Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: When coaching churches, I am often asked by the lead pastor to help staff members become more productive. Here are some practical insights to accomplish this.
by Alice Boyes, Harvard Business Review, 7/3/18.
In a series of studies recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, people typically chose to complete tasks that had very short deadlines attached to them, even in situations in which tasks with less pressing deadlines were just as easy and promised a bigger reward.
… implement strategies that will incrementally move you in the right direction but don’t require much effort.
Schedule Important Tasks, and Give Yourself Way More Time Than You’ll Need
Research shows that scheduling when and where you’ll do something makes it dramatically more likely that the task will get done.
For very important and long-avoided tasks, I like a strategy that I call “clearing the decks,” which means assigning a particular task to be the only one I work on for an entire day.
Isolate the Most Impactful Elements of Important Tasks
…If you habitually set goals so lofty you end up putting them off, try this: When you consider a goal, also consider a half-size version. Mentally put your original version and the half-size version side by side, and ask yourself which is the better (more realistic) goal. If your task still feels intimidating, shrink it further until it feels doable. You might end up with a goal that’s one-fourth or one-tenth the size of what you initially considered but that’s more achievable — and once you start, you can always keep going.
Anticipate and Manage Feelings of Anxiety
…Broadly speaking, working on important things typically requires having good skills for tolerating uncomfortable emotions. Here’s a personal example: Reading the work of writers who are better than I am is useful for improving my skills, but it triggers envy and social comparison. Acknowledging and labeling the specific emotions that make an experience emotionally challenging is a basic but effective step for reducing those emotions.
Spend Less Time on Unimportant Tasks
Unimportant tasks have a nasty tendency of taking up more time than they should. For example, you might sit down to proofread an employee’s report — but before you know it, you’ve spent an hour rewriting the whole thing. In the future, you might decide to limit yourself to making your three most important comments on any piece of work that’s fundamentally acceptable, or give yourself a time limit for how long you’ll spend providing notes.
Prioritize Tasks That Will Reduce Your Number of Urgent but Unimportant Tasks
In modern life, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being “too busy chasing cows to build a fence.” The sorts of scenarios you most want to avoid are fixing the same problems over and over or giving the same instructions repeatedly. To overcome a pattern of spending all day “chasing cows,” you can outsource, automate, batch small tasks, eliminate tasks, streamline your workflow, or create templates for recurring tasks. Look for situations in which you can make an investment of time once to set up a system that will save you time in the future, such as setting up a recurring order for office supplies rather than ordering items one at a time as you run out.
One specific strategy I cover in The Healthy Mind Toolkit is retraining the “decision leeches” in your life. Decision leeches are people who defer decisions to you. For example, you might ask someone else to make a decision, but instead of doing it, they email you a list of options for you to look at, putting the responsibility back on you. Instead of automatically answering the person, ask them to make a clear recommendation.
Pay Attention to What Helps You See (and Track) the Big Picture
When we’re head-down in the grind, it’s hard to have enough mental space to see the big picture. Pay attention to what naturally helps you do this. Something that helps me is travel, especially taking flights alone. There’s nothing like a literal 10,000-foot view to give me a clearer perspective on my path. Spreadsheets help me see the big picture too. As much as I hate bookkeeping and taxes, doing them helps me pay attention …
Another thing that helps keep me focused on my important goals is catching up with colleagues I see every six months or so. Invariably this involves giving each other an update on what we’ve been doing and what we’re trying to get done. Likewise, when it comes to money, there are certain personal finance bloggers I like to read from time to time to help me stay on track.
If you’re struggling with prioritizing the important over the urgent, don’t be too hard on yourself. The number of deadlines and decisions we face in modern life, juxtaposed with the emotionally (and cognitively) challenging nature of many important tasks, makes this struggle an almost universal one. I’ve written entire books on how to focus on the big picture and stop self-sabotaging, and I still find it difficult. I consider success as taking my own advice at least 50% of the time! This is a reasonable rule of thumb that you might adopt, too.