The most difficult part of being productive is making values-based decisions. The words “values-based” not only refers to the rules you use to govern yourself but also what it is that you value. An inability or unwillingness to make decisions based on a set of criteria made up of something more than a task list will cause you to get less done than you should, feel stressed or overwhelmed, and procrastinate. Here is how you make values-based decisions to increase your productivity and the quality of your life.
The Tyranny of the Task List
If you are like most people, you have a task list. That task list is made up of all kinds of different and unrelated tasks. You might have “get cat food” sitting under “develop a plan to save client,” directly next to “make a tuition payment,” and one hundred other things all lined up on a task list. These tasks all require your time, your attention, and your energy. Because they are written in a straight line from top to bottom, or captured in a task manager of some kind, they all appear to be of equal importance.
Most people sort their task list every day, moving what is urgent to the top of the task list to ensure it gets done before some fast-approaching deadline. The single criteria being used to make that decision is, “what do I need to today to not miss a deadline?” It is important to meet deadlines and keep your commitments. If you feel overwhelmed or struggle to get enough of the right work done, it is because urgency is is only one factor you might should use when deciding what to do. Other factors carry equal or more weight, and by using other factors, you not only get more done, you feel the greater satisfaction of living a life of your design, one of meaning and purpose.
If you want to be more productive and more effective, deciding what to do and when to do it is a decision based on a hierarchy of value. Because every task requires your attention, one doesn’t appear to be much different from another. Each task creates a sense of obligation. However, some of the tasks on your list are far more critical than others; they weigh more. To escape the tyranny of your task list, you start by acknowledging the difference in the importance of each task when measured against others.
To make effective decisions, you have start by deciding this task is more important than that task. It helps to have a framework for making decisions that provides better guidance than urgency or deadlines. What follows is a framework for making values-based decisions.
The Long term Value of a Task
The framework here is how you escape your task list. The work isn’t easy, and it takes time to comprehend. You have to practice it for some time before it sticks. When it holds, it is life-changing.
You start by looking at the long term value. What is the value of task or project or goal or initiative in the future? If what you are considering has an extended impact, it weighs more than something that isn’t going to matter two weeks from now. If the consequences or potential gain is immense when compared to other choices you might make, it needs to rise to the top of the list.
If you have written down your long term goals and targets, what you need to do to reach them shows up on your task list (or Discipline List, if you follow the work in The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need) is now a higher priority than other tasks.
Identity, Purpose, and Meaning
The reason people struggle to do work that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning is, in part, because they are not doing the work that would allow them to exercise their resourcefulness and initiative. Instead, they get mired down in trivialities, things that don’t matter much now—or in the future.
There are specific categories of life that your tasks, projects, goals into which you can sort your initiatives. Your identity is made up of these categories. It’s also made up of your values systems. Success in any of the classes requires you to invest your time and attention in the goals, projects, initiatives, and tasks necessary to the result you want. The order here is important:
- Identity: Who you are?
- Goals: What does the result look like?
- Projects: What outcomes are required to produce the goal?
- Initiatives: Inside those projects, what is a priority now?
- Tasks: What action do you need to take to around your priority?
I am not sure how many times I have written these next sentences on this platform or somewhere else, but it is critical to being productive and doing good work: “Everything is important, but not everything can be most important. Productivity requires you to be intentional about your priorities.”
If you feel like your work doesn’t provide purpose and meaning, there is more than a good chance you are defining your work incorrectly. Anything with which you bring your whole self to feels like purpose and meaning. When to move what’s most important to the top of the list and spend more time there, your work—and your life—feel very different.
Deciding What Not to Do Now
It’s sometimes easier to decide what you are not going to do. When you ask yourself a question like, “What is the longterm value of this project or task,” you start to view it through a lens that is radically different from one that considers urgency only. When you rank things by their value over time, you find that some things are far more important than others.
You are deciding is what you are not going to do now. You are intentionally allowing some things to go undone so you can make room for the few things that produce the highest value. You are saying no to small things so you can say yes to something bigger.
Making decisions about your priorities allows you to schedule those things, crowding out what you are intentionally ignoring. You prevent yourself from failing at what are your most important priorities by ensuring that what’s most important comes first, rather than letting the lilliputian tasks dominate something much more significant.
Trading Now for the Future
The truth about productivity is that the most substantial part of it is made up of your attention and your results. It turns out that what we want in the short term often comes at the expense of what we wish for longterm. We sometimes trade novelty, distraction, and little urgencies for the results we want from the future.
What you do now is shaping your future. You are choosing your future regrets. Future You should be deciding what you do now, not Present You. Present You tends to think short term, what do I want now. Future You takes a much longer view, and when you look back at the present from that vantage point, your perspective about what you should do shifts.
If you have not made decisions like this before now, you will discover that you have to clean up some of the tasks that you didn’t get done before they became urgent. The process of making value-based decisions will feel like you are sliding on ice, lacking the traction you need to get where you want to go. You are heading in the right direction, and at some point, you’ll find that you have traction.
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Filed under: Productivity