According to a recent research, which measured productivity of 350,000 employees from all over the world, more than 40% of time is being spent on unimportant activities. Think of it in another way: nearly half of life goes down the drain.
Lousy, isn’t it?
Juggling multiple tasks, overwhelmed, stressed — we might still believe that we are working on important things when in reality they are not so. Such work leaves no room for big goals and bright ideas.
Yet it is not our fault. As beautiful as it is, our brain often leads us the wrong way. Once we know how it works and apply a few useful tricks, our life will never be the same.
Our behavior can be defined by two different zones in the brain: “thinking” and “reactive” brain. The reactive part is the oldest. It goes back to the times when ancient hunters had to escape the saber-toothed tiger. Nothing has changed until today (not counting the fact that tigers became extinct). The reactive brain triggers “fight-or-flight” mechanism and other automatic reactions that let us survive. It also occupies the larger part of our brain — which helps us understand why it is so powerful.
The thinking brain allows us to reflect and take decisions consciously. However, this rational part won’t work properly if we are threatened, stressed or gripped by emotions. It also takes more energy and time than the reactive brain. Literally, it requires effort to think. Attention, we are getting to the most interesting part of the story.
When we are faced with urgent tasks, our reactive brain steps in. We rush doing them without much thought. The sense of accomplishment makes us feel extremely good. This can evolve to a real “urgency addiction”. What’s bad about this?
Urgent tasks are not necessarily important. We start doing things simply because they seem to be critical. We like feeling busy and energetic, and our brain supports this feeling by producing dopamine. When things calm down it turns out that we have wasted the whole day on trivial matters.
To spend time on high-value activities, you should develop a more conscious approach to your commitments. Break the pattern and take control over your reactive brain. If you want to do what’s important instead of what’s urgent, the best tool at hand is the Stephen Covey’s time management matrix.
According to Covey, each task can be sorted according to its urgency and importance. All in all, we have 4 categories of tasks. They are shown as quadrants on the figure below.
This quadrant covers unforeseen events and pressing problems. To avoid serious consequences, we have to deal with them immediately. Although some of these issues are unexpected, we can reduce the number of them by proper planning. Sometimes it’s just enough to work on them proactively — before they have become urgent (see Q2).
As tasks in this quadrant are not urgent, we might put them off for ages. Yet this is the worst mistake we could make. Ideally, this is the quadrant where you should spend most of your time: working on strategic, high-impact tasks. They will bring more value to your business — but also help you grow personally and professionally.
This quadrant deals with minor, yet urgent tasks. As we have discussed earlier, they keep you constantly busy, but don’t move you forward. They just distract you from your key goals. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, ‘What is urgent is seldom important’.
Although it’s impossible to avoid these issues entirely, you should try to reduce their number: for instance, by delegating them to someone else on your team. If it is impossible to delegate, consider doing smaller tasks in batches. Allocate an hour for answering incoming emails instead of replying instantly to each message. It won't be the end of the world if you reply in a few hours.
These tasks are neither important nor urgent. Small amounts of trivial activities help us relax. Yet we tend to waste a lot of time in this quadrant, so be careful: you are losing the present moment. Cut activities from Q4 to a minimum.
The secret of being productive doesn’t lie in squeezing dozens of tasks into your timesheet. Quite the opposite: focus on fewer things. Decide what is important and work on that. Use to-do lists and time management software to help you. Once you learn how to approach your tasks, you will get big things done.