This Remarkable Productivity Hack Clears a Path to More Meaningful Work, According to Research

The "Color Coded Workplan" method requires introspection--but leads to the intersection of work and meaning.

George Fairbairn/ Getty Images
George Fairbairn/ Getty Images

Getting dragged down in the minutiae of our jobs, the stuff we think must be done and know we don’t like doing, can drain even the most enthusiastic of us. It’s counterproductive and counters our sense of fulfillment. It’s why good productivity hacks are like an industry in and of themselves.

In conducting research for my book Find the Fire, I uncovered a gem. I gave 300 test subjects a productivity hack I call “The Color-Coded Workplan”. 91 percent “strongly agreed” it helped them critically look at what they were spending their time on at work and that it aided them in creating a more meaning-filled portfolio of work.

The hack is built on a simple but powerful premise. Non-value-added work has a way of creeping onto our plates and accumulating, bogging us down and slowly draining the meaning out of work. It’s a premise backed by reams of data. Research from BetterUp indicates half of all employees feel their work is only about as half as meaningful as it could be. And the average employee is desperate to infuse their work with more meaning, indicating they’d be willing to give up a quarter of their income in exchange for work that’s always meaningful. 

Enter The Color-Coded Workplan. It requires stepping back and taking an honest look at your total portfolio of work and how you’re spending your time on the job. You then “code” your work into one of three classifications: red, green, or gold. 

Red Work

Red work is low-value work that does little to add to your personal growth and sense of meaning derived from your job. Ask yourself two questions: “What work am I doing that simply must stop?”, “What work must I resist being added to my plate?”

You can’t always say “no” nor can you just stop doing the red work in some instances. But it starts with awareness and intentionality. Be brutally honest with yourself on the work that is adding no value. My own experience shows me red work most often takes three forms:

  • Work that doesn’t need to be done by anyone anymore (work tied to some old system or way of doing things that’s now just not necessary).
  • Work you aren’t best suited to do but you do anyway out of a sense of obligation or because you have a hard time delegating and giving up control.
  • Work that you inherited or got pushed on to you (with little thought) that you do now out of habit, without challenging the need for the work or the fact that you’re the one doing it.

So first, identify the red and commit to minimize it.

Green Work

This work is the core of your job, so casting a critical eye on it can be tricky. But not all green work (high-value/high growth work) is created equal, so use these guidelines, developed through survey input from over 500 HR professionals. Your green work is truly green work (and should stay on your workplan) if it meets the following criteria:

  • The work meets the needs of the business (in line with key strategies, goals, and priorities).
  • It has clear deliverables that are measurable and time-bound.
  • You can make a unique impact with the work and be assigned credit for results.
  • It leverages your strengths and/or builds/stretches your skills.
  • It reflects tenure and is comparable to what peers are asked to do.
  • It’s work that feeds the P.I.E. model (lets you show Performance, enhance Image, get Exposure).
  • If it’s routine but necessary work, you at least get routinely recognized for it.

When I applied these criteria to my own work, it forced me to challenge assumptions about what my core work really should look like. It helped me make work I was just taking for granted as “part of the job”, more meaningful.

Of course, some of your core work just won’t fit into one of these guidelines–but the majority of it should. If it doesn’t, time to reshape and remold that work.

Gold Work

Gold work is the pinnacle–projects you’re working on of enough significance that they’ll contribute to the legacy you want to leave behind through your work. Ask yourself if you have such legacy-worthy projects, if you need to craft legacy worthy projects from the ground up, or if you can at least make elements of your workplan more inspiring and/or transformational. 

When I decided to use my work as a vehicle for leaving a legacy, it changed my relationship with my job–for the better.

So minimize the red, ensure green is really green, and go for the gold. You’ll find a rainbow at the end–a pot o’ work that matters.

Originally published on Inc.

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