During the Industrial Revolution, factories measured productivity by looking at how much was produced within a period of time. If you’re a car manufacturer, for example, you would look at how many cars were built and produced within a day. In those times, increasing productivity often meant increasing efficiency. This was highly desirable, as this often correlates to higher revenues.

However, in the Information Age, and it’s much harder to measure productivity because the majority of our work is knowledge based.

For example, you can’t quantify replying 22 emails, writing x-amount of words or lines of code, or x-amount of pixels coloured as being more productive, because we need to take quality and importance into account as factors to success. Progress is determined by effectiveness, not efficiency.

Have you ever had a day doing a lot of things, but are only left feeling unsatisfied after reviewing what were the tasks that was completed? If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s because you’ve been doing a lot of busywork, and they’re not necessary work that’s actually important. In general when it comes to productivity, people are typically bad at two things:

  1. Deciding what’s actually important to do
  2. Writing out tasks that actually could be done within a day

Defining important versus urgent tasks 

Stephen Covey famously describes how we must prioritize our tasks in order to be effective people. By using this, you can easily identify which are the tasks that matter most in your work — the ones that will have an impact or drive immediate results to your goals and mission.

Simply make an exercise out of this, and help yourself prioritize your tasks. From your long to-do list, categorize your tasks into four categories:

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Source: Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Most people cannot tell the difference between the urgency and importance of their daily tasks. So, many resulted to acting on the urgent, but not important tasks, such as replying emails and phone calls in the middle of the day. These are typically easier to do, but they may not be the most important tasks.

What are the things that will impact your overall mission and goals if you get them done today?

Tasks that are immediate and time sensitive with important deadlines will be considered urgent and important. For example, if there’s a bug in your software and customers are complaining about it, you might want to fix it immediately. Other tasks that are involved with close deadlines would also fit into this category.

Important but not urgent tasks are those that may deal with long-term planning and development, such as the brainstorming session for the marketing strategies of the next quarter. It’s not particularly time sensitive, but it does speak to greater significance of the goals of the company.

But what about those incoming emails, and messages from coworkers that’s looking for a file? These tasks are time pressured distractions, that’s not important, but someone wants it now. They fit into the third category, urgent but not important. You can schedule these to do them later, or delegate them to someone else.

Tasks that are not urgent and not important would be things that yield little to no value or significance when you get them done. For example, reorganizing the projects into files and folders, or clearing your email inbox and putting them into their appropriate labels and folders. In the end, you may have felt like you’ve done a lot of work, but you’ve been doing a lot of busywork that doesn’t matter.

The truth is that you’ll be more likely to see how you’re spending your time on a given day, if you can distinguish between urgency and importance. And when this habit is done daily, you’ll find yourself working more effectively instead of just a lot of busywork.

So now that you’ve categorized your long list of todos into the four quadrants, it’s time to prioritize and act on the urgent and important tasks.

Three things you can try to improve your productivity and be more effective in your work.

  1. Every day, pick 3-5 items that you’re going to do. The obvious thing you’re doing here is deciding which items are important enough to make the list. But the real trick behind this is you’re inadvertently deciding what not to do.
  2. Make sure each item can be completed within your day. Large tasks are daunting in our mind, so break them into doable pieces that you can accomplish in a day. (Eg. work on website is too big to do in a day, but writing the “About” content for website is easier to finish in a day.)
  3. Be prepared for distractions. There are two kinds of distractions, external (eg. someone taps on your shoulder or asks you a question in person), and internal (eg. distractions caused by ourselves, which may be chasing links on the browser). Studies show that we’re typically distracted about 20 times a day. The key is to bring yourself back to refocus on the things you were last doing.

What tools or tactics are you using right now to help improve your productivity and stay effective for your work? Let me know in the comments below!

About the Author

Jennifer Lo is the co-founder and marketing lead at Dayboard. She's always down for an outdoor adventure, good company, and great wine.

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