While at work, I find myself looking for ways to be a productivity wizard. Often, I tend to hit a wall around 4 p.m., but my job, which consists mostly of writing, requires my brain to function like a well-oiled conveyer belt, delivering fresh, coherent thoughts as they are needed (and I like it this way!).
Not all assignments require the same level of focus, so one way I’ve learned to optimize my time is by doing the labor-intensive tasks first. I’ll start whatever it is early in the morning, and I’ll chip away at it for however long my brain continues to produce quality work for. For the most part, this strategy works for me. I dedicate my most productive hours to my most demanding tasks, and getting a head start on those items alleviates the anxiety that can be induced by intimidating deadlines, and the disappearance of time. My habits are approved by organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Ph.D., who says that this strategy of managing our attention is more efficient than trying to manage our time. “Prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes,” he wrote in the New York Times. “Attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places, and at the right moments.”
The problem with this strategy is everything I leave behind. My day doesn’t only consist of large projects — there are also smaller to-dos that require my attention. While working in my hyper-focused, tunnel-vision zone, I wind up pushing back the requests that, in comparison to my larger to-dos, feel insignificant. Then, the small tasks accumulate like dust. Unnoticeable, the pile grows larger, and I often completely forget it exists. At least, until I remember, of course, and the recollection of the list jolts me. I’ll feel a flutter of panic, and begin an onslaught of “Sorry for the delay!” emails.
As a result, for the last week, I’ve employed a new directive: If a task will take me five minutes or less to complete, I’ll do it right away. Among the quick and easy tasks that have come up are reading through an email chain I was looped in on, polishing an editorial idea I wanted to pitch, and responding to a text from my cousin about her daughter’s 3rd birthday party.
Some of the “five-minutes-or-less” tasks that came up weren’t to-do list items in the traditional sense, but were requests from my body. For example, in the form of an impending headache, my body requested that I move around and take a break from my screen. (During non-experiment weeks, here’s how I’d often respond to the tension that builds in my forehead: “Work for 20 more minutes and then you can take a break.”)
Part of this experiment also meant being retroactive and looking to see what tasks I had put off in the days prior. There was one email I knew I had been putting off — I hadn’t responded in five days (including the weekend), and this was unlike me. I generally try to respond to emails that address me directly (versus group emails where my two cents isn’t necessary) within 24 hours. I was reluctant to send this particular email, and my putting it off because
“I have to work on other things” was really just a perpetuation of my anxious avoidance tendencies.
“Psychologists call this ‘perceived aversiveness of the task,’” Deborah Knobelman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and biotech executive who writes about productivity, tells Thrive. “It means that the task itself is small and quick, but the mental weight of it feels bigger, and like it will take up more time than it actually does.”
In the spirit of the experiment, I sent the e-mail right away. As Knobelman suggests, the task felt less significant than I expected it to — both in time spent executing, and in emotional weight. As soon as I sent it, I felt lighter and was able to return to other tasks with more energy.
The satisfaction I felt sending the email mirrored how I feel when I complete cognitively demanding tasks — but not all of the to-dos I completed right away resulted in catharsis. After all, there are occasions each week when relentless prioritization is vital for me, and it’s important to employ deep focus, where I avoid letting any small tasks interrupt me. Ultimately, in the course of this experiment, I found that doing the small stuff immediately doesn’t result in instant relief — but it did ensure I get my work done in a prompt manner, and saved me from the anxiety of forgetting to do something.
Knobelman points out that there’s a place for both strategies, whether you’re checking off items on your to-do list at a brisk pace, or you’re making headway on your larger, long-term projects. “The most important measure of productivity is that your actions are intentional and aligned with a goal that you’ve set for yourself,” she says. “Any strategy that moves you closer to your goal is a productive strategy.” It’s a hopeful message: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to achieve productivity, and we should keep that in mind each morning as we design a plan to tackle our day with more efficiency, and less anxiety.
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