intelligent, competency-based decisions on who should be handling what.

The allocation of staff time may be fine or it may need retooling, but there’s no way to know without the data. For example, at one organization, the task analysis process revealed that up to 45 minutes per day was being spent by each of several people in connection with using the sole printer in the office. Some of this time was due to having to wait while someone else’s lengthy document finished printing. Some of it was due to having to reprint when letterhead had been left in the machine. Some was spent chatting with the people at the desks between the printer and the desk of the person printing.

None of these uses of time was bad, but all were inefficient and everyone was surprised at how much time they added up to in total. Thanks to the task analysis, the organization sought and found someone to donate a second printer – from the minute it was delivered and hooked up, several hours per week of staff time were “magically” freed up!

Organizational design is an ongoing process and periodic task review is always useful. One of the nice side benefits of the suggested process is that people find it fun (once they stop agonizing over how to fill out the form). Thanks to that and to the speed and reliability with which results occur and things get easier, your staff will not only be willing to reuse the process as needed, they will actually suggest a reprise whenever they start feeling burned out or otherwise develop a sense that focus is slipping.

It’s easy to get confused about the distinctions between mission, goal, strategy and tactic. Here’s an example to help clear up that confusion:


To provide at-risk kindergarten through third-grade children in Chicagoland with the key tools to achieve grade-level reading through drama, dance and music

One Aligned Annual Goal

Ease the process and shorten the timeline for recruiting and hiring teaching artists

One Related Strategy

Develop feeder pools to provide consistent temporary workers to cover absences and for quick transfer to permanent positions as hiring needs arise

One Related Tactic

Draft job description and compensation structure for feeder pool participants