What is the most important part of your job? Can you answer that question immediately, or do you struggle to articulate just one aspect that is the most important? Did you choose the part that is the most important for you or the most important for your organization as a whole, or for your clients/students/library patrons?
Last week I was challenged to reassess the tasks that make up my job. As a law librarian at an academic institution in the third year of this pandemic, my team can be susceptible to the same feelings of burnout that are plaguing workers worldwide. We attempted to identify and prioritize our most essential tasks. As a guide, we used an article from the Harvard Business Review, Make Time for the Work that Matters. While there were many horribly relatable points in this article, I was drawn to one particular insight: “We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we’re willing to accept.”
Without giving away the entirety of the article, there were two parts of the accompanying exercise which were eye-opening for me. (To find the exercise, click on “this self-assessment” in the paragraph under the heading “Identify low-value tasks.”) First, how much personal value do you get from a task, and second, if you were suddenly late to work because of an emergency, would you skip this task, do other tasks first, or would you choose to do this particular task first?
Personal values can be difficult to articulate, but thinking about personal values (particularly in the context of the above quote about tasks that make us feel busy and important) reminds me that my personal values are not always correlated to my daily output. For example, I teach a legal research class each fall, and when I am preparing for that class in June, I appear neither busy nor important. However, when the fall arrives, my students will sacrifice their time and money to be present in my class, so I place immense personal value on being prepared to teach. If I sacrifice that preparation for tasks that make me feel busy and important in the moment, I am not following my larger values.
Imagining an emergency was even more helpful for me. Coincidentally, earlier in the week I had an unfortunate dental emergency. Instead of an eight-hour workday, I suddenly found myself with a six-hour workday. We’ve probably all had days like these (although I hope you haven’t had too many). I realized that I re-prioritize my tasks whenever anything unexpected occurs on my calendar, but I never explicitly call it a reorganization or reprioritization. I do have an underlying sense of which of my tasks are the most important, but until now, I’ve only paid attention to that sense when I’m stressed or nearly out of time.
It’s certainly not a cure for burnout, but figuring out which parts of your job are the most important may help to direct your choices when you only have a little bit of energy left to give. Ideally, organizing your tasks will help you to determine which tasks you can delegate or cease to perform, but even if that is impossible, being more aware of your choices might help you avoid clinging to tasks just to look busy or feel important.