For a while I worked in the healthcare tech start-up space, and two of the biggest challenges we often faced was knowing what was the most important thing to work on, and how to be productive to accomplish our goals. I was in a role where I interfaced between multiple teams and a lot of my day was spent with email. I didn’t spend my entire day producing reports, working on spreadsheets, or creating new policy documents. Much of my day involved putting out minor fires that popped up for people working across the teams I worked between. This left me in a position where it was hard to measure my productivity. If I wasn’t producing a report of one type, and was just going to meetings and responding to emails, how did I demonstrate that I was working continuously and trying to accomplish things?
The easy answer which I often fell into was email. The quicker I responded to email, the more email I responded to, and the more visible I was in those emails, the more everyone would know I was working hard. The problem, however, is that responding to a ton of emails often isn’t very productive, and it often doesn’t address the most pressing problems. When I started to recognize this and shift my activity, a lot of emails fell aside (not to mention Slack Channels), and I started to actually be better at my job.
In Deep Work Cal Newport writes, “Clarity about what mattes provides clarity about what does not.”
For the first couple of years I didn’t have good clarity about what mattered. I spent a good amount of time on projects that were never going to go anywhere, and I spent a good amount of time responding to emails that really never needed a response. I looked productive, but what I worked on didn’t help drive toward the company’s biggest objectives.
In our work lives (and really in our lives in general) we need to start focusing on what truly matters. The better we can be at asking what is important and the better we can understand the why behind that importance, the more we can accomplish. As we practice this we will see what things are unimportant in our lives, and we can take steps to cut those things out, leaving us with more space and time for the important things. If we don’t stop to ask what things really matter, we won’t see which things don’t matter, and we won’t be able to move those things to the periphery.