The funny thing about doing your best work overall is that sometimes it means doing less than your best on a particular task.

There are, we all know, times you need to bring your A game. That essential presentation, big report, or make-or-break client visit really, really has to showcase your skills. But then there are other things, like routine expense reports or ironing your shirts, that just have to get done. Making sure every little typo or wrinkle is removed in this sort of task is simply a waste of your time.

Separating one type of task from the other is essential for maximizing your productivity. How do you do it? Guthrie Weinschenk, COO of behavioral science consultancy the Team W, offered a simple but powerful suggestion on the company's blog recently. And the best part is it will only add a few seconds to your to-do list for the day.

A+ versus A-

He recommends that before you start any project or task, you "take a few seconds to decide whether the project is going to be an A- or A+ project." What's the difference between the two? Guthrie offers a handy checklist of characteristics to help you distinguish one from the other. For A- projects, your goal is to:

  • Get the job done
  • Aim for fast, efficient, solid
  • This doesn't mean sloppy work. It's good work, but it's efficient
  • Everyone is happy; the project is finished. Move on
  • Maximize your skills. Do what you do best so you can work as quickly and efficiently as possible

Meanwhile, A+ projects look quite different:

  • They take twice as much time or effort as an A- project (seriously, twice as much)
  • At the end, you and your team are proud of what you have done
  • Pore over every detail; make everything as great as it can possibly be
  • Blow everyone away with the quality, ingenuity, and perfection of the end result
  • Make this your passion, and everyone will feel your passion in the result

Why you should never do "A" work

Too often in our working life we put A+ effort into low-profile, low-reward A- projects. Those expense reports might be beautifully formatted and error free down to the last fraction of a cent, but who really cares? All you've done by sweating over them is waste energy that could be better used elsewhere. But we mostly already know the dangers of this sort of perfectionism. The bigger danger, according to Weinschenk, is less well recognized.

The worst thing you can do, he writes, is to turn in "A" grade work. Sometimes this happens by accident--you were aiming for A+ but ran out of time--while other times it is a conscious but misguided attempt to split the difference between your ambition and your constraints. Either way, the result is you've both missed out on the time (and sanity) savings of giving yourself permission to turn out an A- result, and the professional and personal satisfaction of wowing people with an A+ effort.

Far better, then, to take five seconds or so at the start of each project or task and consciously classify it--is this something that needs to be A+ or is A- enough?

Do that and you should see your productivity skyrocket, according to Weinschenk. "By emphasizing more A- projects, you free up time, creativity, and energy to make the next A+ project that much better. You'll get more done, and the quality work that people pay attention to will be that much better," he concludes.

How often are you guilty of putting A+ effort into work of A- importance?