August 4th, 2008

Defeat the Multitasking Virus: The Power of Finishing 2 Mission-Critical Tasks Each Day

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Not enough computers to work

When we feel jittery, or worried, or anxious in thinking of the great amount of work that lies before us, the jittery feelings are not caused by the work, but by our mental attitude- which is “I ought to be able to do this all at once.” The truth is: We can only do one thing at a time. When we work with this attitude, we are able to concentrate and think our best.

-Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics

A few weeks ago, I realized that my multitasking habits on the computer were starting to impact my productivity. As I became more active in reading blogs/RSS feeds, Digg, Facebook, Twitter, and Plurk, I became less effective at actually getting things done that matter to me. So what did I do? I asked Timothy Ferriss (not literally- I re-read a chapter of The 4-Hour Workweek).

Ferriss recommends that each evening, you think about what task needs to be completed, and ask yourself about the next day, “If this is the only thing I accomplish tomorrow, will I be satisfied with my day?”. Then, write down 2 mission-critical tasks that you’d like to get done the next day. Instead of using computerized to-do lists, Ferriss recommends that we revert to paper, to limit the amount of information we put on our list:

I use a standard piece of paper folded three times to about 2″ x 3 1/2″, which fits perfectly in the pocket and limits you to noting only a few items. There should never be more than two mission-critical items to complete each day. Never. It just isn’t necessary if they’re actually high-impact.

-Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

The next day, you perform these two tasks separately from start to finish without distraction. I have implemented Ferriss’ simple productivity strategy in my own life, limiting my multi-tasking habits, and focusing on 2 mission-critical tasks each day. After trying this for a few weeks, I have found that his solution works great- my productivity skyrocketed, am I am also happier and feel more gratified with my work.

What makes it work?

Parkinson’s Law– Work expands to fill the time available. This is the magic of the imminent deadline, and works well for completing 2 daily mission-critical tasks.

80/20 Rule (The Pareto Principle)– For many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In relation to 2 mission-critical tasks, your 2 tasks should be part of the 20% that results in your desired outcome (e.g. increased income, productivity, happiness). Again, make sure you ask yourself “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?”

Before you get started using Ferriss’ approach to productivity, please be aware of these 2 challenges with the approach:

Challenges with the 2 Mission-Critical Tasks Approach

1) 80/20 optimizations can sometimes cut out critical tasks

This is what’s wrong with a lot of 80/20 optimizations- the belief that truncating the system at the head will optimize its effectiveness; in many cases it actually cuts off a critical piece of the overall ecosystem.

-Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

Solution: When you define your daily mission-critical tasks, be careful not to cut out/stop doing anything that is critical to your long-term success.

2) You may have a bunch of smaller tasks you need to complete in a day

Solution: Bundle your tasks into 2 larger mission-critical tasks. For example, if I want to write three blog posts in a day, I would consider this one of my mission-critical tasks: “Write 3 Blog Posts for Life Evolver”.

Creative Commons License photo credit: gabyu

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