Productivity Requires the Art of Triage

This is the eleventh post in a series on productivity1. The articles are based on content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.

One subtly difficult part of being productive is that even if you’re treating your body and mind well, have created a distraction-free environment and harnessed your focus, it can be hard to simply figure out what to do.

On face value that sounds almost silly because many of us have so many things we could do, but it turns out that’s the culprit: facing a gigantic list of things you need to do can cause analysis paralysis2. Harnessing focus—choosing only one thing to work on—exacerbates the problem because the remainder still looks like a gigantic mass of stuff left undone. Many times this is why we default to somewhat irrelevant busy work, checking email but never doing anything with the messages or simply surfing the web—activity, even if meaningless, creates a false sense of doing something.

The first step towards this paradox of choice often begins with us asking ourselves, “what do I need to do today?” Figuring out what not to do, though, is as just as important as figuring what to do. In other words, you have to be strategic about removing (or delaying) what isn’t mission-critical.

This leads us to a pattern I’ve noticed over the years among people who I consider to be incredibly busy:

The most productive people aren’t necessarily the ones who get the most done, but who always make sure they are working on the most important things.

Working on the most important things requires building skill in the art of triage. Here’s a definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary:

the process of determining the most important people or things from amongst a large number that require attention.

This is common sense more than a research topic—everyone would agree that making progress or finishing the most important things you need to do is the ideal outcome of any workday. As I said above, though, figuring that out isn’t as easy as it seems, which is why businesses fail, leaders neglect company culture and why we experience any other variety of issues in the work we do. Anyone who works with a group or team knows that complexity is multiplied when more than one person is required on a project.

Methodologies for triage

Know thyself (and thy tendencies)

In a previous post I wrote about how everyone is different and, as because of that, productivity is going to look different for each individual. We all have tendencies. Perhaps you don’t like working with numbers and avoid your business’s finances. Or perhaps you enjoy working alone and tend to avoid meetings wherever possible. It could be that we’re ignoring important parts of our jobs because they aren’t the work we enjoy doing. Sometimes the most important things are things we aren’t excited about doing. Also, we need to remember that sometimes, the most important thing we need to do is take a break or clear our heads.

Plan your work

I know people who spend up to 20 or 30 minutes simply planning out their days. Spending that much time preparing seem counter-intuitive—it feels like you could be more productive doing actual work. Getting to work without a plan is like a team taking the field without having discussed any plays. As weird as it feels to us, it can take a while to figure out what got done yesterday, what can wait and what’s mission critical for the day ahead (especially on a team). Planning on whatever schedule works for you creates a freedom in your workflow because you’ve removed the analysis paralysis surrounding what you should do next.

Budget your time

Even if we figure out what we need to do in a given day, our calendars often don’t map to our plan. A giant to-do list and a day packed with meetings don’t always play nice together and can leave us feeling unproductive. I’ve found that budgeting each hour of the workday forces me to think through what I need to work on when and how long it might take. Again, the mystery is removed from large chunks of time and analysis paralysis about what to do with a ‘free hour’ is minimized.

Some days never quite turn out how we expect and we need to stay flexible, but the repeated practice of triage will build muscle in planning, executing and dealing with the unexpected. Over time, those muscles will pull our expectations closer in line with reality.

1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. Analysis paralysis is caused by over-analyzing a situation to the point that no decision is made. You can read more on Wikipedia.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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