How Low-Value Work Is Hurting Your Bottom Line
Want to be more productive? Cut out the inessential tasks.
“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” — Bruce Lee
At the beginning of this year, a rare few could have predicted how abruptly life would soon change. But one thing has become abundantly clear from the recent COVID-19 crisis: We can’t put off what matters most for later.
Wasting valuable energy on mindless activity will keep us from the work we most care about.
In the business world, this means being pulled along by low-value tasks and confusing busywork with productivity.
It’s natural in uncertain times for our attention to be diverted in numerous directions. But immediately responding to emails as soon as they hit our inbox or checking our phones every five minutes — while momentarily satisfying — is often a distraction from completing the more critical work on our plates.
What’s more, for every low-level interruption we engage in, research shows it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to our original task.
So how do we avoid this pitfall?
By shifting our thinking and taking an active approach, we can cultivate a productivity mindset across our business to focus on what’s crucial.
Cut out the inessential
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Overwhelmed is the new normal,” Priscilla Claman writes in Harvard Business Review.
She’s not wrong. Chalk it up to our overbooked schedules, endless to-do lists and low-level tasks that keep us from moving the needle forward. But here’s the thing: Taking on too many responsibilities only ends up diluting our overall impact.
Research shows that knowledge workers spend a good chunk of their time (41 percent, to be exact) on discretionary activities that offer little in the way of personal satisfaction and could easily be delegated.
In my experience, all of this “mindless work” zaps the energy, productivity and joy out of our lives. Low-level work bogs down our days and prevents us from using valuable resources on projects that will produce better outcomes.
As an entrepreneur with more than 14 years of experience growing my company, Jotform, I have to constantly bring my focus back to what matters most. This isn’t easy in a world full of distractions always vying for my attention. But the key, I’ve found, is to work on the projects that are the true game-changers — the ones that require innovation and creativity, and change people’s lives for the better.
When we get rid of our low-value work, according to Claman, our “tasks that mean little or nothing to customers or colleagues” (like unnecessary meetings and cumbersome approval systems), we can take on a more active approach.
Related: 10 Time Management Tips That Work
Design an action plan
For successful, productive people, it can be hard to cut out the dopamine rush that comes from constantly ticking off a to-do list. But running a thriving business means knowing how to categorize your work by importance and knowing when to take things off your plate.
Part of my morning routine involves determining which projects will take my business to the next level in terms of growth and progress. I look at the day’s schedule and focus on high-impact work like reaching out to investors, strategic planning or finishing up an important presentation.
While a lot of lesser-value tasks are necessary, some are worth eliminating altogether, like weekly status meetings that can easily be done through email.
Here are some techniques I’ve used over the years to help me stay focused:
Find your “sweet spot.” When you consider taking on a project, keep an eye on whether it aligns with your purpose and what’s most important to your organization’s larger goals. Ask yourself if you’re the right person with the right skill set to take it on. Play to your strengths — a little self-awareness can help you evaluate where to spend your time and resources.
Automate. As your company grows, using automation tools for low-level work will enable you to be a more effective leader. You’ll save money and headaches every time you can stop sending similar emails, or manually completing the same task over and over again.
Delegate. It’s also equally important that you stop trying to have a hand in everything and know when to delegate. Matching the right person with the right job not only allows you to optimize outcomes — it also gives your employees a chance to make more meaningful contributions.
Set boundaries. Learning to say no upfront to low-value tasks is just as critical knowing what to prioritize. I used to be guilty of saying yes to every call and meeting I was invited to, but I was soon stretching myself thin and feeling exhausted all the time. As a leader, it’s essential to set your own limits about what you’ll take on, and also making sure others are aware of your rules.
Make room for what matters
“Action expresses priorities.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Define your peak times and set them aside for your most meaningful work. Knowing how your focus, creativity and interest change at different hours can help you better engage in the key projects you do take on. This very simple practice has really made a difference for me and given me clarity about getting the important stuff done first.
Striking the balance between necessary tasks and what’s crucial means experimenting with different techniques and finding what works best for your business.
But once you’ve hacked away the inessentials, you should dedicate your time to what really matters. Whether you realize it or not, your team is seeing you lead by example, and how you approach mindless work is setting the tone for the rest of your company. After all, as author Liane Davey explains: “The movement against busy starts at the top.”