It’s easy to mistake the completion of tasks with being productive. Productivity is a measurement of the value of the work you’ve done, not the number of tasks. The nature and value of the task is a more valuable indication of productivity.
Have you ever written down the tasks you need to complete after you’ve already completed them? Did you get a certain sense of accomplishment having done trivial tasks, written those tasks as if they were to-dos, and then scratched them off the list? If you’ve done this, congratulations, you’re human. We like to feel as if we’re making progress, even if it means deluding ourselves in the process.
If you’ve ever crossed tasks you’ve already completed from a list that you wrote after doing the work, you are getting productivity exactly backward. Unless cleaning your desk is your highest priority, scratching that off the list is no indication that you been productive. If you’ve managed to answer all your emails, you have found the holy grail of productivity, the elusive Inbox Zero, you have not been productive. Answering your emails is exactly as productive as pulling the weeds in your yard; it’s necessary, but it doesn’t move the needle on your highest priorities.
One of the most important strategies for being productive is to know what your most important outcomes are, and to design your work accordingly. Right now, there is no lack of work tasks that you could be doing. There is also no end to the competing priorities vying for your time and attention. There are also infinite distractions available to you wherever you are, including work. Without doing the work to define what your work is, what work creates the greatest outcomes, what is most important now and why, it’s easy to feel a sense of overwhelm and paralysis.
Doing work without a plan for what work needs to be done is a recipe for being unproductive. You must go into every day knowing what needs to be done that day to move the needle. You need to know what work is meaningful. Not having a plan allows you to step onto the slippery slope of doing make-work and trivial tasks that contribute nothing to your goals, even if you get a sense of accomplishment for scratching them off your to-do list.
To be productive, do the highest value tasks that produce the most important outcomes first.