Maximize your productivity

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By Teri Grant

 This article will take ~7 minutes to read.

Do you ever feel like you work hard all day, but haven’t actually accomplished anything meaningful? Here’s how thinking like a reporter will help you get laser-focused on what you truly need to be working on.

By starting with the most vital tasks first, we can make the most of any time span we have to work on a project or start our day without worrying that we might miss a ‘must do’ for a ‘nice to do’.


How reporters think

One of the big differences between reporters and the rest of the us is that reporters write the news, while the rest of us read it. The former is largely a passive act, an absorption of information. The latter is much more active, and requires carefully thinking through material and deciding on the best order to present it.

The effective reporter knows how to bring things back into focus.

That reporter knows that being productive isn’t about having the longest article; it’s about having the most effective article that conveys the relevant facts of the narrative in a crisp, concise way. As a working professional, learning how to think that way, whether we are planning out how to spend our day or breaking down a specific task, can make us much more effective.


Here’s how it works

Productivity inverted triangle

News articles are written in an inverted-triangle format; the most critical piece of information is the headline, and the rest of the details are laid out in descending order of importance (see image at right).


Each reporter must sift through all of the material they’ve gathered in their investigative process, and determine the best order to present it in. In our day-to-day work, we are constantly faced with a similar decision process; at our most productive, we are able to identify – and then act on – those things that are most important, and be ruthless in leaving the unnecessary ‘bottom of the triangle’ fluff behind.

This inverted triangle format has another hidden benefit: by writing the least important information at the end of the article, the reporter makes it easy for their editor to cut off an article that is too long to fit on the same page with other articles. This is exactly the mindset we need for maximize productivity.


How we can apply it ourselves

It’s time to get off autopilot and get intentional. Think clearly and carefully – what is the most important thing that needs to be accomplished? Don’t just approach tasks in whatever order they happened to appear in your email; actively think though the best order in which you would like to approach it.

Once you’ve identified the most important thing, make that the first thing you will tackle. Then determine the next most important thing to do, and so forth.

Ways to identify what the most important thing is:

  • It makes you feel guilty when you look at it on your list, or when you think about it outside of work.
  • It is something that you would be relieved to have off your list.
  • It is something that others are relying on, and has an imminent (or already passed) deadline.


How to get started on it

Sometimes, the biggest thing holding us back from getting started is not knowing where to being. We know that a task is mission-critical, but for some reason it just keeps getting shuffled further down the deck. So what can we do about it?

Here are two simple strategies to break the ice on that important task and get some momentum going:


1.     To get started, just start. Seriously.

Pick one thing – anything – that would get the task closer to being accomplished. If that’s creating a file folder for it, create that file folder. If it’s adding a milestone to your calendar, add that milestone.

Don’t think about; pick something and do it. Right now. I’ll meet you back here when you’re done it.


2.     Break it down into smaller pieces

I mean really small pieces. What is something so simple that you don’t even need to think about it, or decide on anything?

For example, let’s imagine that you’ve been tasked to plan the company summer BBQ. It’s nowhere near your job description, but you’ve still got to make it happen. So, you take a first stab at a task list:

Task List (version one):

  • Plan company BBQ – make it awesome


Yikes. This is too scary and vague; where do you even begin? Let’s make it smaller. What is involved in having an awesome company BBQ?


Task List (version two):

  • Plan BBQ – make it awesome
    • Location
    • Date
    • Food
    • Music
    • Games/activities
    • Invitations
    • Speeches
    • …and so on

Better. But we still don’t have an actual task on there yet… let’s take another pass at it.


Task List (version three):

  • Plan BBQ - make it awesome
    • Location
      • See if last year's venue is available
        • Ask departmental secretary if they have the contact name for last year's venue booking
        • If not, Google to find general contact for venue
        • Send email to last year's venue
    • Date
      • Pick a date
        • Poll the team to find out what dates people have available (Doodle is a great option)
          • Make a Doodle poll
          • Send Doodle poll with a deadline
          • Send reminder about filling out the Doodle poll by the deadline
          • Check the Doodle poll after the deadline
          • Pick a date
          • Send a 'hold the date' e-card or meeting invitation with 'details to come' in the text of the message
    • Food
    • Music
    • Games/activities
    • Invitations
    • Speeches
    • ...and so on

You can continue to add specifics. Notice that ‘see if last year’s venue is available’ and ‘pick a date’ both weren’t specific enough, and you had to think about what exact steps might need to happen. Now, you have no decisions to make, and you can zoom forward with ease.

You may also notice that this way of thinking is very similar the inverted triangle that reporters use to determine what is important information, just flipped on its side with the point of it representing the ‘no-brainer’ specific tasks.


A quick summary of how thinking like a reporter will increase your productivity

  • Reporters prioritize their information from most important to least important; productive people are able to do the same.
  • Identify the most important things on your list by deadline, stakeholders, and/or how they make you feel (guilty, etc.)
  • Getting started is hard. Two ways to get started are:
    • Pick one thing - anything - and do it right now.
    • Break things down into the smallest possible 'no brainer' steps.


Make it happen: 

Take a look at the inverted triangle again, and compare it to your to do list. If you were to take all of those tasks and superimpose them onto the triangle, what would go where? 

  • Which items would be in the top, most important portion of the triangle? Be intentional.
  • Which would be at the very bottom?

Once you know what goes where, start at the top and work your way down your newly formatted list. Use some of the ‘get started’ tactics above to get positive momentum going.