The Chaos of Uncontrolled Demands
I recall a scene in the movie The Firm. Tom Cruise plays a lawyer, Mitch McDeere, and in this scene, Mitch is trying desperately to focus on the task before him but is suffering frequent interruptions from well-intentioned individuals bringing him more and more advice and study material for his upcoming bar exam. The piles mound up on his desk. There may be people who operate well in this kind of disorganized chaos Mitch is expected to suffer. I know I cannot.
An unrelenting stream of demands fills our day like an open faucet, which we cannot turn off. If we can’t turn it off, is there a better way to manage the problem? Yes.
Buckets: Collecting New Demands
Buckets, a term I first found in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, are the key to effectively managing the demands of the construction site.
Mitch’s desk is vacant territory on which he allows others to dump things that demand his attention. The control is in the hands of others, not Mitch.
Imagine; instead, these demands are collected in a large bucket above your desk. Your desk remains clear, like a blank canvas on which you have the freedom to create anything you want. You can focus, undistracted, on a task of your choosing.
Then, when you decide, you can set aside your work and empty this bucket onto your desk and sort through everything at once.
If such a bucket existed, you could keep your mind focused on your work until you are ready to address the new demands of the day. Then you can change your state of mind from “work” to “review”, and work through the pile of things you must consider.
Once your review is complete, you can return to the work you were doing, unless one of the new demands became the most important thing to do. In which case, you can start work on that, on a clear desk, while new demands continue to be collected above your head.
This simple system, while metaphorical, keeps your mind clear and adds no more work for others (assuming you make it easy to access the bucket). Can this be done in reality? Absolutely. The bucket has been around for a long time, as the in-tray.
Most in-trays I see in site offices are used for desk storage, which illuminates our industry’s unawareness of the means to effective working. This misused bucket, the in-tray, is only one of many we should employ to keep our workspace clear and our focus unwavering.
Your email, for example, has a bucket (or in-tray) too, there’s a reason it’s called an inbox. Its where things come in and await your review. And it needs to be emptied, just like the in-tray.
People bring things to our attention through several means. I call these “demand streams.” Examples are; emails, text messages, phone calls, Facebook messages, etc.
Demand streams will vary from person to person. For example, in construction, you’ll likely have to monitor some cloud-based document collaboration tools, such as Asite or Aconex, for new drawings, etc. Asite is also a demand stream.
These demand streams are continually flowing towards you, regularly depositing new demands in your lap. “Ring! ring!” goes the phone. “Ping!” goes the email alert. “Chime!” goes the text message alert — all of them cry for your immediate attention while you try to commit your focus to an essential piece of work you’ve been dipping in and out of for days.
For me, this has felt like the situation portrayed in the figure below.
Sitting at your desk, you try to focus on one crucial piece of work. Surrounding you are windows up to which someone can appear at any moment and ding a bell signifying they demand your immediate attention. The dings do not relent, and you have no control over their quantity or frequency. How can you expect to focus on the work in front of you if you are expected to tend to all these individuals’ needs when it is convenient for them? These windows represent your demand streams, and it is your job to manage them. It’s not easy given the onslaught of demands we get from site; however, it is possible.
To Ignore is to Neglect
A solution often tried is to ignore a demand stream or two; board up the window and pretend you aren’t there. People ignore phone calls and voicemails all the time. Many have an inbox full of unread emails. As a result, they enjoy some peace. But this is neglect, and peace is only temporary.
Among the vast number of unread mail I have seen in people’s inboxes, essential news or information lies unaddressed or poorly actioned. Is it their problem? Yes, it is, and soon those essential items will find another route to the inbox owner, but with more aggression than before. Ignoring a demand stream merely ignores the problem.
Technology advances have made this problem worse thanks to the number of demand streams now available through which people can reach us no matter where we are. How often have you been asked, “Did you not get that email I sent you? The ball is now in your court”. Unfortunately, they are probably right if email is a demand stream you allow people to use.
The Bucket is Your Saviour
Again, the bucket is the key to effectively managing the demands of the construction site.
You cannot just board up a window. All that does is ignore the problem. You need to ensure there is a way for people to get their message to you, but a way that is convenient for you and grants you peace from interruptions. You need to leave a bucket.
Furthermore, you need to ensure people understand where to find this bucket and how to use it. For example, with calls, an easy way to leave a bucket is to activate your voicemail. The beauty here is that people already know how to use voicemail. You can now check all your voicemails, at times and frequencies of your choosing, and extract the critical or useful information. Ignore all the calls you want, but be sure to go through your voicemail, and regularly.
If you don’t empty your buckets regularly and review their contents, then you are again ignoring the window and the stream of demands the want to come through. Both you and others need to trust the bucket as a means to get messages to you. If you choose not to check your voicemail, then, to ensure you don’t miss important messages, you either need to answer your phone each time it rings (many interruptions), or throw the phone out altogether and tell people they cannot contact you that way. I have seen people opt for the latter; however, you now lose the many benefits of the phone. You can no longer arrange a discursive phone call with your designer about his latest drawings, for example. Instead, you’ll have to use a slower option such as email, or waste time in the car getting to a face-to-face meeting. The best solution is to leave a bucket and ensure you check it often enough to keep it trustworthy. How often this is, depends on you and the demand stream.
My suggestion is to get in the habit of emptying your buckets at least once a day using what I call the Daily Review – a vital tool for being effective that I teach in my masterclass program. Learning to use buckets is only one of the things I teach that keep you in control of the many moving parts for which you are responsible in your role on the construction site.
Examples of Demand Streams and Appropriate Buckets
Most demand streams have a standard way of collecting themselves if you leave them unanswered. I have listed some examples in the table below.
|Text Message||Text Inbox|
|Paper-based demands||Paper in-tray|
|Scans||Personal Scan Folder|
|Daily Reminders||Tickler File*|
*There are many guides online for creating a tickler file; it’s a great way to organize your reminders. I have set mine up on Evernote so it has unlimited capacity and goes where I go. If you want to learn how to set up and Evernote tickler file, comment below or sign up to work with me.
Work with me, and you’ll also learn my system for emptying buckets. Buckets are not for storage, they are for collecting and so must be emptied regularly. When you go through your text messages, you might find; one from your sibling asking for a favor, one from your boss asking for an update and one from an institution inviting you to an event. Each require different actions. You can’t leave them in the bucket, they need to be actioned. What do you do? How do you empty a bucket? Register to work with me and I will teach you how.