Why We Lose Our Days To Unproductive Tasks

We often say yes to more messes. How can we stop?

Why We Lose Our Days To Unproductive Tasks

We have a range of exotic answers to the ever-burning question, how do we become more productive? Like by making your morning routine minimalist, turning your meetings into meals, and mastering the afternoon nap–though the secret to a most-productive day may be more simple: by ridding ourselves of unimportant tasks and replacing them with valuable ones.


That’s according to London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw and PA Consulting Group productivity expert Jordan Cohen, who have spent three years researching how knowledge workers (mis)spend their time. As they say on, a fear of missing out is keeping people mired:

Our research indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time–an average of 41%–on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others. So why do they keep doing them? Because ridding oneself of work is easier said than done.

Why we can’t give up tasks.

While people tend to spend huge chunks of their days working on stuff that doesn’t do that much work, we still say yes to more messes. Why? Because, as the authors say, we like to take on tasks that “make us feel busy and thus important”–and as we’ve discussed, busy is the new lazy.

The incentive for the task that hooks us isn’t always to make the most value, like when people take meetings not because they’re crucial to the decision, but because it’s an outlet for social interaction that you might not otherwise get if your days tend to be lonely vigils in front of eye-straining screens. But you can find bonding time in other ways, for instance, with a deftly scheduled lunch.

And then there’s peer pressure. One participant told Birkinshaw and Cohen that “I want to appear busy and productive–the company values team players.” This is the same reason people might stay way later than they need to: If your organization values face time over the work getting done, then people won’t have the incentives to be their most productive.

But if that’s not the issue, then we can move forward with finding–and eschewing–the tasks we don’t need in our lives.

Find the low-value tasks.

How do you know which parts of your day can be dropped? If they fall into these two categories, the authors say:

  • The task isn’t important to you or your organization.
  • The task is easy to drop, delegate, or outsource.

That requires taking an inventory of all the actions you’re required to do within a day–a key kind of awareness encouraged by productivity gurus like Bob Pozen and David Allen. Plus, you can take a handy self-assessment.

Then get them outta here.

Once we’ve identified which tasks are unimportant or transferable, we can start stripping them from our schedules. The first step will be to sort the tasks-to-be-undone into three categories, the authors say:

  • Quick kills: tasks you can stop doing with no negative effects
  • Off-load opportunities: tasks that are easy to delegate
  • Long-term redesigns: tasks that are part of larger structures–that need to be restructured

Once you’ve done that, the next steps are self-explanatory. We can dispatch with the quick kills. We can then off-load the stuff we don’t really need to do, like to an employee or, if we’re at the bottom rung or on an independent grind, to a virtual assistant. Then there’s the messier work of fixing broken structures–which may require some organizational iteration.

What to do with your newly freed time?

Let’s try not to spend it advancing our emails; instead, let’s advance our skill sets.

Hat tip:

[Image: Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.