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Productivity secrets - prioritization rules, organization drools

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 28, 2013
'I need to get myself organized' sounds like a logical precursor to 'getting things done' but alas, it is not. Here's why.

Business team applauding
I recently identified some misconceptions about productivity thanks to a backchannel argument with Chris Kernaghan. It all started as an email exchange about our lack of productivity which in itself is arguably unproductive, if not absurd.

Chris mentioned the need to be organized which reminded me of my recent epiphany that organization is a form of busywork, and busywork is overrated. Sounds odd right? But as I wrote in The career-defining consequences of value productivity:

I am fond of saying, ‘we don’t get paid to answer email.’ We are all under a constant influx of interruptions that threaten our ability to create the deliverables that transform our own value. How we protect the time to get those products out the door has moved beyond career-defining; it may be the difference between ‘continued success’ and Craig’s List.

Wait - prioritization trumps organization?

On Monday September 30th, I'll be presenting on a webinar entitled Get Stuff Done -Balance Your Life - Tips from SAP Mentors. Frankly the idea you can teach other people how to get things done is pretty ludicrous, but I have not shied away from ludicrous ideas in the past.

'I need to get myself organized' sounds like a logical precursor to 'getting things done' but alas, it is not. The reason is simple:

There is too much incoming data and new tasks for an individual to get anywhere near a complete view of their 'to dos.'

So when it comes to productivity, what's the alternative?

Effective prioritization based on a decent (but perpetually incomplete) inventory of the tasks at hand - combined with an effective means of tracking and filtering new information that is highly relevant to you as an individual/employee - new information that could alter your priorities.

Chris countered my elevation of prioritization over organization:

'Now there is an interesting thought, prioritisation over organisation - I would tend to agree, but would counter that effective prioritisation needs a full view of what needs done which requires good organisation.'

I shot back:

I would argue that the constant effort to maintain a full 100 percent view is exhausting and never-ending and ultimately futile. What is needed is just enough of a view to know what to focus on next in the time you have today. Because tomorrow you'll have to reconstruct the full view all over again.  Yes there is a small risk that if you don't compile a full view you will overllook something, but I think a thoughtful partial view and then prioritizing and diving into a task is better.

Chris wasn't quite persuaded, so he is off trying to get that 100 percent view of his tasks. I'll report back on how he fares as his information deluge increases. He added via Instant Message today:

Can you also mention something about companies not helping by not allowing auto-forwarding of corporate mail to task based services. Understandable due to confidentiality but still increases friction of task setting.

Sounds like Chris' 100 percent view project is going well!

So what are the real keys to productivity? The webinar Monday alluded to balance. If we're talking about how to balance your life, hopefully our other presenters will have better ideas than I do on that one.

But in terms of productivity, balancing daily productivity with value-adding deep work is critical. So is setting up an effective information, alerts, and content filtering system. Of course, you need your own information portal - that's the struggle for context I've also covered.

The 'beyond busywork' productivity cycle

So how would a 'balanced productivity' system work? It would flow in a daily cycle something like this:

1. Quick check of filters, mentions and alerts for critical issues.

2. Immediate putting out of fires of any issues known or identified.

3. Prioritization of tasks at hand, based on partial (but not complete) review of tasks in systems, on devices or on paper (or the list your partner tapes to the fridge!)

4. Completion of time sensitive tasks including project-dependent requests/emails. If you're using corporate systems, logging of tasks completed or assigned, etc.

With the most crucial tasks underway, there is a chance to pull back:

5. Partial assessment of incoming news and content feeds, including labeling, archiving, and/or sharing that content with the relevant communities - with an emphasis of time sensitive items. These alerts and social feeds should also be prioritized to allow you do dip in for a few minutes at a time and grab the best stuff. This will take tweaking.

6. Reprioritization of the tasks of the day based on whatever flotsam sprouted up during meetings and conference calls. Perhaps another dip into organization of projects, without an obsessive attempt to get to the 100 percent clean desk (a clean email inbox is another matter, there are logical reasons to attempt this, as Vijay Vijayasankar has shared). On hectic days when flights are standby and luggage misplaced, you may not get much further than this.

But here's where it gets interesting: the differentiating zone beyond busywork.

On the good days, you get in some of this:

7. A deeper look at your incoming content and industry news/analysis/research, with an eye towards trends that directly impact your current projects. Such information is tagged, shared externally, and in some cases forwarded to your superiors for review (ergo: brownie points!).

But what's really worth fighting for is:

8. 'Deep work' on projects that make an impact internally, externally, or both. This is the 'beyond busywork' piece of the equation. You may have to unplug (or partially unplug) for a period to have any hope of pursuing such projects. These could be code geek things, white papers, evening training classes, ebooks, or even a new startup. Imagination and envelope-pushing are the two ingredients.

It's the last on this list that's the hardest to claim and the most important to true productivity. In the interruption economy, your ability to accomplish this kind of work is becoming a competitive advantage. The road to mastery is dotted with the sharing of such projects internally and sometimes externally.

These 'deliverables' have your imprint and are imbued with your best ideas. They are not perfect, but they are out in the wild for folks to chew on and give you a feedback loop.  And each one pushed you towards mastery. They are the ultimate triumph over the demands of the email inbox and the career-limiting distractions of social networks.

Of course, number 8 can become number 1. Get up early enough and there is time to push ahead on the deep work before the day heats up. Feed a kid, walk a dog, but don't check your email - yet. Give your most important contacts an alternate way of pinging you and stay away from your inbox until that deep work session is done.

Nothing about this is easy but you'll be amazed at what you can move progress on - if you can let go of that obsessive goal to chart every task and find time for 'value productivity' instead.

We'll see how this message is received on the webinar Monday.

Title credit: This blog title was blatantly borrowed from Vijay Vijayasankar's Execution Rules, Strategy Drools - a related post worth checking out. His post on the cost of precision in BI is also relevant.

Image credit: Business team applauding © Andres Rodriguez -

Disclosure: Jon has served as an SAP Mentor volunteer since 2008. SAP is a diginomica premier partner as of this writing.

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