It happens to everyone. You suddenly realize you've drifted into spending your time at work on far too much stuff that doesn't matter and far too little that does. You're caught in a work plan that isn't how you planned to work, at all.
Awareness of this discomforting reality leads to the harder part--doing something about it. Easier said than done as low value work has a way of sticking around and dragging you down. Other people's agendas take hold, urgent shoves important aside, you're forced to work within arcane work processes, and the fact that it's just easier to say 'yes' than 'no' adds to a mountain of meaningless activity.
I've helped many over a 30-year career get off the low-value treadmill. Follow these 4 steps to replace pointless work with poignant work.
1. Color code your work plan.
Mentally categorize all your work into three colored buckets; red, green, and gold. Red work is work that simply must go. It's work that might be tied to a useless system of "the way we do things around here", work that's on your plate because it's easier for someone else to put it there, or work that hasn't been revisited and reviewed for the value it adds in a long time. Whatever form it takes, you know it when you see it, and you know it must go. More on that momentarily.
Next comes green work. This is your core work, how you add maximum daily value, the heart of your job. You know it when you see it here as well, and you know it shouldn't be weighed down with distraction-inducing work.
The final bucket is gold because this is the work that will help you build your legacy in your job, the most important projects that will leave the biggest long-term impact. If you don't have legacy-worthy projects, ask yourself "What can only I lead?" or "What would I be proud to tell others I lead?"
2. Delete, delegate, or deprioritize--in that order.
People usually start by deprioritizing elements of their work plan, feeling good about shifting the work to the bottom of the pile. But there it still sits, staring up at you from the bottom of your to do list.
It's far more effective to start by brutally deleting that "red" work you identified in step 1. Then, for work that needs to be done, but not by you, delegate it, being careful not to dump it. This requires letting go, to stop being a control freak, and to stop assuming you're the only one that can do that work. When you decide to delegate, invest the time to give the recipient proper direction, training, and resources required to do the job right. Otherwise, it's not delegating, it's dumping.
Now, you can finally deprioritize that marginally valuable work that remains as long as you're honest with yourself that it really does need to be done, just not immediately.
3. Illuminate the cost of doing the low value work.
When you've identified and decided on the work that you're going to delete, for it to stay deleted requires aligning with the stakeholders of that work that you won't be doing it anymore.
For example, say you've been writing a weekly summary report to send out to the team at the request of your boss. But you discover that no one is reading the report; they get updates on what you summarize more informally. Useless work. So you go to your boss and show him or her why the work is wasted time and what (higher value) work you're not getting to because of it. Paint a clear picture--visualize your work plan on paper if you must and circle the work that won't get done if the low value work continues.
You get the idea. Enrolling the stakeholders of the work that's being eliminated helps it stay that way.
4. Give a different 'yes' to low value requests.
Stay mindful of the quantity and quality of the work you take on. In general, adopt a one in, one out policy--for every new piece of work you take on, one piece of lower value work should go (presuming you're at full capacity).
This gets trickier when people make requests of you that you know will lead to you doing low value work because it's hard to say no. If you struggle with saying no, you can give the requestor of the low-value work a different 'yes.' For example, "I won't be able to help you with that work but I can suggest an alternative way of achieving your goal that won't require this work." Again, you get the idea.
It takes a little work to give the "little work" away. But don't hesitate. Clean house.