Work Smarter//

To Achieve Real Progress, Focus on High-Value Productive Actions

To improve your results, make a clear distinction between low-value work and high-value work

nelen / Shutterstock
nelen / Shutterstock

At any stage of your career, knowing what’s important but not urgent makes a huge difference to your progress— when everything seems urgent and important, it’s easy to slip into low-value work.

Here is a familiar story: You’re busy all day reacting to people’s request, working non-stop and against the clock, multitasking in an attempt to get all your tasks done, and checked off from your to-do list. As the day comes to an end, you have little to show for all the time, effort and energy you have put into your day’s work. When you are overwhelmed with work, it is difficult to maintain an objective view of what is high-value.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “Never mistake motion for action”.

The overwhelming reality about work is this — a lot of things are taking up our time but given us the least results. One of the secrets to making real progress every day is simple — by ridding ourselves of low-value tasks and replacing them with high-value productive actions.

High-value productivity means designating the majority of your time to the tasks that leads to a valuable and precious outcome.

Cal Newport argues that if we are to go high on the ladder of achievement we have to consistently produce high-value results. Its the only way to make real progress in life and at work.

Many people spend huge chunks of their days working on tasks that have no impact on their ultimate goal and yet they still say yes to more low-value work.

According to London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw and PA Consulting Group productivity expert Jordan Cohen, “…knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time–an average of 41%–on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others.” People who focus on low-value tasks choose tasks that make them feel busy and important, the authors said.

Low-value activities keep you busy and stop you from getting real work done. Low-value work is necessary but not important. They are tasks that are easy to drop, delegate, or outsource without any impact on your expected outcome.

Responding to notifications doesn’t contribute to your goal of the day. Research shows that it takes, on average, more than 23 minutes to fully recover your concentration after a trivial interruption.

Notifications and emails prompt task-irrelevant thoughts and can disrupt attention performance even if you don’t interact with the device.

Most emails distract us from high-value work. Email can force you to be reactive instead of proactive, structuring your day according to the needs of others. An inbox that is overflowing with actions, urgent calls for responses, stuff to read, etc. is chaos, stressful, and time-wasting.

Jocelyn K. Glei, author of “Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done” says that while checking emails throughout the day may make you feel productive, the opposite is true.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Jocelyn said, “…keep work emails short, simple and if something can’t be resolved quickly on email, suggest a meeting or simply walk to your colleague’s desk to confirm a plan. You’ll be rescuing yourself and others from those annoying email threads that drag on for a whole afternoon, interrupting everyone involved.”

Learn to delegate or automate some tasks to make time for high-value workThis ensures you aren’t ever wasting your effort on unimportant tasks and there’s also no chance of putting them above others.

Beware of “time bullies”. When you are on the clock or supposed to be working, your time is for your work. Protect it. Say no more often. Don’t get suckered into tasks you don’t have time for.

To better manage urgent but unimportant tasks, make an appointment with yourself to sort them out. This may seem counterintuitive. But in practice, when you limit how much time you give yourself to work on low-value tasks, you force yourself to expend more energy on actions that contribute to real progress.

Producing-high value results require that we give the priority to tasks that end up producing a valuable and precious outcome.

To do more high-value work, take a look at everything on your plate. Examine your micro activities, or tasks/deliverables. Do they align with the bigger picture of what you are trying to achieve? Pick what you think is most essential, clear some space, and just work on your most important measurable and attainable goals — it’s about focusing on tasks that add value.

Prioritizing and optimizing your time will give you more time to focus on what matters, getting more accomplished in a lesser amount of time. And whatever you do, avoid the busywork that adds no real value to your work, vision or long-term goal.

This article was originally published on Medium.

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