Operational Debt: What It is and Why It Matters – Eat Your Career

In the busyness of everyday life, it’s easy to adopt a “do it later” mindset, especially when tasks seem small or insignificant. However, this approach can lead to something called “operational debt,” a buildup of unfinished tasks that can seriously hinder your productivity.

I found myself falling into this bad habit recently, so I’m not judging! When I stumbled upon the concept of operational debt, it struck me as important, and I have since tried to shift my behaviors in many ways as a result. So I wanted to share this idea to help anyone else who may also be struggling.

Operational debt is like a cluttered desk where every misplaced item represents a small portion of your time and energy that will eventually need to be spent tidying up. When we accumulate operational debt throughout the day (i.e., little things that need to be done as “clean up”), it creates physical and mental clutter. Preventing this kind of debt is a crucial part of workload management. As much as possible, we want to avoid creating it in the first place.

Understanding Operational Debt

Operational debt occurs when small tasks that could be completed immediately are postponed to a later time. I’m talking about things like not filing documents immediately, leaving emails unanswered, or not updating project statuses. These small, postponed tasks accumulate over time, forming a backlog that requires significant effort to clear. Consider the difference between emptying an inbox with 10 messages versus one with 100 messages. Not only does it feel totally overwhelming, but there’s a good chance you won’t get to all 100, and it will just continue to grow from there. To make matters worse, the enormous clean-up project creates added cognitive load as you worry about the continued accumulation and time required to clear the debt.

Strategies to Avoid Operational Debt

The trick is to avoid operational debt on the front end as much as possible. Take care of small items quickly and frequently so they don’t back up!

Implement a “touch it once” policy. When a quick task arises, handle it right then and there, if possible. Don’t postpone small things if doing them now will take a matter of seconds or a minute or two. It’s worth it to take the time now and avoid the backlog later.

Additionally, consider allocating specific times in your schedule for clearing potential operational debt on a more frequent basis. This could be a brief period at the end of each day or week dedicated to organizing files, updating records, or clearing your work area.

Operational debt is an often overlooked aspect of workplace efficiency that, when managed, can significantly enhance productivity. By adopting these strategies, you can improve your focus and clarity, and reduce your stress significantly. Remember that every small task you take care of today is one less that piles up for tomorrow!

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