For many people – most, in my experience – productivity is a true paradox. 

Specifically, their misconception exists around how they utilize the resource of time. When I’m speaking or coaching on the topic of productivity, I typically find individuals favor a commitment to action over planning.  This becomes an issue when the urge to just do something comes at the cost of planning.  

For them, the focus is on doing or on movement. It’s about getting into the office and just doing something, which – unfortunately – in most cases means opening their email. They feel a rush of busyness by responding to requests and deleting items. In reality, though, they’re confusing being busy for being productive. 

Productivity is about getting the right things done with the least possible investment of your resources. It’s about being effective with your time, about optimization. And these people never stopped to consider what the right things actually were, so their time has been – in many ways – wasted. 

Herein lies the paradox. By pausing to act and spending a small investment of time on the front end of your day, you create space for real productivity to occur. In turn you save tremendous amounts of time later by 1) not having to complete the right things in crisis mode and on top of later work, 2) by being clear in your priorities you will avoid saying yes to the wrong things. 

Here are two strategies you can use when planning for productivity rather than being busy. 

Must – Should – Could

When it comes to identifying and triaging priorities, there are few more straightforward and effective strategies than Must-Should-Could (MSC). 

Before beginning MSC, you have to possess a comprehensive list of all the priorities and demands in your life. These could be stages of an ongoing project, actions required of you by your team or a superior, tasks with deadlines attached, or more. You can still execute the MSC model without this list, but it will prove much more effective when working in conjunction with an ongoing inventory of your life’s demands. 

Must. Once you have a list of items you can work from, first identify 1 or 2 that must get done that day. These are your non-negotiable priorities for the day, as in you can’t leave the office until they’re completed. Again, first begin this practice with only 1-2 “musts”. I’ve known some people that could effectively identify 3, but until you’re sure you can manage 2 on a daily basis I wouldn’t recommend attempting more. 

Once you have your “musts”, I would consider allocating time on your calendar for them. Create a meeting or timeblock for yourself that reads “Must #1: Whatever it is”. And let your boss and your team know this is your system for being productive, and when they see that item on your calendar they should know you’re working on a critical priority for that day. 

Should. Your “should” items still possess a sense of priority, but are selections that don’t necessarily have to be completed that specific day. They should still possess either a sense of urgency or value, though, since you’ll still want to get to them if at all possible. 

How do you decide when to work on a “should” item? Do so when your “must” tasks have either been checked off or when you can no longer make progress on them because you’re stuck. Let’s suppose you went into the day having targeted 2 musts and 2 shoulds. You were immediately able to check off one of the musts, but then became stuck on the second one while waiting on a teammate to get their portion of the project done. No worries, though, since you already have 2 potential opportunities to move your priorities forward in the 2 shoulds you selected in that day’s planning exercise. Grab one of them and get to work. 

Could. Your “coulds” are items that you could knockout if you’re either crushing your day and have checked off all the musts and shoulds, or if you’ve done what you can and are stuck in those other two areas. Since these are critical in terms of your day being successful or not, these can be quick and easy tasks you can handle in 15 minutes or less, or they can be endeavors with a value-add quality such as creativity or strategy. For practitioners of the Eisenhower Matrix, this is a great spot for Q2 items when possible: brainstorming for solutions to problems, planning around future goals or projects, and more.

“If… Then” Statements

I’ve covered this topic with much depth before, so I’ll focus more on the time investment in this article. 

“If… then” statements are all about managing distractions, and there are few more fatalistic distractions than saying yes to something you should have said no to. These often take the form of requests from your peers for help, new demands from your boss, or personal items such as messages or calls from your partner. 

Let’s say you have a deadline to meet on a project identified by the executive team as mission critical for your organization, and you’re responsible for the first stage of the proposal and have a deadline in two days. But your boss messages you just before lunch and asks that you drop what you’re doing so that you can tend to the needs of a major client. You know this isn’t a simple task that’ll  take a few minutes, but could pull your attention away for the whole afternoon. In that moment, you have two choices, 1) just say yes and switch what you’re doing, knowing this means at minimum one all-nighter and decreased effectiveness, or 2) put the decision back on your boss: “I received your request. I’m currently working on completing Project A for our organizational initiative, and the deadline is Friday. I just want to be clear, you would like for me to not work on Project A and instead tend to this client issue?” 

When the urgency and emotions of the workday have kicked in, it can be difficult to execute these behaviors in real time – which is why you want to prepare them in advance. 

“I have to get Project A done by the end of today so that I can use the rest of the week to practice its presentation and refine it. Therefore:

  • If my partner contacts me and asks me to do anything else, then I will respond with ‘not this week, is there another option?’
  • If my boss demands I drop what I’m doing, then I will push the situation back on him and  make it his decision for me to not get Project A done.
  • If my coworker asks me to help them get their priority complete, then I will say I don’t have the bandwidth this week but they can schedule a time for Monday if they truly need my help.”

Don’t allow yourself to become a victim of the urgency and priorities of others. Tell your future self what to do in order to buffer against those influences. Your future self will thank you. 

In Summary

Productivity is about getting the right things done with the most efficient use of resources. And, when considering your resources it’s critical to recognize that time is your most scarce asset. Don’t respond to this reality by diving into each day with an immediate focus on action at the expense of planning for real productivity. 

The “Must-Should-Could” method is a highly effective planning strategy that forces you to 1) identify priorities for the day, and 2) triage what’s important into three distinct categories. 

“If… Then” statements prepare your future self to manage the distractions that would otherwise derail your productivity efforts – most significantly at the cost of your most valuable resource – time.

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