Redefining Productivity

Prioritizing the 1 thing that matters.

Every Monday, a lot of us start off our week with a to-do list. As the week goes on we cross things off. We also add at least 5-10 things everyday. This leads to a never-ending loop of adding 2 things for every 1 thing we complete. At the end of the week, we’ve worked our assess off and gotten a lot of things done. But we still have this list of things we haven’t completed. We feel overwhelmed. We go read some articles about productivity and how to get things done. It usually doesn’t work. I’m here to tell you: Productivity is overrated. 99% of people define productivity as how many things we can get done.. We should actually focus on how we can get THE MOST impactful things done.

First, it doesn’t matter how many things you get done if none of those things actually matter. If I’m taking a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I need to drive 400 miles. If I get in the car and drive 1,000 miles towards Montana - I drove more miles, but did I reach my destination? No. Think about your goals in the same way. If you get 100 things done, but made no progress towards your goals, did you actually do anything?

In Paypal’s early days, Peter Thiel drove a culture of extreme focus. He would make every employee in the organization have “1 thing”. Your 1 thing was the only thing that mattered. On PayPal’s annual review forms, you wouldn’t write down all your accomplishments. You were only allowed to identify your single most valuable contribution to the company.

Keith Rabois, reflecting on this experience said, “The most important benefit of this approach is that it impels the organization to solve the challenges with the highest impact. Without this discipline, there is a consistent tendency of employees to address the easier to conquer, albeit less valuable, imperatives. As a specific example, if you have 3 priorities and the most difficult one lacks a clear solution, most people will gravitate towards the 2d order task with a clearer path to an answer. As a result, the organization collectively performs at a B+ or A- level, but misses many of the opportunities for a step-function in value creation.”

Now you understand extreme focus. How do you put it into practice? There’s 1 decision I’ve found that has the most impact: delete your calendar.

First, the average executive spends 23 hours per week in meetings. Most meetings are a waste of time. You must begin declining any meetings that are not related to accomplishing your 1 thing. Most of you laughed at that sentence as if it’s unrealistic. I would’ve laughed at that a few years ago too! The reality is, it’s painful at first. But it works. I’ve done it. If you’re in a position of power, this should be easy for you. For many others, this can be tough as it may look like you’re not “being a team player”. In many companies, the person who can sound the smartest in a meeting is the person who becomes respected … and promoted. If you’re a good employee, you can tell your manager you want to try an experiment for the next 2 weeks where you focus on 1 thing. Now is your time to shine. You have to crush this thing. Luckily for you, you’ve freed up 80 hours of time over the next 2 weeks and can dedicate your time and focus on your 1 thing.

Okay, so now you’re at the point where you’ve chosen your 1 thing. You’ve also freed up your time. How do you make sure you’re actually reaching your destination? Measure it! It’s critical that you can now prove to yourself, your colleagues, and your boss that this works. You have to write down the metrics or output that you will achieve and measure yourself against these metrics at the end of the 2 weeks. This is the 1 way you can prove to everyone that this approach works.

Simple, right? Re-define productivity. Don’t worry about the laundry list of to-do items. Focus on the 1 thing that matters. It’s a weird feeling and thing to discuss at first. Because we’re so used to meetings and completing lots of tasks. But by changing our mindset, we will be more impactful.

By narrowing your focus to actually working on truly what matters, instead of working on everything you will actually end up getting more done. You drive more output. You become a better leader. You owe it not only to yourself but to everyone that you work with to focus on the right things. Jocko Willink says, “We encourage leaders to do the things they know they probably should be doing but aren’t. By not doing those things, they are failing as leaders and failing their teams”. Narrow your focus - work on the right things. You’ll end up driving more output and being a better colleague and leader.

Narrow your focus to work only on what matters. Counterintuitively, you will end up getting more done. You become a better leader. You owe it not only to yourself, but to everyone that you work with to focus on the right things.