The First Principle of Effectiveness: "Don't do what no one on earth should be doing."

Did you know that 19.7% of our work lives are spent doing things which, in our own judgment, should not be done by anyone? That is equivalent one day per week in a five-day work week or eight years of a 40-year career.

We also know that these tasks are both stressful and dissatisfying. We now know what these tasks are, and we know how to get rid of them. But before we get to that, we must understand why we do them.

"All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on." - Henry Havelock Ellis

The Screening Trap

For us to be able to screen what we should not do, we must know what we should do.

This is the single most important insight about screening. Peter Drucker poses this question: If we weren’t doing it, would we start doing it? If we wouldn’t start it, we should screen it.

People do what they do for a myriad of reasons. They have been told to do it; they are in the habit of doing it; it’s always been done; they like to do it; they hate to do it but feel powerless to change it.

For lack of screening, people stay in loveless relationships, endure abuse and scorn, and stay in jobs they loathe.

The psycho-social architecture that governs this insane behavior is the evil twin of a good life. It is what keeps tyrants in power – whether at home, at work or in charge of a country.

When asked why they don’t screen dysfunctional behaviors, it is not difficult to come up with a good excuse. Often it is based on fear: fear of losing a job, fear of losing a spouse, fear of being alone. Some of these fears may be justified, but they are not real fears. A real fear is a life-threatening diagnosis of illness, a truck veering out of control and coming toward you, a misstep that plunges you below the icy surface of a current-driven river.

At a chemical plant, a bright and gifted worker made a perfunctory visit to the guard house every morning.

"What are you doing?"

"I’m checking in my brain at the gate."


"Because no one seems to have any use for it at the plant."

When his brain and those of his co-workers were put to use, the plant went from worst to first in their industry.

The other fears – consequences of loss – are imagined fears. They are not real; they are projected. They exist in the darkest recesses of our minds, and they may never even come to pass if we act to overcome them.

Where do people find the courage to overcome these imagined fears? When they get angry. Anger is a prelude to courage. And if we get angry enough, we change.

Is there a better way?

Anger can be a dangerous and destructive emotion. It is a "push" emotion; it kicks us towards action.

We should seek the "pull" of the good life. A job that we love. Partners and friends that nurture and support us. Vacations that delight us.

On a U.S. military base, we discovered the onerous and disliked routines for checking out tools and parts for equipment repairs. During a seminar, a few of the base personnel role-played some of the most egregious situations that had occurred, and everyone dissolved in helpless laughter.

We asked, "Would you do this in war time?"

"Of course not!"

"Then why do it in peace time?"

It is the vision of the good life, the good work, that is our standard for what we should do – and what we should not do. That vision should be strong enough so that it decides for us when we ask: Would this task move me closer to my vision, or not? If not, should it be done by someone else? If the answer is "no," then screen it!

I remember in Army boot camp being part of 50 recruits marching in close formation. It was like a herd of cows.

Then one day, sometime later, we all moved as one. Every foot hit the ground at the same instant. Every arm moved in sync with the others. The small hairs on the back of our necks rose. We understood, for the first time, what it meant to be aligned, to be a unit, to be a team.

We never forgot it. And it carried over into everything else we did.

The most important thing to screen is a bad attitude. If we harbor a bad attitude, our data show that 9.8% of work time is adversely affected.

Bad attitudes infect others. They can turn a company against its customers, and against itself. A bad attitude is like an auto-immune disease that attacks its host body.

A friend of mine is a well known consultant from Europe. He once noticed that people in the large multinational company he was advising were always late for meetings. This behavior obviously wasted the time of those who were timely.

The next day, all the meetings started on time, and the doors were locked for those who were late.

Before the week was over, everyone was on time. He estimated that the time savings alone would be in seven figures.

The next most important things to screen are unnecessary policies and procedures. Perhaps a procedure was right once upon a time, though now it is no longer useful. It is like hardening of the corporate arteries. Where they exist, they rob us of 9.2% of productive time.

In an automobile parts plant in Michigan, lack of demand caused the plant to lay off many workers. In the plant office, the necessary bureaucratic paperwork was given to a person who did not know how to "dot the i’s and cross the t’s" so the laid off workers could collect unemployment insurance.

The insurance claims piled up. The workers got angry. They took their anger out on the office worker until she broke down crying, and admitted that she just did not know how to do it, but said nothing because she was afraid of losing her job.

Then follows lack of teamwork. Survival – personal and professional – is hard enough to achieve on your own; it is impossible if you have to fight your teammates as well. People long for the camaraderie and cooperation that a good team fosters. If teamwork falters, 9.1% of productive work never materializes.

Then we have the perennial curse of the workplace: meetings! A whopping 8.13% of all meeting time should never have taken place, according to our data. And people in many different careers spend much of their work lives in meetings. Think about it.

Finally, people should screen work for which they lack necessary skills or knowledge to perform. For those in that situation, they waste 7.8% of their time.

An organization that addresses and resolves these five issues should restore most of the one day per week, which it loses to lack of screening.

By confronting these self-defeating behaviors, we do achieve an extraordinary freeing of resources. But we still must ensure that we know that we should do.

That aspect of productivity improvement we shall address later. And that is the purpose of our work.

© 2002 Tor Dahl & Associates