Busy Doesn’t Equal Productive

What does it mean to be productive? How do you measure the success of each day? Do you go home feeling like nothing was accomplished? It’s easy to spend all day looking busy. Hell, it’s easy to spend all day actually being busy. It’s hard to have all that busy-ness translate into actual progress towards your goals.

In any given day at the office, you’re going to have a few things that have to be done for the man, a few things that are going to come up and have to be dealt with and a lot of things that are going to be complete wastes of your time. Your challenge is to manage all these task lists in a way that leaves you plenty of time to reach your actual goals.

There are any number of ways to attempt to manage all your conflicting priorities. Most of them are pointless. All of them are ineffective at helping you work toward getting the things done that you actually care about, unless you first examine why the tasks you’re trying to manage are actually worth managing.

We could spend a long time talking about methodology for tracking tasks, projects, goals and priorities. Personally, I’m a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. I’d recommend that you grab a copy of the book and put the principles into practice. But, here’s the rub: you have to actually get things done.

Fiddling about with systems, software and new and improved methods of tracking your tasks is not the same as completing them.

Now, the biggest problem you’re going to encounter as you try to work toward your personal goals in the context of your 9 to 5 is balancing your work priorities with your actual priorities. You have to get a certain amount accomplished for the man in order to keep up your end of the unspoken agreement that you will trade some of your time to help the company’s bottom line. So the real trick is figuring out how to manage your day so that your work life and your life goals can peacefully coexist.

Avoid the myth that priorities are important. Just because Task A is “work” and Task B is “personal” doesn’t mean that Task A should be done first. Pound this truth into your head: work doesn’t trump life. If you prioritize based on you’re company’s goals, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

By the same token, don’t ignore your agreed-to responsibilities in order to accomplish personal priorities. Like just about everything else in life, balance is the key to success.

In David Allen’s GTD system, he suggests a “weekly review” to keep yourself on track with your projects and tasks. It’s a good idea. But I think too many people maintain segregated thinking when they work on prioritizing their goals. It’s easy to separate everything into “piles.” Work goes in this pile; oh, wait, that’s an idea for my side business, that goes in the personal pile. This kind of thinking leads to stressful thinking and is counterproductive. You’ll find you spend more time managing your piles than you do getting things done.

Try setting aside some time each week to review ALL your piles. As a matter of fact, it’s time to take those piles and shove them together. Now spend 30 minutes or so picking out the tasks that need to, and can, be accomplished this week. No you have a unified list that includes all the things that are important to you this week.

The reason this works is you already know what’s important to you and you already know what needs to happen to move closer toward your goals. The only thing that changed is you removed a huge mental obstacle to productivity. You gave yourself permission to act.

Now you can begin DOING your tasks, rather than spending all your time shuffling them around.