Becoming better organised and more productive is a great goal to have. It frees up your time to do the things you want to do. Unfortunately, most people’s idea of becoming more productive and better at time management is about doing more work.
Perhaps, though, if you want to become more productive, you need to start doing less.
Your problems begin with your to-do list.
By their very nature, to-do lists encourage you to add tasks to them. The trouble with doing that is you add tasks that are not important and do not move anything significantly forward, and these dilute the critical tasks that will move you forward on your goals and projects.
Once your to-do list starts filling up, you lose sight of those critical tasks, and they get relegated to the bottom of your list. It is human nature to pick the low-hanging fruit. If you see a task that says, “sort out downloads folder”, you will choose that task over a task like “write 1,000 words of my book”.
To clean out your downloads folder, you will likely need no more than twenty minutes and not a lot of thought. To write 1,000 words of your book, you will have to open up Word, think and stay sat down for an hour or two. Which task are you more likely to do?
To-do lists also change the way you think about your work. You get caught up in activities and not the outcomes you are trying to achieve. When you get caught up in the activities, you confuse movement with achievement, which is a false belief. Movement does not always equate to achievement.
Instead of focusing on the tasks you think you have to do each day, you should focus on what outcomes you want to accomplish that day.
Let’s look at a simple example.
Imagine you have an agitated customer. You’ve been back and forth with emails trying to appease the customer, but they are still not happy. You’ve found yourself caught up in a cycle of email exchanges that are not moving anything forward.
Rather than creating a series of tasks on your to-do list such as: “reply to unhappy customer’s email” or “talk to my boss about the customer’s issues”, start with your desired outcome.
What outcome do you want to accomplish?
Your outcome could be something like: “To solve this customer’s problem and to turn them into our happiest customer”.
Now, ask yourself, what do you have to do to achieve that result?
In my mind, it would be to pick up the phone and talk to the customer. If they are in a different country with a different time zone, schedule a Zoom call with them.
You will achieve a lot more and far faster speaking directly with the customer than you ever will going back and forth with email.
You should approach every day in this way: What outcomes do you want for the day?
When you focus on your outcomes, you find you require a lot less activity. Often the fastest way between where you are now and where you want to be is a single big push in one area and not a series of little inconsequential tasks that leave you feeling busy and exhausted and not much further towards solving the issue.
My outcome for today is to finish writing my two big writing projects for this week. My result for tomorrow is to complete the seminar slide deck I am doing next week. That is three tasks. But, if I accomplish those tasks in the next forty-eight hours, I will have moved so much of my work for the week forward. I will not stress whether I have time to finish the seminar slide deck or get my writing done. I know I will get them done because these are written in my task manager, and I have the required amount of time blocked off in my calendar to make sure they get done.
I know to achieve a particular result will require some activity. Still, if I sit down and spend thirty minutes brainstorming a list of actions to achieve that result, I will start adding many small, insignificant tasks to my to-do list. If I start with “what is my objective here?” The most important activity will float to the top.
What’s my objective here? To write this week’s blog post. Great, open up Ulysses (my writing app) and start writing. That’s what I did this morning. And here I am, with a finished blog post just waiting to be edited and posted. What was on my to-do list? “Write this week’s blog post”. That was my outcome.
If you want to become more productive, then stop adding tasks to your to-do list. Think about what you are trying to achieve and make that your task.
Instead of adding all your actionable emails individually into your to-do list, create a folder to hold actionable emails and have one task in your to-do list called “Clear my actionable email folder”. That’s your outcome, right? To respond to your actionable email.
If you want to achieve more in less time, stop thinking activity and start thinking objectives. What do you want to accomplish today? Having one or two objectives for the day will give you far more focus and will result in many more fulfilling days than a list of tasks that might be urgent but are certainly not crucial that leaves you feeling drained and exhausted.
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