If there’s one important realization I’ve had over the last few months, it’s that real productivity is not about the number of things you get done or the number of hours you work. Nor is it (per se) about doing your current tasks faster and more efficient..
Rather, real productivity is about consistently spending the majority of your time on your most valuable and most important tasks. Real productivity is about continuously identifying your priorities, and being able to tackle your them both efficiently and of high quality. It’s about eliminating or outsourcing the ‘busywork’ so you can save your mental resources, time and energy for that what’s truly important.
Yet, we as humans are drawn towards complexity. We often make things a lot harder and confusing than they actually need to be — and we overlook simplicity because it isn’t exciting enough.
“There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.” — Warren Buffett
What Is Busywork Actually?
Busywork can be defined as all those tasks and activities that we spend a lot of time and energy on, even though they don’t significantly contribute to the achievement of our most important goal(s).
We easily fall into the trap of doing busywork, simply because these tasks and activities often hold some value and lead to some progress towards our goals. Therefore, they can be hard to identify at first.
Yet, spending too much time on busywork leads to a lot of downsides such as increased stress, feeling overwhelmed, creating a false sense of productivity & accomplishment, and not achieving our business or personal goals.
Continuously tweaking your website, posting on Instagram, reading books and blogposts, getting your email inbox to zero and redesigning your logo, business cards & flyers can all be forms of busywork. And there are many, many other examples.
Of course, it depends highly on what type of work you do, but busywork can be found everywhere.
Why Busywork Is So Hard To Resist
Busywork appeals so much because we feel productive when we are engaged in it. Doing a lot of different things makes us feel important (and we like to feel important). When we have a to-do list of 35 tasks and we accomplish 27 of them, we feel really good about ourselves as we’ve done a lot of work.
However, most people never stop to analyze the value of those tasks. They only look at the quantity of their output, not at the quality. Who says that accomplishing those 27 tasks actually leads to significant progress towards your important goals?
The problem is that this busywork leads to ‘false rewards’..
False rewards is a term I use for all those things that make you feel good, even though it’s caused by something that distracts you from what’s truly important. It’s smoke that temporarily clouds your vision. It’s something that creates a false sense of good feelings, accomplishment and productivity. Usually it leads to an increase in dopamine (the reward hormone) while we actually don’t deserve it. Porn, drugs, alcohol, smoking and social media are all forms of false rewards. And yes, busywork can be added to that list.
For example, when we post another inspirational quote on Instagram, we gain false rewards in the form of likes, comments and followers. And when we tweet something and it gets retweeted, we also get a false sense of reward. When we answer a lot of emails, we gain the false reward of an empty inbox.
These false rewards lead to dopamine spikes in the brain, which makes us feel good and accomplished. Therefore, we create the false impression that we’re being productive.
However, 99% of the times, these false rewards don’t lead to significant progress towards our most desired outcomes. Rather, these tasks and activities hold very little value and lead to very little progress (if any at all), yet trick us into feeling good about ourselves.
And even though some of these tasks hold some value, they create a sense of reward and accomplishment that is completely out of balance regarding their true value.
But as long as we can stay busy, we don’t feel the need to question ourselves. After all, we are crushing it right? We are hustling and working hard, so the fact that we don’t achieve our big goals can’t be due to our own failure, right?
But we couldn’t be more wrong…
Stop focusing on busywork and start focusing on important work instead. Stop falling for false rewards and focus on metrics are truly important. That’s when you’ll start to completely transform your work and life.
Real Productivity Is About Doing Less, Not More
In my experience, improving your productivity is more about subtracting rather than adding. It’s about identifying and eliminating those tasks that you spend a lot of time and energy on, although they hardly contribute to the realization of your goals. It’s about doing fewer tasks, but making sure that the tasks you do work on are incredibly valuable and mission-critical for the achievement of your goal.
Remember, it doesn’t matter how hard you work if you work on the wrong things.
Not only will you become a lot more productive this way, but you’ll also be less overwhelmed, have better focus and achieve your goals much, much faster. When you continuously analyze which tasks are and aren’t worthy of your time, you’ll start to completely transform the way you work.
My 3-Step Productivity Process
To help me implement this in my daily work life, I use a 3-step productivity process that helps to eliminate busywork, get better focus and therefore achieve my goals much faster than before.
I recommend you carefully read the following paragraphs and implement them in your own work, as it could potentially change everything — just like it did for me.
Step 1: Identifying Your Most Valuable Desired Outcome
In order to maximize your productivity, you need to gain clarity on what your desired outcome actually is. What do you want to achieve? What are you actually working towards? If you’re not fully clear about your destination, you’ll get lost in all the possibilities and distractions along the way.
Therefore, step numero uno is to gain clarity on your desired outcome(s). To help you do so, I suggest you ask yourself the following question:
What one thing, if achieved this week/month/quarter/year, would lead me to consider this week/month/quarter/year to be a total success?
The answer to this question is your most valuable desired outcome. This is your number one goal that you should work towards.
The tasks and activities that you’re going to spend your time on should contribute significantly to the achievement of this goal.
For example, my goal for this year is to earn $50,000 in profit with my online businesses. Because I have gained clarity on what my desired outcome is, I can carefully select my daily actions based on my goal.
I know I should focus on those tasks and activities that actually contribute significantly to this goal, and discipline myself to avoid spending too much time on tasks and activities that don’t contribute that much to this goal.
By gaining clarity on your destination, you’ll be much better able to create a clear route and avoid all the time-consuming distractions along the way.
Unfortunately, I see many writers, content creators and entrepreneurs who are chasing after false rewards. They are drawn towards outcomes that are relatively insignificant compared to their most valuable desired outcome. Think about outcomes such as likes, followers, retweets and empty email inboxes.
These outcomes are often not completely irrelevant. Metrics such as likes, comments, followers and retweets are a signal of engagement and growth. They hold some value for your business, income or self-esteem. However, this value is not significant enough to justify spending hours of your time, effort and energy on them.
Remember, the fact that something is of any value doesn’t mean you should chase after it. There are massive opportunity costs involved in doing so. Rather, your resources should be spent on your most valuable tasks that lead to your most valuable desired outcome.
Step 2: Getting Clear On Your Most Valuable Tasks (MVT’s)
The next step in the process is to get clear on your Most Valuable Tasks (aka, your MVT’s). Without a doubt, this step has had the biggest influence on my productivity levels of all the productivity hacks, techniques and principles out there.
The point here is that you identify 1–5 tasks that contribute the most to the achievement of your goal. These tasks are absolutely mission critical in order to achieve your desired outcome.
It’s not about any task that leads to some progress towards your desired outcome. No, it’s about those tasks that contribute significantly to your desired outcome. Write these tasks down on a list and refer to this list every single day.
To paraphrase Tim Ferriss’ advice, you need to identify the few big dominoes that, if knocked down, help all the other dominos fall down as well. In other words, you need to identify those tasks that make all the other tasks either unnecessary at all or much easier to accomplish.
Often, there are only just a handful of tasks that are mission critical. The rest should either be outsourced to someone who can do it faster and cheaper, or it’s merely smoke that clouds your vision and should, therefore, be eliminated.
“You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.” — Warren Buffett
Essentially, we are using the 80/20 rule here. We identify the 20% of activities that lead to roughly 80% of the desired outcome.
For example, by doing this exercise myself I came to the conclusion that I should focus primarily on 3 key tasks:
- Creating high-quality, valuable content that impacts people’s lives
- Create strong, highly valuable email marketing sequences through which people can see more of my content and products
- Create products (courses and e-books) that blow people away in terms of value
I know that if I focus the biggest majority of my time and effort on those 3 activities, I’ll make significant progress towards my goal of earning $50,000 in profit with my online businesses. These activities are my priorities, and I know that everything else is not as important and isn’t worthy of the majority of my time.
Step 3: Identify All Your ‘Busywork’ Activities
Step 3 in the process is to identify all of those tasks that can be considered ‘busywork’. These tasks consume your valuable limited resources such as time and energy, while they either only contribute to achieving insignificant metrics (such as likes, retweets and comments) or only lead to some progress towards your desired outcome. These tasks aren’t worthy of the majority of your time and energy.
For example, if your goal is to write a book, it pays off to spend the majority of your time researching and actually writing a high-quality book instead of doing other activities such as going to writers conferences, reading 10 books about writing or designing the book cover yourself when you have basically zero design skills.
However, this doesn’t mean you should never spend your time and energy on busywork. Rather, you should become very mindful about how much time and energy you spend on it.
You’re probably better off eliminating these tasks or outsourcing them to someone else. But if you do decide to spend time on busywork activities, set a time limit for yourself and try to batch produce these tasks so that they won’t lead to scattered focus during your workday.
In my case, I’d spent a lot of time on recording and editing YouTube videos, while I hardly gain any views, followers or revenue from YouTube at the moment (in contrary to other platforms). This is not to say that I give up on YouTube entirely, rather it’s that I realized that other content platforms (such as Medium) should be my priority at this point in time, as they contribute much more to my desired outcome.
Please, for the sake of your productivity, happiness and stress levels, become incredibly disciplined about this. Protect your time like you’d protect your family or your life-savings.
Right now, I encourage you to make a list of all those busywork activities that consume a lot of your time but hardly contribute to your main desired outcome. Review this list every single day to protect yourself from falling back into the trap of busywork.
Now Do It
Change only happens when you execute. Therefore, as an action point for this article, follow the 3-Step Productivity Process. Identify your most valuable desired outcome(s), create a list of your 1–5 most valuable tasks and then identify all your busywork activities. Create one document that contains all of this information, and refer back to it every single day.
Personally, I review my goals, priorities and busywork activities every single morning as part of my morning routine, so that I start my day as focussed as possible.
I highly recommend you try this out for yourself too.
To Your Personal Growth,
Founder Personal Growth Lab