My friend Dave* mentioned to me that he just received the results from a medical exam and was surprised and disappointed by his numbers. His cholesterol was high. Especially, he told me, given how he eats.
"Dave," I said, "you can't be serious. You eat horribly. Everything you eat is fried. And if it's not, then it's a chocolate chip cookie. I can't remember seeing you eat a vegetable. How can you expect your cholesterol to be anything other than high?"
"But the day before the test," he answered, "I ate really well."
The idea of immediate results is alluring. Almost all of advertising is built on the notion that if you just buy this (whatever it is), then you'll instantly have love, success, and power.
It's the temptation of the lottery. Who among us hasn't played at least once, imagining how many of our problems could be solved in a moment? Can Dave be faulted for expecting the internal workings of his body to change based on a single day of healthy eating?
Yet instant results are almost always unattainable. Sure, someone wins the lottery. But it's so unlikely to be you that, statistically speaking, your chance is zero.
I was reminded of all this when responding to a reporter about what advice I would give to someone who wanted to ask for a raise at a time when most wages are stagnating or falling. My answer? Don't ask.
It's not that I think people can't get raises right now. It's that if you haven't spent the last year laying the groundwork, it's highly unlikely that you'll be successful. There's no formula — no perfect words or positioning — that will magically deliver a raise with a day or two of preparation.
But there is a formula for getting more money over time. And if you start now, it can position you to get a raise next year.
The formula is based on one simple premise: We can get more money when we demonstrate that we've added more value. And we can add more value when we spend the majority of our time focusing on the work that the most senior leaders in the organization consider valuable. That is almost always work that increases revenue or profits, either short-term or long-term.
But aren't we already doing this to the best of our ability? I think the deck is stacked against us. We're all overloaded, working on too many things. Answering too many emails that don't matter. Offering opinions that aren't necessary. Spending time on issues whose outcomes we can't impact. Doing work that's more bureaucratic than beneficial. There's no question that we're all busier than ever before, but we often are not getting the most important things done.
There are always some things that are more important to do than other things. The problem is that most of us aren't clear about what those are, so one of two things happen: either we put same amount of energy and effort into everything or we let the wrong things fall through the cracks.
Minimizing that noise is our opportunity. Making more intentional and strategic choices about where to spend our time can mean the difference between a stagnant salary and a growing one.
Here's my formula: During this year's compensation conversation, take whatever is given to you without negotiation. If it's appropriate, acknowledge that it's been a hard year, and voice your appreciation for what's been offered. Explain that you are less interested in a raise right now and more interested in how you can add tremendous value in the organization — that's what you want to talk about.
Think like a shareholder of the company. Ask lots of questions about the strategy, what's keeping the top leaders awake at night, how your department impacts revenue or profitability, and what's important to your direct manager. Identify, with your manager, the top two or three things you can work on that will drive revenue or profitability. Once you've had that conversation, you'll have your raise-worthy work focus.
Now keep those two or three things on the top of your to-do list. Make sure that the majority of your effort moves the organization further in those areas. Share your to-do list with your manager, making sure that the two of you stay on the same page about what's important and how it's impacting the organization. Do everything you can to quantify the impact you're making. If your manager starts asking you to do things outside the top two or three things, push back and have a conversation about it. Sure, you'll need to work on some things that aren't important. But make a strategic choice to shortchange those. Do just enough to get by on them; they don't really matter anyway.
After about six months of this laser focus, you're ready to have another conversation with your manager to identify the impact you've had and prove that you've added tremendous value on the things that matter most.
During that discussion you're ready to talk about a real raise. That's good timing since most organizations are beginning to think through their departmental budgets and promotions around the six-month mark.
Here's what's powerful about this formula: It's not a trick. It's in everyone's best interests. If you focus on the things that are most important — even if it requires that you push back against your manager when he or she asks you to work on frivolous things — ultimately you'll be more productive, your manager will be more productive, and the organization will be more productive. That's money in the bank. It will make your job more secure and you more promotable.
"So," I asked Dave. "Now that you know you have high cholesterol, are you going to change the way you eat?"
"No," Dave answered, true to form, "I'm taking a pill. My cholesterol will be lower in a few days and I can still eat everything."
Maybe I like doing things the hard way. But as far as I know, there's no pill for getting a raise. Still, at a time when wages in most fields are stagnant or falling, it's nice to know at least there's a formula.
*Name and some details changed
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.