The Four Steps of a Productive Work Cycle
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
You’re probably only doing one of them
“So, I’m really interested in this obsession with being busy. Everyone is so busy. But why?”
I was at the beginning of a 25-minute coaching session with an altMBA student.
I had to bite my tongue to not step up on my soapbox and go off on a rant about how busyness is a new addiction to keep yourself in constant crisis and avoid facing some hard questions and decisions. That’s what it was for me, but I was the coach here so I took a deep breath and asked the student, “You’ve been observing yourself and your peers, what are you seeing in others and what have you seen in yourself?”
He saw what I saw. Busy is a badge of honor in our culture and signals a hard worker. We brag about ten and twelve-hour days and the volume of emails in our inbox, even as we lose sleep over them. Busy does NOT mean productive. You can answer emails all day and not move your business forward.
Productive work is not measured by time but by the meaningful change it creates
As the student and I talked, the theme of hiding from this real, hard work came up. Usually, the most important work is a little bit scary. It involves innovating and trying something new. It might involve tasks that make you uncomfortable and trigger your defense mechanisms.
A few of my difficult tasks and their scary emotional counterparts include:
Publishing a new blog post (someone might judge me!)
A new offering to my productivity community, GoGoDone (people might not sign up for it...rejection!)
Working on that presentation that’s three months away (I don’t even know where to begin!)
Can you feel the fear seeping in here? My palms started sweating just writing this.
In all of my reflections, I find that there are a lot of reasons for “busy.” Here are just a few:
A desire for control, thus a reluctance to delegate or a propensity to micromanage.
The perception that if I’m not busy, I’m not working as hard as my peers.
A reactive posture - looking externally to determine what to do (usually email inbox) rather than taking the time to prioritize and make decisions — decisions I’ll be held accountable for.
Unrealistic expectations like, “Sure I can crank out 4 proposals in-between three meetings and a client pitch - it fits in my calendar so it must be doable!”
Busy is also a miserable way to live.
I used to wear the busy badge of honor. I committed to everything in pursuit of the gold stars that fed my ego. It backfired. I got so busy and churned out so much mediocre work that I felt ashamed. So much shame piled up that I finally couldn’t ignore it anymore. I had to stare the issue in the face.
To do meaningful work I was proud of, I had to commit to doing less — even if my reputation suffered. All those ego-related reasons for being busy were not worth it, because I knew the truth behind the facade and I didn’t like it.
Despite my fears, what really happened is a lot more people started noticing my high-quality work and no one really noticed I was doing fewer volumes of crap.
Once I created the space to be truly productive and ship great work, I realized that all of my best projects went through a specific cycle. Having time to go through this cycle was the real key to being productive.
I became far more productive and far less busy when I reframed productivity from a personal trait to a process.
I am not a “productive person.” I can be productive at times and at other times I need to rest. Being productive is not who you are but a process you engage in to create the space you need to get something worthwhile done.
Please note - because I get the most resistance on this point - I did say that I had to commit to doing less. A productive work cycle, one that produces meaningful change and impact, takes more time and space. That means if you want to do meaningful work, beyond the status quo, you must do fewer projects.
Do less and do it better.
My productivity cycle - reflect, plan, produce, rest, repeat
Reflect: This comes in two varieties. Reflect at the beginning of a project on the “Why.” This is choosing the right project for the right reason. Is this the most meaningful work for the business? For you? Is this the work that will move the dial?
The other reflection happens frequently throughout the project. It involved checking in on the “how.” How is the project progressing? What’s going well and not-so-well? Are you prioritizing and focusing on the most important tasks? This is one of the biggest missed-opportunities for most projects. I can’t count the number of times I’ve made a huge change with just a few minutes of reflecting on the project and my/our performance.
Plan: Becoming productive first means moving from reactive to proactive. This is why I start with the planning phase. If I’m not clear on the outcome I want, it’s hard to efficiently and effectively drive towards it. It’s hard to schedule the activities that will lead me there and say no to the ones that are a distraction. My plans are typically 2-4 weeks and involve specific, measurable milestones I want to hit each day. I reflect weekly and adjust as needed. There are way too many variables in life and in each project to estimate out longer with any accuracy.
Produce: Then I get to work. I start checking boxes.
Rest: What I suck at most is downtime. Part of me still sees it as laziness or a time-waste as that’s the message that seeps in through our culture. No one, however, would call a marathoner lazy for taking time off after a race. Yet we expect our brains to go at 110% every single day. There is this implicit assumption that if I can cram it into my calendar, I can not only do it but also bring my A-game every time. The reality is that part of being productive is giving myself productive downtime so that I can bring my A-game when it counts.
If you think this process is just something that just works for me, I encourage you to try it. I have begun using this model in GoGoSprint, a two-week sprint to make progress on your most important project. (2021 Quarter 1 sprint dates have been released!)
This sprint brings together 15-20 people from a wide variety of industries with a wide variety of projects. I collect a bit of data from the participants each time. On a scale of 1-10, when asked about their satisfaction with their progress on the project, they start at about 3 and by the end of the two weeks, they’re averaging over 8. And most bring their toughest, stickiest projects (or the dreams collecting dust on the shelf).
“I think people have a hard time slowing down because they tie their productivity to their self-worth. If they aren’t doing enough then they aren’t 'enough' as a person."
This student had just laid out one of my maladaptive core beliefs, one I have been struggling to dismantle for a while now with mixed success.
“So,” I replied, “What are you going to let go of?”
“Oh, nothing right now. I can’t. I just thought it was interesting.”
Aaaah, I thought. I will never be lonely in the land of denial.