Rethinking Productivity: Why Focusing On Your Top Priority Tasks Is A Recipe For Failure

Rethinking Productivity: Why Focusing On Your Top Priority Tasks Is A Recipe For Failure
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Do you have a to-do list? I do. At any given point I’ve got a list of notes on TeuxDeux, a stack of reminders in Evernote, an Action Pad full of project items and a Mind Map that I call “My Brain”.

Isn’t crossing something off your list one of the most satisfying things ever?

Come up with blog topic for Friday.

Love it!

If you’re like me, and you finish something only to find out you never put it on your to-do list in the first place, you add it on after the fact just so you can cross it off.

Those crossed off items certainly give us a sense of accomplishment and are visual cues that we’re getting stuff done, being productive and succeeding.

But what if we’re not?

What if our to-do lists are deceiving us?

Two Kinds Of Doers: Which One Are You?

As a lifetime to-do list addict, I can tell you that there are two kinds of people in the world (and I’ve been both of them):

1. The bottom-uppers: these people start at the bottom and get all the “little things” done so they can clear the decks for the important stuff. These people spend their time perpetually chasing a clean list in anticipation of the day they’ll have time to actually get something done. These people are not so much productive as busy. I’ve already got you covered.

2. The top-downers: these people start at the top and focus on the big, time-consuming, revenue-driving, elephant-in-the-room tasks. These people relegate everything else to “later” or “someday” in anticipation of the day they’ll have time to do something else…

…it’s you that I’m speaking to today… you prioritizers and big-picturers. You folks who know what’s important and who get it done.

Did you know that focusing on your top-priority tasks could be sabotaging your success?

Have you – now that you think about it – ever had that nagging “I ate the whole box of Oreos” guilt about not getting anything else done?

Like I said, I’ve been both kinds of doers. It’s like being in a rocking boat, and you have to constantly catch yourself before you tip over. Recently I found myself tipping in the direction of #2 and focusing heavily on the biggest, most important tasks on my list. That may sound like a good idea, until you realize you’re underwater, drowning and there’s a 2-ton boat on top of you. Or just a pile of work that you can’t see daylight through.

Here’s why being that kind of doer is a bad idea…

Some Things Will Get Put Off Forever

When I’m focused on important tasks, I’m not worried about things like upgrading to the latest social sharing plugin on my blog (the old one still works) or updating my photo on the “About” page of my website (I don’t have that many more gray hairs).

I don’t care if my desk is a giant cluttered mess.

I don’t care if the calendar on my wall still says “August”.

My Twitter account languishes. I wear the same shirt two days in a row. Bills pile up but checks do not get written.

Are you starting to see the problem with focusing solely on top priority tasks?

The problem is that those tasks tend to be time- and labor-intensive. They suck up our time, our mental energies, our physical resources. We literally get nothing else done.

But the thing is… there’s always something else that needs doing.

I’m a fan of The Action Method and there is a section of the task list literally called “Backburner”. That’s where you’re supposed to put your ideas for “someday”. If you use TeuxDeux, you know they even have a section for tasks called “Someday”.

But I can guarantee you with 99.9999999% certainty that if you put something on the backburner or the someday list, it will never get done. Ever. Ever ever.

Sadly, most of the things you put on your list will not get done if all you’re ever doing is focusing on the top priorities. There will always be something more important to do than change your About photo or the calendar on the wall. I bet there are many tasks on your list that take a back seat to “the important stuff”. Tasks that you’ve had on your list for weeks, months or maybe even years. Tasks you literally keep bumping down until you get a sort of “task blindness” and do the auto-bump every day without ever considering the task at all, let alone the possibility of doing it.

And it’s not that you’re putting these things off, really, it’s just that they’re not the most important things on your list.

Until they are. And…

Small Things Grow Into Big Things

You know that photo I keep putting off? Well, it doesn’t really matter until the day I meet someone who’s been reading my blog for years and she wants me to do some marketing work for her but suddenly she wonders why, after all this great advice I’ve been giving, I never seem to follow it myself. Now I’m not looking so credible anymore. Maybe I don’t even get the job.

That may seem like a stretch to you but take it from someone who knows people who will hire you based on the shine of your shoes: it isn’t.

Oh, and remember that social plugin I didn’t bother to update because the old version was working fine? Yeah, well one day it stopped working fine and started conflicting with other plugins and then my whole site broke. But instead of being able to simply complete a task (update social plugin) I was in reactive-mode. And panic-mode. And all those other “very important” things had to stop anyway.

The longer you put something off, the more likely that the importance of that task will grow.

This can apply to everything from updating your 4-year-old LinkedIn profile to answering an email. You know that email… the one you meant to answer last week, then you forgot, and now it’s two weeks later and…

Small Things Get Disproportionately Large In Your Mind

After two weeks you start to feel guilty that you never answered that email so you start concocting reasons, but you’re busy, so another couple of days go by while you’re thinking of reasons, and now you really feel stupid, so you decide to wait for the weekend and then make up a story about why you took so long to answer. Maybe there’s a job on the line, or a deadline you missed so you stress about it and wait so long to answer that now you can’t answer and you spiral into anxiety. Probably, you just delete it and pretend you never got it.

Substitute “email” with “phone call” or “proposal” or whatever thing it is that was no big deal until you didn’t do it.

Neglected tasks take up an awful lot of space in your brain. They become energy sucks because even while you’re doing that big thing you’re probably still obsessing about that small undone thing.

When small things on paper become big things in your brain, they begin to sabotage your work, drain your motivation and kill your productivity.

All that energy spent purposely neglecting something and feeling guilty about it could be put to better use by actually doing it, because…

Small Things Could Have A Bigger Impact Than You Think

How sure are you that updating your About photo is small and unimportant? How positive are you that nobody is reading your LinkedIn profile? What if you’re missing out on opportunities because you mis-prioritized?

When there are tasks on our lists that are big, important, timely and tied directly to revenue, we get awfully myopic about everything else. Alas, we get awfully myopic about our priorities.

When I started my blog, I wanted what we all want: more traffic. I wrote and wrote and wrote like a madwoman because really, isn’t that what a blog is about? My “other stuff” list started to grow. Along with “update plugins” were other back-burnered items like “check out Triberr” so I added it to the Someday list along with the other 85 things I wanted to try.

It wasn’t a priority.

Fortunately, I caught the boat before it tipped over and decided to start doing some of the “bottom of the list” stuff that I’d been putting off. So I checked out Triberr. Within weeks and with no other change – no more content, no more promotion, no more effort – traffic to my blog nearly doubled.

I had a moment of being thrilled followed by many days and weeks of berating myself for putting it off. I’d just had no idea that what appeared to be a small, inconsequential task would have such an impact.

I hope you’re getting the gist of why it can be such a bad idea to stick to the top of your list.

How To Get The Right Stuff Done

Lists are awesome. I strongly suggest you use one or more of the productivity tools I’ve mentioned (or one of your own) and separate out your “must do now” tasks from your “get these done eventually” tasks. It’s a good idea to have shades of tasks in between.

Now here’s the best advice I can give you, right from my own experiences and failures: don’t schedule based on your tasks. Schedule based on your time.

Carve out your day so that you dedicate a set block of time to different tasks of different priorities.

Pick a big-deal task and block off a certain amount of time for doing it. At the end of that time, stop!

Sometimes when I’m building a website I can spend days doing nothing else but formatting fonts and perfecting photos. I don’t blog, I don’t do other jobs, I don’t do anything else at all.

When I find myself losing whole days to “the big project” I know it’s time to stop and reschedule my time.

Even if the project is incomplete (and it probably will be), I just stop. You should too. Move on.

Now that you’ve got time left in your day, pick a not-so-big-deal task and block off time for doing that. Maybe you can even work on two or three not-so-big deal tasks in that time slot. Do them, but when your time is up, stop!

Then pick a someday task and block off time for that, too. These are usually the small, nagging things that, if only we prioritized them, we could probably do in about five minutes. “Answer email” and “update plugin” are some of those things.

Even if they’re big and you can’t finish them in one shot, just get started. Maybe you’ve put off “write book” until someday. Obviously you can’t finish that in an hour but you can sure as hell get started. And getting started today is always better than getting started someday.

The point is to get things done – all your things – not the biggest, not the smallest, all of them. If you specifically dedicate time in your day to choosing tasks of varying priority, you won’t fall into the trap of losing sight of the forest for the trees, so to speak.

You’ll find that you have more energy, less guilt and you’ll be getting a whole lot more done than you thought you could.

Write blog post for Friday.

And breathe.

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera