Productivity and Getting the Job Done

Good news.  The brain can “simultaneously keep track of two separate goals, even while it is busy performing a task related to one of the aims, hinting that the mind might be better at multitasking than previously thought.”  At least  that’s the word according to an article by Katherine Harmon in the April 15, 2010 issue of Scientific American. Whew!  I’ve been worried.  Most studies show that multitasking is just another way of saying “I’m not doing anything well.”  Which is how I feel way to often these days.  I mean, here I am, writing a blog, talking on the phone, and every time my email dings, I just have to see if it is “something important.”  Whatever that means.

I admit to this with no little shame.  I am the first to take my clients to task for trying to do too much at once and not focusing on the task at hand.  A case, I assume, of do as I say, not as I do.  And yet, it is good advice.

Last week I was meeting with just a fantastic group who are so passionate and committed to their organization it made me remember why I got into this field to begin with.  I seriously fell in love with each and every one of the people in that meeting—and they just as seriously were driving me crazy.

We’d start to talk about a next step and within three seconds, fifteen other steps were being bandied about, and we were headed in five different directions.  “STOP!” I finally had to shout.  “We are getting nowhere.  Many, many, many great ideas.  But we really do have to focus. If all we keep doing is coming up with great things we could do, we will never get to the point where we are actually doing anything.”

This group wasn’t unique.  Too often I find that instead of picking one thing and doing it, we often tend to wax eloquent about all the additional things we could be doing.  But, alas, don’t quite ever get to.  Which is the whole point.

Regular readers (and if you’re not one, why not?) know that I am a great believer in that old saying “Plan your work then work your plan.”  Truly, it works.  And just as truly, it is better to do one thing thoroughly than a lot of things not well at all.

Most productively gurus will tell you that the key to time management is to touch each thing only once before doing something with it.  That something might be delegating it to someone else, trashing it, or—most often—taking it to a next step (I’m too much of a realist to write “complete it”).  Another great way to fight through the morass of too much to do is to work doggedly on one thing at a time, taking it as far as you can at that moment.

Another word for all this, of course, is discipline.  Ask youself:  What do I (we) need to accomplish by some specific timeframe?  That latter is really important.  Next consider the resources—financial and human especially—that you have to hand.   With those resources, what can be done to reach your objective?  And here’s the hard part—which of those many things you just thought of are (a) most effective; (b) most fits your organization and (c) most likely to get done?  If you have a lot of ideas, you may need to set up a matrix or a chart and then chose the one (or two, if you really have the ability to do two) that most meets all your critera.

Now, get to work.  Break it down into the pieces that need to get accomplished and, for each piece, identify by when and who is responsible.  Stick to your timeline.  And move to the next task or idea when you have the first well in hand.

Back at the boardroom, my enthusiastic group committed to a more productive workflow.  They put their goal and when it had to be reached on a flip chart, then listed all the ways they could think of to reach that goal.  Then we added columns:  Organizational Fit, Effectiveness, Resource Fit.  We rated each on a simple scale of 1-5 with 1 being low, 3 being medium and 5 being high.  Two and four were midway points between those ratings.

With lots of talk and laughter, it soon became clear that there were two techniques that most met their needs, their resources and their ability to get it done.  Best of all, much of the work for each built upon work that had to be done for the other.    The rest of the ideas were captured and put in a file.

From there, building the timeline was almost ridiculously easy.  And now starts the real work—keeping everyone on track to doing what they have committed to do.

Janet Levine  is a consultant and trainer who works with nonprofits helping them to increase productivity and be more successful.  Check out her services and classes at