I had a really unproductive Monday this week. There were a few big things I really needed to get done that day, some important pieces of a project that were my responsibility, and some tasks other people were waiting on me to finish so they could then complete what they had to do.
Yet no matter how many times I attempted to get started on the important tasks of the day, I kept trying to pay attention to too many things at once, getting distracted by unimportant “shiny” stuff, and before I knew it my time for completing work was gone for the day.
Basically, I was terrible at my job on Monday, and it cost me. I lost some reliability points from my teammates, lost some faith in my ability to be disciplined about how I work, and worst of all I lost several hours of productive time I couldn’t really afford to lose.
But I bounced back the next day, and each day after that I got more work done and met all the important deadlines I had. I didn’t become a productivity machine, and I still couldn’t do everything I wanted to in the midst of multiple meetings and random interruptions. But I made up for the time I had wasted on Monday, and all it took was a small change in perspective:
I stopped trying to do more work, and that enabled me to get more done.
That sounds counter-intuitive, but what it really means is that I stopped panicking about all the work I had to do, all that I hadn’t done yet, and forced myself not to start more than one task at a time. Because I’ve learned that I don’t do my job well if I’m multitasking, and there’s really no reason that I need to be multitasking to get stuff done. That I really complete tasks with more efficiency and better results if I remain focused and mindful about finishing tasks one at a time.
It’s a hard habit to build, and I’m still working on it. The problem with multitasking is that it makes us feel busy and important and like we’re getting stuff done, and sometimes we are, but more often than not I’ve found that my multitasking means starting way more things at once than I will ever finish.
It took effort and discipline to not start on any other task until I had finished the one I started. And sure, there were interruptions along the way, and breaks to check on messages and social media. But in the end, though I worked on fewer tasks, the work I did was my best work because I gave it my full attention.
It’s never fun to end a day feeling disappointed because you didn’t spend time productively. I’ve often felt that when I’m focused on the number of things I wanted to do that I didn’t get to. But choosing quantity as a measure of productivity stacks the deck against you, especially if you’re more of an information worker. Measuring our work based on number of tasks completed is not really the best way to measure how productive we are. I can put out a lot of stuff that’s mediocre or even crappy if output is all that matters. But the quality of my work is more important and more valuable.
Now I understand that what matters is making the best use of my time each day to complete tasks I’m responsible for with mindful focus. I can Do More, or Do Better. It’s unrealistic to always do both.
Lately I’ve aimed to complete three goals a day, and make only one of them a big thing. If I can complete one or two “big” things a week and do them well, then I’m happy. I know that’s what’s realistic for me right now.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed — maybe you just got back from a big conference and there’s a ton of email to go through and meetings to catch up on? Take a moment in the morning and pick three things you know you can realistically complete that day, and then start one of them. Then when you’re done with that, take a break and start the next one and repeat. You’ll feel a lot more in control of everything if you start by controlling everything one thing at a time.
They say less is more. Now I understand that doing less is doing more. So I’m going to try to do more… less.