Not all work is created equal. Many of us supplant high impact work with "work about work"--activities like checking and responding to emails, sitting in unproductive meetings that don't have agendas, scouring for information in Slack channels, or spending hours on end beautifying PowerPoint presentations.
According to a recent Asana study (full disclosure: I work for Asana) based on a 2019 qualitative survey among 10,223 global knowledge workers, workers spend 60 percent of their valuable time on work about work. That's equivalent to spending January to mid-August on work that doesn't really move the needle. Ouch.
Here are three ways to ensure you spend more time in 2020 focusing on high-impact work.
1. Assess the lay of the land.
Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, is remembered for being highly productive. During his two-term stint in office, he served as the first Supreme Commander of NATO, established Alaska and Hawaii as states, founded NASA, and played a pivotal role in the formation of the interstate highway system.
What was Eisenhower's mantra for balancing high levels of productivity, with high-quality work? "What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important."
Inspired by these words of wisdom, The Eisenhower Box was created as a simple, yet highly effective way to categorize your work. It simply involves dividing work into four categories so that you too can ruthlessly prioritize your work.
- Type 1: Important and urgent
These are critical tasks that you need to do right away and include tasks with impending deadlines or crises. You should do these tasks immediately.
- Type 2: Important but not urgent
These are tasks that don't have negative consequences if you don't do them immediately. These tasks often relate to your long-term goals, including, for example, strategic planning and career development. You should schedule and prioritize these tasks.
- Type 3: Urgent, but not important
These are your classic distractions and the source of a lot of "work about work." They include interruptions and low-value meetings. Often, it's best to delegate these tasks.
- Type 4: Not important and not urgent
These are tasks like mindless internet browsing, Netflix watching, and other time wasters that could be classified as "work about no work." How should you attend to these? Simple. Eliminate them.
2. Harness your chronotype.
With the workplace teeming with type 3 tasks, it takes effort to salvage our powers of attention so that we can focus our brainpower and willpower on type 1 and 2 tasks. One of your best chances of success is to harness your chronotype.
As recounted by Daniel Pink in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, humans progress through three stages of productivity over the course of a day:
A peak: This occurs in the morning after waking up
A trough: This occurs in the mid-afternoon.
A rebound: This occurs in the evening.
Our productivity during these three phases differs markedly. When we reach peak productivity depends on our chronotype--our natural propensity for sleep and wake up at certain times. Depending on whether you are an early bird, a night owl, or something in between (what Pink calls a "third bird"), we reach productivity at different times.
For larks and third birds, the morning is the best time to focus on analytical work such as strategic planning and other type 2 tasks that require tip-top focus and attention. For night owls, the late afternoon is prime time to attend to these tasks.
By knowing when your peaks, troughs, and rebounds occur, you'll be able to score more analytical three-pointers throughout the day.
3. Put "do not disturb" on repeat.
Our devices are constant sources of distraction and context shifting. A study spearheaded by Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine found that it takes more than 20 minutes to recover from a distraction and return to the original task.
When we're always connected, our productivity takes a nosedive. Another study conducted by researchers at the University of London, UK found that being always connected--even when you're not responding to emails and other distractions-is detrimental to your IQ--to the tune of a 10 point decline!
One of the most effective antidotes against distraction is the "do not disturb" mode on your devices and apps. By embracing the do not disturb mode, you'll pack a one-two punch, boosting your brainpower and productivity.
In 2009, Intel predicted that, by 2020, they'd be able to develop brain implants that could control a multitude of gadgets directly via brainwaves. With the state of distraction in the workplace, in many ways, it's a good thing this prediction didn't come true and we don't have more ways to access our devices and apps. Our attention is a limited resource. You owe it to yourself to ruthlessly protect it.