How To Prioritise Productivity In A Busy World

Productivity is one of those buzz words that attracts an enormous amount of attention of all the freelancers, start-up owners, students, people building their careers in the corporate world etc., which is quite understandable. After all, we live in a fast-paced world, overwhelmed with data and ever-growing to-do lists. In this chaotic environment that glorifies hustling (aka running on 4 hours of sleep and being on the verge of a mental breakdown couple of times per year), it’s only natural to look for tips, and life hacks to deal with the self-imposed pressure of getting as much done as possible in the shortest amount of time. 

What if, instead of being busy with we chose to prioritise productivity?

We’ve been conditioned by the world to believe that having each waking moment of our days planned out is not only acceptable but impressive. We’ve been wired to work on millions of different projects, attend various meetings, be “booked and busy”, and call it productivity. The ability to multitask, simultaneously focus on different things, and power through each day like a machine is generally seen as productivity, when in reality it’s the exact opposite. 

I don’t know how many times in school I heard teachers praise the culture of busyness and say things like: “you can sleep when you’re dead“. When it happens repeatedly, it eventually gets imprinted in your mind. So, once again, I don’t know how and when, but by the time I finished primary school, I was just a tiny efficient cog in the machine of our lovely capitalistic system. You know, the usual: working my little booty off, studying long hours, constantly worrying. Feeling like rest and relaxing is for the unambitious, lazy people. Like each free moment needs to be instantly filled with more work. Like no matter how hard I try, I’m just not doing good enough. 

Fast forward to now, a couple of years smarter and equipped with some psychological knowledge on the intricacies of the human mind, I have an illusion to shatter for you: it’s all a myth! Being busy is not equivalent to being productive. Not even close. 

Productivity vs Busyness

Busyness does not produce anything. What it can do instead is steal our time with shallow, rushed, low quality work. Busyness feeds on socially acquired perfectionism and externally imposed standards. We want and need to be good at everything, which is simply not possible. So, naturally, what follows are our frantic attempts at working even harder and longer, but not necessarily smarter. We end up totally exhausted from all the multitasking and horribly consumed by stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation and, in some cases, burnout. And that’s not even the worst part. The absolute nightmare of this vicious circle of busyness is the fact that all this time, we’ve been drifting away from our dreams and goals for the future. Since we’re so busy, there’s no time to think of such matters… If you prioritise everything and everyone but yourself, there is just not enough time left in the day to focus on anything else, including you. 

Productivity, on the other hand, is all about the art of choosing wisely. These decisions are guided by our “why”, our core values, our purpose. Instead of the unattainable desire to be mediocre at everything, productivity urges us to aim for greatness at a couple of important things. Goals that we align with. Plans that, over time, bring us closer to our long-term vision. As an effect, our work is filled with meaning and passion. We feel good and relaxed, investing our time and energy in them. It is much easier to drop into this nearly-meditative flow state of uninterrupted, deep work. With that headspace, in an environment free of distractions, we’re able to genuinely prioritise productivity. 

Everyday we can either be productive or busy. The choice is ours

How to achieve this idyllic zen? Three words:

Prioritise, Then Execute 

When researching the topic of productivity, you will most likely encounter many online gurus telling you about the importance of time management, habit formation and discipline. While that is all very important and valid, I have observed that those who strive to upgrade the quality of their work and level up their performances already manage their time pretty well.

What often escapes our attention is… the attention itself. It is safe to say that each of us, at one point or another, has experienced the struggle of managing the piling-up deadlines, missed calls and unanswered emails. What usually follows after are the hectic attempts of doing all at the same time. I’ve been there, trust me. The effect of this “great plan”? Spreading myself too thin, bringing shitty results and feeling rather sour about the whole situation. I, short, being busy. 

However, it all changed for me when I encountered the golden rule: Prioritise, Then Execute, described in the book “Extreme Ownership: How Navy SEALS Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The authors share their secret to taking ownership in distressing, critical situations. Now just to clarify – I am not at the level of Navy SEAL soldier or anything close to it! But, nevertheless, I know only too well the metaphorical battlefield of overflowing workload. 

My version of their method looks more or less like this:

  1. Take a step back. Try to distance yourself from the uncomfortable emotions. Instead of feeding your anxiety and stress, quiet your mind and take some deep breaths.
  2. Once you’re calm and collected, ask yourself – “What is my number one priority right now?“. Identify the task of the highest importance. Feel free to make a list of tasks arranged in a hierarchical order. Prioritise, then…
  3. Execute! Bring your attention exclusively to the crucial task. Keep your focus on the execution.
  4. Once the job is done, move to the next priority down the list. 

In short, a recipe to prioritise productivity. Sounds pretty logical, right? But what if we can’t identify the priority? What if everything seems super-critical and looks like it needs to be done ASAP?

The Mere-Urgency Effect

If you are struggling with this, just keep in mind that you’re totally not the only one. For instance, I am more than familiar with this phenomenon; I pretty much know it inside out. It goes by a charming name of “the mere-urgency effect”. Let’s take a closer look at this little gremlin, shall we?

In 2018, Meng Zhu, Yang Yang and Christopher K Hsee published a study that gives insight into how we, humans, organise our hierarchy of priorities when confronted with different tasks on a spectrum of urgency and importance. It turns out that people generally tend to prioritise more time-sensitive tasks, even if they won’t bring any long-term benefits. At the same time, we’re more willing to neglect less urgent projects, even if those provide a fantastic opportunity for a greater reward later. In a nutshell, if there is a deadline on a particular project, we will gravitate towards completing that first, time after time, because that’s what we become fixated on… removing the feeling of a time crunch! So it doesn’t matter if you’re a mom with a full-time job, a business owner, or a student struggling with procrastination – there’s nothing that pushes us to work more effectively than a looming deadline. 

How to counteract it?

However, the researchers also discovered is that it is possible to reverse the mere-urgency effect. The solution here is not to remove all the urgent matters, never fulfilling our responsibilities and calling it a day. The step in the right direction is, pretty much always, to try to regain balance. If our natural tendency pulls us towards urgency, let’s counteract that a bit. It can be done by seeing the bigger picture, thinking of long-term consequences and contemplating our daily choices as contributors or roadblocks to our purpose. Making that framework a habit facilitates focusing on what really matters, letting go of the busyness and moving towards prioritising productivity. 

Prioritise Productivity with The Eisenhower Matrix

To all of you who are familiar with this excellent tool: welcome, fellow productivity geeks. 

To all of you who’ve never heard of that model: also welcome, make yourself comfortable and please take some notes because what I’m about to share with you can effectively end all the issues described above. 

The Eisenhower Matrix is a prioritisation method created by Dwight D. Eisenhower and later described in 1989 by Steven Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. The framework does a fantastic job at minimising the mere-urgency effect, limiting the activities that waste our time, freeing up mental space and committing to self-development. 

Here’s how it works:

The Graphic of Esienhower Matrix that shows how to prioritise productivity

Urgent Tasks That Keep You Busy

These are the tasks that have a deadline and need to be acted upon. Urgent tasks are pretty visible and unavoidable. They simply need to be done, or else there will be consequences of not fulfilling the task. A perfect example is a school project, a deadline at work or an electricity bill to pay. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine the eventual outcome of neglecting these duties. A failed class, a low grade, a lost chance for promotion or cut out electricity in the apartment. In a nutshell, not so much fun. 

So we usually prevent these undesired events from happening. Unfortunately, the main danger lies in focusing too much only on these pressing matters limited by time. Due to the mere-urgency effect, we put priority on getting this category of tasks done first. Sometimes it can backfire or impede the quality of our work. After all, how productive are you really when you decide to go through your taxes in the morning and commence your work responsibilities afterwards? Additionally, the more we engage with them, the higher possibility of stressing out, struggling with anxiety and experiencing burnout. 

Important Tasks That Keep You Productive

This category of tasks is subjective to each person. What is important to me can be totally meaningless to someone else. So every individual needs to define this area on their own. It usually stems from personal values, goals, visions and dreams. It can be anything from learning a new language, playing the guitar to writing a book, meditating or following a bakery course etc. Fulfilling these projects almost always calls for such methods as mindful planning, intentional action, time, energy, and attention management. To make our dreams come true, we have to start by making time to move towards it one step at a time. 

The tricky part is: these tasks rarely have a deadline. We are not pressured to tackle them. We can put them off just in case something “more important” pops up. So what do we end up doing so often? Putting them off, postponing, neglecting, ignoring, belittling, making excuses, procrastinating… all that stuff. You know what I’m talking about. It is critical to understand here that while it can feel pleasant in the immediate moment to choose to scroll through social media, it doesn’t serve the success of our long-term vision and the well-being of our future selves. It will only serve its purpose in moderation. 

How To Prioritise Productivity: A Handful of Useful Tips

Track Your Time to Stay Productive:

I cannot even begin to tell you how much of a game-changer that is! When I first came up with the idea of finding a job online, I was, oh, so convinced that I invest so much of my time in the pursuit of this goal. Until my boyfriend suggested that I do an experiment for a week and track my time. And I don’t mean work time. I mean all the time. That includes sorting through emails, calling friends, practising yoga, and, yes, my Achilles heel – time spent on social media. Well, I think you can guess by now how this lovely story went on.

Anyways, the moral of it is: your idea on the amount of time you spend on specific activities does not necessarily match up with reality. Especially since the amount of mental energy that 30 minutes of a mindless activity like scrolling through Instagram or 30 minutes of playing a new instrument take up is totally different. So, instead of learning from your mistake, learn from mine. Have a reality check on what you invest your time in. 

Prioritise Your Tasks:

Once all your time has been tracked, you can sort through each task and assign them a specific category from The Eisenhower Matrix. Check the urgency and importance of each of them. Then ask yourself the tricky question: “Am I happy with how I spend my time?”; and act accordingly. 

Once again, balance is the key! So the general recommendation here is to spend about 80% of your time on the left column. Yet, the majority of our time slips through our fingers on the right column. Here’s a couple of things you can do about your situation depending on the quadrant in which you’re experiencing difficulties:

Important & Urgent:

These tasks need to be done ASAP. There’s no way around them. However, we usually know about those in advance. So a smart move here is to review the responsibilities of the weeks to come, invest some time in planning out the upcoming projects and even brainstorm on preventing potential problems. 

Important & Not Urgent:

That is the area of self-development and personal growth. The activities and tasks in this quadrant are equivalent to investment in the future self. It can be pretty challenging to motivate yourself to follow an online course after a whole day of work or go for a morning run when all you want to do is lay like a starfish in bed. 

What really helps here is adding a sense of urgency since we know how effective it is in sparking our motivation. Schedule these tasks in your calendar. Invest in your growth. Make time for your passion projects. Set a date for each of them and break them up into smaller tasks if you can. Don’t neglect yourself and remember this:

“If you are last on your to-do list, most days, you will get overlooked.” 

– Cassie Rose

Prioritising productivity also means prioritising self-care

Not Important & Urgent:

This is the area of being busy for the sake of being busy. As stated before, these tasks are usually filled with external expectations and devoid of personal meaning. These are the tasks important to someone else, but not you. They need to be done, but almost always, there’s a better way to execute them. For example, some emails have to be answered right away, but maybe most of them doesn’t actually require you to open them at the beginning of the workday – you can still answer them in the afternoon. Being interrupted by your co-worker is another example. While the last-moment issue they’re experiencing might be super important to them, engaging in it can ruin your whole schedule. Learn to say ‘no’ to such requests of your valuable time.

Basically, all I’ve got to say is this one word: delegate

Delegate and eliminate as much as you can of those tasks that bring no value to your life and only add stress to it. If it’s possible to have your groceries delivered, don’t waste time stuck in traffic and in the shop picking each product manually. Indulge in the perks of living in the 21st century. If there’s a conflict between two employees in your workplace and it doesn’t concern you, just learn to stay out of it. You’re having some issues with staying away from your phone during work time? Each time it buzzes, you just feel the unstoppable urge to see what it is? Just turn the notifications off. 

Not Important & Not Urgent:

Here comes a hard pill to swallow. These tasks need to be removed from your life. These are the biggest time-wasters that provide little value when done in excess, such as binge-watching Netflix, refreshing your Instagram feed, constantly texting with your bestie during work time etc. All of that can and should be limited. Look at the data from the time tracking experiment and, once again, act accordingly. According to Todoist,if you’re not intentional about it, the way you spend your downtime can actually drain your energy, passion and creativity“.

 Takeaway

Here you go, done and dusted. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or dissatisfied with how you handle your workload and personal life, close your eyes, turn your attention inwards and remember: prioritise, then execute. Prioritise those things that will propel you toward your goals and values. Other things can wait. 

What is this one thing you’ve been putting off even though you know well that it would be good for you?

Take charge of your life, prioritise productivity, turn off your notifications for another hour and ‘just do it’