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Trim Your To-Do List

  • 4 min read

What if you only had 90 minutes to work every day, but you needed to be exactly as productive as you are now?

It may sound like some science fiction scenario dreamed up by a blogger to get more clicks. But for most people it’s surprisingly easy to accomplish.

The typical American office worker only does about 90 minutes of real work per work day.
The rest of their day is spent on things like reading news, socializing with coworkers, taking snack or coffee breaks, reorganizing stacks of papers and answering unimportant emails.
But it gets worse, because when you look at what tasks those 90 minutes “real work” actually consists of, you find a very big percentage of this:

Now before you get on your anti-America horse, consider this fact:

American office workers are among the world’s most productive. In other countries the level of productivity is even lower.

If you yourself are not an office worker, this rule still holds true for our personal projects as well.  In general, the longer we plan to work on something, the more that time gets filled up with useless things like research or meetings about planning.

When I decide to work on this blog for 8 hours a day, suddenly that time starts to include tasks like re-designing it, reformatting old articles to improve readability, and researching strategies other bloggers use to grow traffic. Are those things helpful? Sure. But they are not necessary.  If on the other hand, I tell myself to only work 3 hours, I’ll crank out an article in the first 2 and spend the last hour working on marketing.

The main cause of this is that we are still stuck in a mindset that made sense 100 years ago but is inappropriate for most of today’s jobs . If you work in a factory, the amount of stuff you produce will be in direct relation to the amount of hours you work.  I’m guessing restaurants and stores are in somewhat of a similar situation.  But that same principle doesn’t apply to knowledge workers and creative or social jobs.  Because in those cases, the difference between an hour of peak productivity and an hour of distracted, fuzzy working is immense.

I’m not saying we should all start doing 90 minutes workdays (I’m sure we can do a lot more than that, and most of us would prefer working longer than that anyway). But what sense does it make to spend more time working when you’re being 10 times less productive than if you were to work less?

No matter how many (or few) hours you work, the message here is to be relentless in the evaluation of your tasks and refuse to do any work that doesn’t have a clear purpose.  Whether you assigned the tasks to yourself or a boss did it.  Ditch the meetings unless they have proven to be effective and let people brief you afterwards.  Communicate your reasons if you have to.  What boss wouldn’t want his workers to be as productive as possible?  Look at every task on your personal to-do list and ask yourself “Is this truly necessary? What goal will this move me towards?”. If it’s not, find out how you can eliminate or delegate it.

Do the same for every work-related request you get. If it’s not necessary and doesn’t help any of you, simply tell the person politely that you do not have the time to do it as there are other high priority tasks that are due soon.  Cut out the non-essentials and only save the ones that really matter.  Be brutally honest with yourself here.  A lot of work seems important but really isn’t when you look at the purpose or the impact of it.

A good rule of thumb for when you’re not sure if you should include something on your work to-do list or not is this one:

If it’s not a “Hell yeah, we should totally do this and reap the rewards!” it is a “Fuck no.”

After all, when you’re at work. You are supposed to work. Not fill up time with pseudo-work. Save your time-wasting for when it’s worth it.

Because if you’re going to waste time, why waste it on boring work-related tasks?

You might as well waste it on something fun instead.  Like heroine. Or hookers. Or starting a cult, conquering all of civilization and building a big death ray to threaten alien races with.

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