If you want to be more productive, the key is simple. Simple is the key.
People are often surprised at how much I am able to accomplish and yet how responsive I am when something new needs to be completed. Here is my secret to being a top performer: I don’t multi-task.
The idea of multi-tasking has become so ubiquitous and abused it is practically the butt of its own joke. People who accomplish a lot do not do so by spinning from task to task, with imaginary octopus arms, inching each project forward a little at a time until everything is complete.
Top producers simplify their work. They edit ruthlessly the work that is unnecessary and they politely say “no” to work that does not move them toward their goals. Top producers instead work on a single task until it is done and then they move to the next task and work on that one until it is done, and then they move on to the next task and… you get it.
I watch so many leaders burn themselves out at the altar of, “I have to get it all done and it all has to get done by me”, rather than taking the approach of, “What is the goal and what is the most efficient way to reach it?” Smart leaders look for ways to move on to the most important stuff. “What can I let go of so I can focus on what is really important? Am I the only person that can do this? If so, why? Can somebody else do it, and get it done, even if it is not to my perfect standards?”
For me, I saw my productivity transform when I embraced minimalism as a lifestyle. Being a minimalist forces you to think about the smallest number of things that bring the greatest return on value. As a result, I began working to simplify every area of my life (and I am still working at it) and the results have made it clear to me that doing less is one of the best ways to get more done.
I think corporations, teams, and even personal relationships suffer from complexity when a dose of simplicity can change everything.
It makes sense. We stretch ourselves too thin.
We take on 12 assignments at a time, which means our mental resources, our attention, and our efforts are divided by 12. I try to never have more than 2 or 3 focal points at one time on my docket. More than that and I find myself slowing down the thing I am doing because I am thinking about all the things I need to do next.
How many half-finished projects are on your desk? How many projects have you contributed your labor to, only to watch them disappear into the ether because other “more important” projects came up? (Well, why weren’t you working on the most important project from the beginning?)
That is the easiest measure of time being wasted for the sake of wasting time. Or put another way, workers work to fill the time required to be in the office, rather than working to do important work. The reason for this is simple, by the way. Workers fill time because they know the reward for work done well is to be piled up with more (busy) work. If your people can accomplish a task in 4 hours but still have to fill an 8-hour work day rather than be set free to go home or do what they want, you better believe that 4-hour task will take 8 and a half hours.
The reward for good work should not be more (less interesting) work, but rather more time and freedom. Google figured this out years ago with their famous “20% rule“.
From a minimalist perspective, the world over-complicates productivity. Ironically, productivity is over-complicated in the name of efficiency! “I’m a great multi-tasker,” potential hires will tell me during an interview. That is a sure sign to me they are not good at being productive.
Nobody needs great multi-taskers. We need great simplifiers.