The other day I posted a question on LinkedIn. I wondered “Why are we productive? Is it just to be busy or advance the mission?” Everyone I know has a “to-do” list. Some use a pad of paper and pen, others use the reminders app on their phones, and some team members use project management software to meet their deadlines. No matter what system or method you use, no one ever asks why. Why be productive in the first place?
I had a coworker at an old engineering company who was busy. She was busy all the damn time, running around with stacks of paper, and always behind on her submissions. She would stay late after work.
After a while, her boss noticed this and she was called in to explain all her missed deadlines. They equated her working late to working hard but after all these missed deadlines they couldn’t figure out what was going on.
She showed them her task list and all the things she crossed off and they were dumbfounded. She had all the resources she needed to get the job done and all the tasks on her list made sense to them, so where was the disconnect?
The disconnect was in the task list. There were so many unnecessary tasks and processes that she was doing. She was doing a lot of unnecessary busy work that didn’t add anything to the deadline or her product design.
She had fallen into the trap of “I have to add this task to my list and do it” without critically evaluating whether it was important to the project and mission.
She stepped back, reprioritized her tasks, and became ruthless in what she added to her list. She started to say “no” to tasks that had no value or benefit to her project. She started to question if a process the company had in place made sense instead of blindly following it.
Over the course of two months, she transformed herself and her project into a lean, productive, and under-budget project. She met all her deadlines and got to go home to her family, on time, every night. Her whole life had changed by pondering the question “why the hell are we doing this?”
She became my inspiration.
Ruthless. That’s the word I use for my daily tasks. I’m ruthless when it comes to my writing time, my work time, and my personal time. I do this to keep myself productive, happy, and above all sane!
When I’m presented with another “to do” item, whether it’s at work or in my personal life, I think about it for a minute. I ask myself the question, does this add value to my mission? To my values? To my life?
If the answer is no, I’ll politely decline or state that it’s not central to the mission at hand.
If the answer is yes, I’ll consider its priority level. Is it an A task or a B task? If it’s an A task it’s important and urgent, it needs to be dealt with immediately. If it’s a B task, it’s important but not urgent — yet.
I assign my tasks based on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (affiliate link) methodology. Think of every task categorized as urgent/not urgent and important/not important. You can then put them into a graph and see which ones you should do first, second, or forget.
The “A” tasks are the ones that are important and urgent. Those are the ones that need your immediate attention. They include a deadline you’ve neglected or a project you need to finish. This could include attending your kid’s dance recital or planning a romantic dinner with your partner. These are the tasks that need to get done, pronto!
The “B” tasks are not urgent but important. These are the tasks that if you ignore them will become urgent. These include compiling your taxes before the deadline, or doing maintenance on your car before it becomes a costly problem.
The trick to having a healthy and productive life is to clear out the “A” tasks as fast as you can, then work on the “B” tasks. If you finish all your “B” tasks then you’ll have your life under control and feel a lot happier!
What about the “C” and “D” tasks? The ones that are urgent/not important and not-urgent/not important? What about those? Those you can forget. Those are the ones that are plain busy work, being busy for the sake of being busy. Those tasks don’t move the needle and only hurt you in the long run.
Those are the tasks that my colleague evaluated and tossed. Those were the tasks that revealed themselves to be time sucks and useless when asked, “Why am I doing this? Does this add to my mission? To my project?”
Too often I see teammates reprioritizing tasks thinking it’ll fix their problems, whatever they are. Too many people get too much work piled on them and never ask “why should we do this task?” We’ve been conditioned to just accept what our managers and higher-ups want us to do. Don’t dare question them, right?
I have nothing against reprioritizing tasks that add value to the project or mission, what I have a problem with is not critically evaluating each and every task. We have to always ask, why?
We have to become ruthless with our time and with the work we perform. If we don’t we risk burnout. We fail at our mission at work and in our personal lives. Questioning productivity and the value the tasks bring is the first step.
Start small but start today. For the next task on your list, ask yourself why is it important. Why is it urgent? Then go from there.
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