Yours, Mine, and Theirs: The 3 Kinds of Work, and How to Keep it all in Balance

by Jon Ogden
, 6 min read
3 kinds of work

By Heather Hurst, Senior Director of Corporate Marketing at Workfront

***

There are at least 12,000 different types of jobs in existence today, from Able Seaman to Zoologist, according to careerplanner.com. But whether you toil on sea or on land, there are really only three kinds of work:

  • The work I assign to myself. These are the tasks you perform without anyone telling you to. They are often the core components of your job description. You are primarily accountable to yourself. You might think of it as “my work.”
  • The work others assign to me. These are the tasks you perform at the request of a boss, manager, cross-functional team, or colleague. You are accountable to someone else. You might think of it as “not my work, but your work.”
  • The work I assign to others. You’re not actually the one completing these tasks, but you do have a stake in making sure they get done. Someone else is accountable to you. You might think of it as “their work.”

As much as I love zoology, I’m most qualified to address the world of knowledge work, where the intangible nature of our jobs makes it increasingly difficult to keep resources for these three kinds of work in balance. At the zoo, you probably get your work assignments face-to-face, while standing in front of the elephant exhibit. But digital workers like me are forced to keep track of emails, sticky notes, texted requests, assignments made in Slack and other IM tools, not to mention those work assignments made face-to-face (which almost never happens in front of the elephant exhibit, unfortunately).

With work flying at us from so many different directions, it’s no wonder we struggle to keep on top of the three kinds of work. But there is hope. Here are my four favorite tricks for keeping it all in balance.

1. Take the work you assign yourself seriously.

If you’re anything like me, you find it much easier to prioritize other people’s requests than to elevate your own core work to priority status. Case in point: It’s not uncommon to find me crushing my deadlines for other people during the workweek, which forces me to catch up on my work on Sunday mornings, from the serenity of my basement office, with Edward trying to climb onto my lap. (Yes, this story is suitable for work; Edward is my overly affectionate goldendoodle.)

Even if you don’t have a goldendoodle—which I suggest you remedy ASAP—you can probably relate. Our most recent State of Work report tells us that the average knowledge worker spends just 44% of their time performing their “primary job duties.” The rest of the time is spent on email, meetings, administrative work, and yes, other people’s priorities.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you don’t take your own priorities seriously enough to build a proactive structure around them, nobody else will. So take a stand. Block out time on your calendar. Add your personal work tasks to your team’s project management solution. Make your work visible to yourself and to your team. Stake a claim on your own time first, even making room for your personal values and your vision of work-life balance.

Arguing in support of “the preemptive strike” and the importance of valuing your own needs, business psychologist Tony Crabbe wrote, “When setting boundaries, we have to accept that some things will have to give as we negotiate with our manager or partner. What’s important is that we are clear about those things that really matter to us, and build boundaries around them.”

2. Monitor all three types of work in the same system.

How do you manage the three different types of work—assigned by yourself, assigned by others, and assigned to others?

At a past managerial job, which predated modern work management solutions, freelance marketing writer Angie Lucas organized her work this way:

“As the manager of an editorial team for a niche magazine, I maintained an Excel spreadsheet and a series of file folders on our shared drive, where articles would move progressively from folder to folder—first draft, substantive edit, copy edit, final. But I tracked my own tasks on a handwritten to-do list that no one else had access to. Even though both types of work were related to the same overarching project—putting out the next magazine issue—I had to mentally jump back and forth between two different systems. And to be honest, it was all too easy to let the handwritten to-do list slide.”

Keep in mind that was 2009—an eternity ago in this age of digital transformation. If you’re still organizing your work this way, it’s time to take a giant leap into the present. Today’s technology can handle it all. A modern Operational System of Record (OSR) makes it easy to collect every type of work into a centralized work queue, which has the embedded intelligence to push work from step to step automatically. Your work queue for a particular day might include one task of your own, two tasks from your manager, and three tasks you assigned to team members (but you’re keeping an eye on). It all lives in one centralized space. You can see all the tasks that are competing for your time, which gives you a better chance of prioritizing them effectively—without letting your own priorities fall by the wayside.

3. Get CAIRO on your side.

What about those situations when you don’t know whether the work is yours, theirs, or someone else’s? You know your team is responsible for a project; you’re just not sure who’s in charge of mapping out the project, making the assignments, or you know, doing the actual work. Before the project devolves into confusion, chaos, and duplicated effort, get your team together and create a responsibility assignment matrix. It sounds like a mouthful, but it can be really helpful.

First, make a grid with the areas of responsibility on the vertical axis and the names of your available resources along the horizontal axis. Then for each area of responsibility, assign each team member one of the following roles:

C = Consulted. This role has some input but no actual responsibility.
A = Accountable. This is the person who delegates the task and owns the final approval.
I = Informed. These people are kept apprised of progress but have no direct role in the work.
R = Responsible. This is the person performing the task.
O = Omitted (or out of the loop). This person has no involvement at all.

This exercise is especially helpful for project types that your team tackles frequently. When you clarify roles in this way, you’re less likely to struggle with people overstepping their roles at one extreme or dropping the ball at the other. Using the acronym can also take the emotion out of conversations surrounding areas of responsibility: “Who had the A on this task?” sounds much friendlier than “Now, who was supposed to make sure this got done?” And “Dave, you have a C on this one, so we’d like your input, but Debbie has the R” is a super neutral way of saying, “Dave, back off and let Debbie do her thing.”

4. Use automated resource management.

You had me at “automated.” When you have all of your team’s work running through a work management solution—also known as an Operational System of Record (OSR)—the system will show you at a glance which of your resources is overloaded and who might have some bandwidth. If everyone is tracking “yours, mine, and theirs” inside the same system, it’s much easier to keep everything in balance. Even better, a system like Workfront can divvy out tasks automatically based on skill set and availability—but you can override it as well. Your centralized dashboard helps you ensure that everyone’s personal priorities get the respect they deserve (including your own) and that team priorities can move forward in a more collaborative way. Everyone will clearly understand how they need to contribute, when their contribution is due, and to whom they’re accountable for the work.

Before you trade your job in for one of the 11,999 others that might occasionally sound more appealing—archivist, glazier, hydrologist, roustabout—put these tips into practice. Armed with a bit more clarity around roles and responsibilities, a centralized system for tracking work and collaborating with colleagues, and greater balance between yours and others’ priorities, you might discover you’re exactly where you want to be.

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