When you're running a startup, the easiest thing to do is get caught up in being "productive" without actually producing anything. It happens to founders all the time, and it's invariably disastrous. It usually occurs when there's no real direction or prioritization, or when founders are focused on ticking off items from a list instead of accomplishing strategic goals.

That kind of false-positive productivity is a killer, as minor tasks that don't matter all that much are often pushed to the forefront because they can be ticked off without too much effort or energy. Productivity without direction is always going to be a negative force.

Instead of chipping away at the real priorities of what you're trying to accomplish, you wind up wasting your precious hours on busywork. It's even more dangerous when there are a lot of priorities that must be traded and worked through.

As head of marketing at Speedlancer, an on-demand freelance platform, I'm juggling multiple commitments on a daily basis. How do I handle collaborations with the sales manager? How do I respond to U/X changes? How do I sit down for a debrief with our CEO? How do I measure, maintain, and monitor what we say and how we say it?

I balance, play ball, or bail.

One of the biggest challenges I've faced recently has been learning when to balance my work, when to play ball with the tough tasks, and when to bail on things that aren't important. Those are the three key actions that I know have to be taken when there's something that needs doing.

Balancing means sharing the priorities, and spending time every day adjusting how important various tasks are. Something that could be at the bottom of the list at 8 a.m. could be the biggest issue of the day by 9, and being aware of that is vital.

Playing ball means shutting down everything except the task at hand and getting my game on. When there are things that matter, that whistle blows and I'm focused.

Bailing means recognizing that not everything has to get done. If the day comes to a close and I haven't emailed back five people, their lives will go on. And so will mine.

I outsource anything that doesn't need my voice.

That's where I draw the line. Any task that doesn't need my voice to be completed can and should be outsourced when necessary. The reasoning is, if a task doesn't require me to be vocally present, it doesn't need me to take care of it personally. It can be delegated to someone else.

Throughout my day, as tasks come in that don't need to be handled by me in person, I'll pass them on to one of the Speedlancers on our platform.

Designs, copy writing, proof reading, email sorting, spreadsheet formatting -- these are tasks that aren't big, strategically. Getting them out of my head and handled lets me move right along with my work.

I say sorry, I say no, and I don't feel bad about it.

I don't waste time on apologies. If a task comes in that I can't do, that I don't want to do, or that I just don't have the emotional bandwidth to even think about, I have a template email set up and ready to go. It's polite, it's nice, and it gets to the point. It tells people that I'd love to help them out, but I'm not able to do that without jeopardizing my bigger priorities.

I invite people to check back with me in a few weeks, and I find the ones who really did need my assistance will do so.

In a perfect world, I'd be able to help everyone out all the time. We don't live in a perfect world. So I don't beat myself up about not being able to do everything.

Being productive is often seen as a holy grail.

But it's pointless if your productivity isn't managed carefully and responsibly. It's pointless if you're a person who's getting a lot of "stuff" done without accomplishing anything of value.

Published on: Aug 26, 2016
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