As a CEO, husband and father to two young children, my primary currency is productivity. Like everyone else, I’ve struggled to find more time in the day for the things that matter.
And the stakes are high: Being unproductive takes time away from my family, myself and the 500+ people that I work with at Sprout Social.
With a growing company, productivity takes on a new level of importance. I’m not only trying to find more time in my day, but I’m also establishing systems for the productivity and balance of a large team. Systems that ultimately impact their families and their well-being.
Out of both necessity and curiosity, I’ve spent the last eight years learning and iterating on what makes me productive. I’ve read every book, attempted countless new approaches and read far too many articles that say the trick is waking up at 4:00 a.m. (shame on you!).
I eventually landed on a process that works for me and for our business. While I understand that what works for us might not work for you, there is one foundational element I want to share:
Productivity is a result of working on the most valuable thing at any given time.
Valuable > important
I say “valuable” instead of “important” because I’ve learned that value is something we often leave out of prioritization math. And it’s easily the most critical.
Most of us start and end our day without a solid grasp of how we’ll spend our time or what was accomplished over the last eight hours. Some of us take the time to create a list of items to work on throughout the day. Very few of us stop to think about the value of those items.
When properly motivated, any one of us can take a list of things we need to do and prioritize it. Typically, we incorporate some combination of urgency, comfort and guilt. Maybe we’ve learned to tackle the largest projects on our list first or to align our list to our energy levels. These are all good practices, but we almost never stop to assign actual value to that work or consider if the list was accurate in the first place.
This article is a fitting example. As a topic that would surely be top of mind for people in the new year, my team originally asked me to have it done before the holidays. I had a deadline and I tried not to be a bottleneck. But it wasn’t the most valuable thing I could be doing. Our entire team was coming to Chicago for our annual kickoff meeting, and the most valuable thing for me to do was to prepare for it. Writing this article would have negated its entire premise.
Making the right list
As I mentioned, it’s relatively easy to prioritize a list of tasks. We usually default to most urgent or most overdue. Sometimes we feel ambitious and start with the most daunting projects. Other times, if our energy is low, we start with four to five smaller projects we can knock out quickly to feel accomplished. But we rarely stop to ask if the list itself is right, or whether some items belong on the list at all.
As a prerequisite to working on things that matter, start by capturing everything you want to tackle. You could try a to-do app like Things, Omnifocus or Wunderlist. Or you could just use a notepad. The medium doesn’t matter much—except if you choose to use email, which, from my experience, is a bad idea. This step is crucial and reduces the cognitive tax of worrying about things you may have forgotten.
Once you have everything recorded, the next logical step is to prioritize. Don’t. You can’t assign value to tasks or projects without understanding how they roll up to your overall goals and objectives. It’s not uncommon to realize that half (or more) of the items on your list don’t contribute in any way to your overall goals. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing, but they certainly aren’t worth doing right now.
If you don’t have clear goals and/or objectives, it’s not possible to prioritize or assign value to your work. You can spend an entire day, week or year doing high quality work that doesn’t matter. Defining your goals and objectives should be the first item on your list.
Once you have a list of things to do that truly contributes to your goals and objectives, you can start prioritizing. There’s an art to this, and no formula we can lean on. But if you spend a few hours now, 30 minutes a week and 10 minutes a day making sure that the most valuable item is always at the top of your list, you can be confident your time is well spent.
You can develop a rating scale—I do this, and it helps. I use a combination of urgency and business impact. Some of us have less agency over our time than others and will need to weigh deadlines more prominently. But the specifics don’t matter. The only part that matters is that you’re always working on the most valuable thing.
Here’s the trick: By refusing to work on anything that isn’t the most valuable thing, you’ll end up with time to tackle more of the items on your list. Decisions become much easier, you’ll know what to eliminate and what to delegate. You’ll beat the undefeated opponent of time because the most important work is always done. You’ll find and stay in the zone for longer stretches of time. You’ll eliminate the productivity drain of multitasking and context switching, and you’ll save yourself wasted cycles on things that don’t matter. You can end your day on time, knowing that you did your most valuable work.
Creating space for what matters
The most valuable thing I could be doing right now is playing with my children. The most valuable thing for them is attending school. Sometimes things don’t line up. I’m working on writing this now because it’s the most valuable thing I can do in this moment. And when they get home later today, I’ll have time to be present. That’s what matters.