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Busy Isn’t Productive

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My inbox is buried with your thoughtful, loving replies and suggestions of books to read. (If anyone wants to see the complete list of books people suggested, just reply to this email and I’ll share you on the doc listing them all).

I woke up today thinking about getting stuff done: the difference between being busy working on things and getting things done.

It’s easy to confuse ‘doing lots of things’ with ‘getting things done.’

I think about an anti-pattern I sometimes fall into when I get started on new projects:

  • Do some initial research
  • Find a new tool or three
  • Sign up for demos, webinars, etc.
  • Read a book or a few articles on the topic
  • Try and figure out if I’m using the right tactics for this project or if I need different tactics
  • Do some more research

Heck, it’s the same flow when I start poking around with a new hobby-development project:

  • Do some initial research on the different technology
  • Install homebrew and a few packages
  • Start writing some initial code
  • Find a bug, do some research to overcome the bug
  • Get sidetracked down an interesting path

Or this weekend when I started working on revising the content on my site:

  • Make a list of pages that I wanted to update
  • Started working on the first page
  • Got distracted with some copywriting questions
  • Dived into that
  • Decided to inventory my email opt-ins
  • Dived into that
  • Ended the week with 16 tabs open and no progress towards my intended outcome

It’s all bull-honkey.

None of what I did was ‘getting stuff done’ or moving me closer to completing the project.

There was activity but it wasn’t productive activity.

It is easy to feel like we’re accomplishing things when we’re moving fast, but moving fast does not always mean we’re actually getting things done.

Put another way, it’s easy to confuse ‘being busy’ with ‘feeling productive’ — and it’s very easy to (un)intentionally make ourselves busy instead of completing the Most Important Thing that gets us closer to our outcome.

I, personally, think it all comes from, first, not identifying the outcome we’re aiming for with the project, be it a client project, a business project, or a personal project.

Once you understand the outcome, you understand the destination you’re trying to reach.

Once you understand the destination, you can effectively backwards plan from that destination to where you are now, giving you a roadmap to follow for the project and letting you know what has to be done.

For example, for my ‘revise the content’ project, how would I define the outcome?

Outcome: Update and revise the messaging on the most important pages on my site and make sure the messaging matches my target market, expensive problem, and services offered.

So what are the preceding steps?

Well, to accomplish this outcome, I need to know:

  • High level, the messaging updates I’m making (How is my messaging changing?)
  • Which pages I’m updating (80/20 on these: which are the most important to update → how do I identify the most important pages?)
  • The specific changes I’m making to the most important pages (What changes do I need to make?)

From those we can identify concrete next actions:

  • Write down the high-level changes I need to make in terms of messaging
  • Write down how I know which pages to make changes to (an SOP for identifying the most important pages: top landing pages, # of email opt-ins per-page, the homepage, services page, etc.)
  • Identify the most important pages on my site, per the SOP, limiting it to just a small number of very important pages
  • Take the list of very important pages and review them, identifying what changes to make in terms of messaging, in relation to the high-level changes I want to be making
  • Revise the copy on the individual most important pages
  • Identify any additional pages to focus on the next time I do this project

All of which leads to the outcome we’re looking for: updating and revising the website messaging.

By taking the time to review the outcome and ask ‘okay, to get to the outcome, what’s the step before that? and the step before that?’ we end up with a plan for the project, instead of charging ahead — full of energy — and seeing what we run into first.

When we don’t understand the outcome, we can’t do good work.

We get distracted.

We confuse ‘doing lots of things’ with ‘finishing the next thing.’

Taking some time — even just 15 minutes — to review the intended outcome and figure out what we’re trying to accomplish before we get started can make a world of difference.

If we take that time to review the intended outcome and say “You know what, I do not know what I’m trying to accomplish here” then, well, that’s a great discovery to make.

When we discover that, we can say “Before I get started, I need to figure out exactly what the outcome I’m shooting for is here.”

Because without a clearly defined outcome, how on earth will we know when we’ve finished the project?


Your turn. Hit reply and tell me how you know if you’re just doing stuff — or if you’re finishing the right things?

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