The Most Valuable Task List

Knowing what task to do at any given time is an important skill if you are looking to maximize your productivity.  The time and effort we put into doing things is too often misplaced, and that energy would be put to better use on another task with a greater ROI.  The tricky thing is that the value of the task you choose is fluid and depends on other factors such as the time of day, day of the week, physical location, and so forth.

But your core tasks are also likely to be consistent, depending on the nature of your work and your personal interests.  So with a little pre-planning it is possible to make a list of exactly what you should be doing at any one time.   Forearmed with that knowledge you will waste little time determining what you should be doing, while avoiding the pitfalls that come by focusing on the wrong thing.

The Most Valuable Task (MVT) List

The first part is easy.  Take a sheet of paper and begin writing down any and all MVTs you can think of.  You can categorize them under Personal and Professional, or keep them all mixed together.  They will get sorted in the next stage.  Try to consider which of the tasks give you the greatest bang for your buck; the greatest return on your time invested.

Time truly is our most valuable resource, yet it is ultimately a diminishing one.  The point of this exercise is to think about and identify those tasks that move you ahead the most, with the least amount of energy.  As you’ve no doubt seen in your own life there are some things you do where the return seems disproportionalely large compared to the work put in, where other tasks take a valiant effort yet fail to move the needle in any appreciable way.  The idea is to identify which tasks provide the biggest payout; not so that you can do less, but so you can go farther on the same expenditure of energy.

There are plenty of stories of self-made millionaires out there.  While luck surely plays a role in many of those stories, I think that what those people focus on at any one time is what really gets them tehre.  We all have the same amount of time in a day; some just use theirs more wisely than others.  But every one of us has things we could be doing to go as far as possible in our current situation, or move us towards our ideal lifestyle.  But we need to focus on doing the things that will get us there rather than wasting time with unimportant or Low Value Tasks (LVT).

Back to the list.  You should have a number of tasks listed that will help you reach your goals, succeed in your job, and thrive personally – both physically and spiritually.  Check that you only have actions listed, not goals themselves.  “Lose weight” or “Learn Esperanto” are not actions, they are end results.  We are focusing here on specific actions or tasks that you are (hopefully) already doing daily.

Now comes the hard part.

The Hierarchy of Completion

Armed with a list of MVTs it should be clear that, while they are all important to you, some are more valuable than others; at least at certain times.  This next step organizes your list in such a way that you will be taking care of your top priorities first, then moving down the line to get your other things done.  While no one can tell you exactly what order your personal list should go in, there are some similarities in most circumstances.

Work and/or school – These sit at the top of the list.  One pays for everything you do, the other elevates you to another level, and you pay dearly to do so.  Both are large, formal commitments, any must be treated with respect and integrity.  If you have agreed to a job then you should do that job to the best of your ability, no matter if it is exactly what you want to do or if it is just a means to an end.

Physical activity – Yoga, running, weightlifting.  No matter what you like to do to stay in shape it needs a daily time slot.  This may come natural to some but if you are struggling to maintain a workout habit then this needs to be very close to the top of the list.

Personal development – This might also be termed hobbies, or creative pursuits.  Art, language acquisition, secondary education.  Something you are working on in your own time that you like to do.

Family Time – It goes without saying that you spend time with youor family when home, but are they getting all of your attention?  I shift my priority from work to family on my days off and make sure that I am not distracted by work, and that they are getting my full attention.  Anything less is a disservice to them.

Developing this list is really about identifying what your priority is in any situation and ensuring you are making progress towards your goals.  For example, my list currently looks like this:

  1. Chargeable projects
  2. Running
  3. Writing
  4. Family
  5. Spanish

Now don’t get all excited that family is at number four!  And don’t assume that this is the order I do things in a day.  On a typical workday at home I write first, then run, have a little family time, then head to work.  I practice Spanish in the car on the way there.  But I’m on the road a lot as well so the family time reverts to a phone call.

If I’m on a big project then I’ll try hard to get my run in, but may need to sacrifice my writing time.  Its all about choosing your priority for the situation you are in that day.

Cut the Dead Weight

As you work through this exercise you’ll notice that you’ve likely made a big list, but are finding it difficult to organize.  If that is the case you’ve got too much going on.  If everything is a priority then nothing is.

We want to do it all these days.  But if you jump from thing to thing you’ll never get any good.  You need to put some of those things aside and focus on what truly matters to you and what will move you forward.  People overestimate what they can get done in a month, but underestimate what they can do in a years.  Give youself a long enough timeframe to really learn a skill, then after you’ve given it an honest try you can replace that with another item on your list.

I run six days a week and am training for the Houston Marathon.  I’ve set this goal and have given myself a year to complete it, so this is my focus.  Once I’ve finished it I may change things up and get back into the weight room, or focus on martial arts.  But I’m not going to focus on all three at once because I’ll end up failing at all of them.

So make your list and organize the points to your hearts content.  Then cut everything past the first five or six.  You’ll actually get something done that way.

Prioritize 

I think of this as my Hierarchy of Completion but really it is just a mental exercise in confirming what your priorities are in different situations.   By identifying what your most important thing is you’ll maintain focus better while working on it, getting more done, faster.

Are your actions congruent with the goals you have set for yourself?  I’d love to hear what your top three personal development priorities are, and in what order.

Consistency

In the previous article I made the case for consistency and focus being the two most important skills or habits to adapt, as they can be applied to anything and help to achieve a higher quality end result.  Today, I want to examine strategies to help build the consistency muscle.  We’ll look at a number of ideas that can be experimented with, especially if you’ve never considered consistencies role in personal development and success.

What is Consistency?

We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

-Aristotle

Simply put, consistency means showing up every day.

To improve an aspect of your life there will be an action you need to perform.  And then you need to perform it again and again and again.  Big buildings are built with small stones, and incremental improvements are the only sure path to success.

The body needs two things to grow: stress and rest.  That stress can be physical, such as lifting weights to make your muscles grow, or intellectual, such as studying geometry.  Both the body and the brain then need a period of rest to consolidate what has been learned so that it can perform it again, just a tiny bit better.  The frequency of repetition then becomes very important as a balance must be struck between periods of stress and rest. It stands to reason that the more repetitions you get in the faster you will improve, but only if sufficient time has passed to ensure you are again at full capacity before starting.

Most things can be repeated again daily, especially after a good night sleep.  Finding the time and motivation to keep repeating it is another matter.  Luckily there are a number of proving strategies that we can experiment with.

Make it Easy

When picking up a new habit the first thing to consider is how you can make performing that habit really easy.  Especially in the beginning you want that new activity to be so small and easy that it is literally impossible for you to fail.

The instinct is to apply overwhelming force to the activity.  There is a place for that, but not when first starting out.  This initial period is not about improving the skill, although improvements will come; it is about building the habit of practicing that skill again and again.

If you are trying to start a workout program then performing a single, perfect pushup every day could be your program minimum.  If you want to write a book, start with a minimum daily wordcount of ten words. That’s one sentence.

It may sound silly, that such a small thing could be your daily goal, but in the beginning, it is all about small wins, and actually practicing the habit daily.  As time progresses the volume of work you perform will naturally increase, and you will usually do more than the minimum required; but on those runaway days you’ll still be able to meet your minimum goal, ultimately moving the needle in the right direction.

Another aspect of this is to pre-load easiness into your routine.  Laying out your workout gear the night before, prepping meals ahead of time, or developing an outline before sitting down to write are examples of this.

Pull the Trigger

Every habit, good or bad, has a trigger.  In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg lays out the three-step path that all habits follow:

  1. The Trigger
  2. The Routine
  3. The Reward

When creating a new habit you need to attach it to a new trigger (and breaking a bad habit requires you to identify what the trigger event for that habit is, but that’s a topic for another day!).  There are five primary habit triggers:

  1. Time
  2. Location
  3. Preceding event
  4. Emotional state
  5. Other people

For the purpose of this discussion I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Time is the easiest trigger to influence, followed next by location.  Therefore, the best way to build a consistent habit is to do it first thing when you wake up.  That way nothing “more pressing” will come up and you’ll be assured to have enough energy to complete it.

To take an example such as developing a consistent running habit, you would pre-load tomorrows run by having your clothes and running shoes ready so that you can jump out of bed and head straight out the door.  Then, in the beginning especially, you would commit to a very short distance goal; say to the end of your driveway, or once around the block.  It may sound like it isn’t even worth the effort, but you are working on the consistency at this stage, not the distance.  Eventually your enthusiasm will grow thanks to the accumulation of small wins and you’ll venture further afield.

Task Logging

Logging your new habit goes a long way towards reinforcing it.  Not only are you able to track your performance, but you are also creating a record of how consistent you have been in practicing the task consistently.  You may have heard the story about Jerry Seinfeld, when asked how he got so good by an aspiring comedian, answered that he would write jokes every day then mark an X on his calendar.  Over time the chain of X’s grew longer and provided additional incentive not to break the chain.

Personally I use a form of Bullet Journaling.  At the beginning of the month I’ll make up a calendar in my notebook with all the days running vertically down the left side of the page.  Next to that are little boxes that I can tic an X inside.  Each of those rows represents something important that I need to do daily; writing, running, etc.  At a glance I can then see how consistent I am being.

This is also a great measure of your commitment to the task.  Since starting to track things in this fashion I’ve had more than one project where weeks would go by with no little X’s making their way onto the page.  Turns out I wasn’t as interested in those things as I initially thought.  This helps you to identify what truly matters and what you really care about.

Do It Every Day

Dan Gable, the famous wrestling coach, famously said:

If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not important, don’t do it at all.

I think about this quote all the time and have used it as a means to filter my goals and guide my intentions.  The people that are the best in their field are those that do that work every day, often to the exclusion of everything else.  We only have so much time and we have a responsibility to use it well.  It is important therefore to consistently practice those things that provide the most value to our lives.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t time for fun or Facebook, but only once the work is done.  Starting small and building gradually helps make the transition painless, and it is truly amazing what we can accomplish by chipping away at a task daily.

Does your daily routine encourage consistency?  Are your actions consistent with your stated goals?  I think about this congruence of actions and outcomes a lot and would love to hear your thoughts.

The Two Most Powerful Skills

We live in a fast paced world.

Every day we try to get our jobs done, all the while being bombarded with information and stimulus that has been specifically designed to fragment our attention.  Whether it be personal projects or professional, studies show that it is becoming increasingly harder to concentrate while constantly task switching, and that information learned while partially distracted is quickly forgotten.  That will make it especially difficult to work on your Most Valuable Tasks (MVT).

Even as I write this, early at the kitchen table while the rest of the house sleeps, there are a number of open loops distracting me.  Two massive reports need to get to my client right away, and one of those hasn’t even been started yet.  It’s just a pile of screenshots and handwritten notes at this point.  Plus, there is the need to write this as I’m only two days from my deadline.  It can quickly become overwhelming if you don’t have tools to deal with it.

Companies are actively working to distract us; to fragment our attention and leave us open to suggestion.  And society is going along with it for the most part.  There is enormous social pressure to do what everyone else is doing, be that the latest social app, fidget spinners, or pet rocks.  It keeps getting faster and bigger, to the point where the children of this generation will grow up in a world that looks nothing like the one we grew up in.

Texting and driving is a good example.  You might be surprised to know that adults are more likely to do so than young drivers; although their usage behind the wheel increases as they gain experience.  Unfortunately this has also become the greatest killer on the road, with over 3,000 deaths per year as a result.

I’ve been writing on these topics for almost two years now and thinking about them for much longer than that.  What I’ve come to realize is that while many of the skills and techniques discussed can be good tools when applied appropriately, there are two meta-skills that should be mastered first.  Doing so will make the others that much more powerful.

The two skills are Consistency and Focus.

Why these two? 

Look at your cellphone and swipe through the home pages.  It is probably full of different applications that you’ve downloaded at some point.  How many of those are being used daily?  Chances are that you use a few of them often, while others may have been tried once then forgotten about.

Self-development is like that.  Think of techniques such as Active Listening like apps.  You download the documentation and try them out, but unless it becomes your daily habit to open that app you’ll never make full use of it.

Consistency and focus are like the operating system those apps run on.  You always need those programs running in the background, no matter if you are learning a new language, or writing a book.  Without them those efforts will eventually fall into the clutter of unused apps on your home screen.

The Myth of Discipline

Here is the thing about discipline; it is only habits that are repeated consistently.  We may look at somebody who publishes a book every year, or has six pack abs, and think they must have more discipline then us. But the fact is that they have just developed habits that move them towards their goals, then be guided by them daily.  The longer a habit is applied the easier it becomes.

John Grisham is one of the worlds best selling authors.  He accomplishes this working only 15hrs a week, writing for 3 months every year.   But he writes with focus and consistency.

Willpower is a finite resource that is heavily impacted by external inputs such as the time of day, or your blood sugar levels.  The trick is to design your environment for success while your willpower is high.  Throw out the cookies.  Put your running shoes right beside the bed.  Make execution of your new habit the easiest option.

Work the System

In order to improve at something, you need to do it over and over again.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulated the 10,000 hour rule; the idea being that it takes a large investment of time to truly master a skill.  But you can’t just go through the motions, punch your time and expect things to work out.  You need to perform those repetitions with intense focus.

(There is an interesting counterpoint to Gladwells 10,000hr theory discussing domain dependency, by Frans Johansson in his book The Click Moment.  The argument is that focused study only predicts success in fields that have stable structures; where the rules don’t change.  Think chess, or classical music.)

Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.  If you only bring 70% of your focus to bear on a task, you’ll never get more than that out of it.  It leads to average results at best.  More than that, you’ll take longer to complete tasks than needed.  But If you focus with full power on the task at hand you’ll learn quicker, perform better, and finish sooner.  It is like sunlight; feel nice on a summer day, but concentrated under a magnifying glass and it will start fires.

Build Your Toolbox

Developing the twin powers of consistency and focus is achievable by anyone, and can be applied to any task, goal, or habit.  And when you consciously work towards improving your focus and consistency, an amazing thing happens.

You get more done.

In the next two articles’ we will look at each of these in turn, and figure out how to best apply these skills into our daily lives.