Busy Work

So, if we are going to talk about productivity we need to get one thing straight from the outset; busy does not equate to productive.

Try this experiment; go around for a day and ask colleagues, "So, what did you do today?" Most of the answers will be along the lines of, "A lot, it was a busy day; non-stop action, meetings, phone calls, the usual!"

That kind of question and answer tells me nothing about what was actually achieved. If anything it proves the point that being busy is often such a distraction that it obscures what we actually may have achieved.

But there is one question that will instantly give you a sense for how productive anyone is and set the bar for increasing productivity, "What did you achieve today!"

Think about this for a minute. What did you achieve yesterday, the day before? Not so easy is it? We like to think of achievement as something we do over long periods of time, monthly, quarterly, yearly, but not daily. Yet, if you set the expectation that each day should include a defined achievement, let's call it an "achievement goal," then you are creating a nearly instant metric for how productive each day will be and you are taking direct personal responsibility for that goal's achievement.

"That love affair with focus drove Apple's success, it minimized distraction, and it articulated in clear terms what the metric of success would be."

Taking a Bite of the Apple

Steve Jobs used to do this at Apple on a larger scale at the company's yearly strategy meetings. As recounted by his biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs would start by soliciting dozens of yearly objectives from his staff and then successively pare them down until he had only three left. These three became the compass setting for what the company needed to achieve in the following year. That love affair with focus drove Apple's success, it minimized distraction, and it articulated in clear terms what the metric of success would be. Everything else either supported those goals or was secondary.

In addition, Apple had a policy of assigning what was called, in Apple-speak, a DRI, the directly Responsible Individual. A DRI, as described by Fortune reporter Adam Lashinsky in a 2011 Forbes feature, was assigned to every project at Apple. You can bet that if you were a DRI your priorities were crystal clear and the importance of focus was never in question, whatever else might be vying for your attention.

One Day at a Time

The purpose of having a daily achievement goal is to use these same strategies of intense focus and clear responsibility to drive your actions on a daily basis.

Are there days you might not accomplish your achievement goal? Of course, otherwise you're not setting the bar high enough. However, to maximize your chances of success set your achievement goal at the end of each day for the following day. The reasons are simple; you'll be able to sleep better at night once you have determined what you need to accomplish the next day, sleeping on one critical objective will tune your mind into the many nuances of how you can achieve it, and most importantly, you can start the next day off with a clear objective--no need to waste time each morning trying to shuffle all of the inevitable email priorities that have accumulated overnight.

"The purpose of having a daily achievement goal is to use these same strategies of intense focus and clear responsibility to drive your actions on a daily basis."

Have no illusions, this is a rigorous approach that will not always sit well with your team. Humans have a nearly instinctive drive to deal with urgency over strategy, it's how we survived in caves and jungles for millennia. But that same strategy works against us when we are building towards a long-term vision because the near-term distractions obscure our view of the long-term goal. However, if you apply this level of strategic rigor and discipline to how you structure each day I can guarantee that at least three things will start to happen:

  1. You will train yourself and those who work with you to focus on what is critical rather than what is urgent. The two may sometimes be the same, but most often urgency trumps critical because it is harder to say "no" to an urgent request if you do not have a clear priority in place. That doesn't mean that you will be 100% unyielding to rational argument, but that you will stop and weigh your options before jumping into every urgent request.
  2. You will minimize the impact of distractions by deciding ahead of time what your focus needs to be. Over time you will prove to yourself and to your team that a strategic approach to dealing with each day creates much more value than constantly tending to distractions.
  3. You will end each day with a sense of accomplishment. As that becomes habit you will become addicted to setting the next day's achievement goal; over time the habit will become a source of ongoing satisfaction as you track your accomplishments.

The bottom line is that the expectations we set for ourselves, and those we work with, are not the results of productivity; they are what fuels it.

Now--stop reading--go achieve something today!