Setting Priorities to Improve Productivity—Busy may be necessary, Complications are optional

While multitasking is the proclaimed mark of importance, multitasking is really effective only for relatively mundane tasks. More difficult projects, requiring thought and insight, benefit from focused attention. People recognize this difference, and research is beginning to confirm their observations. A recent article about productivity and multitasking (“Slow Down Brave Multitasker” NYTimes 3/25/07 Pg 1) contained two relevant examples:

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages “I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.” (David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan.)

The loss of productivity begins when simple tasks are allowed to interrupt the more mentally demanding projects. This intermizing of tasks adds complication and leads to inefficiency.

The outline below can help to increase productivity by clearly separating priorities and complexity:

1. Make a list of ALL the activities that you may have to work on. Be sure to include even low priority projects that you may never get to. A complete list ensures that no projects have been inadvertently forgotten. 2. Divide the activities into two categories–Complex and Straightforward. This distinction is important, especially in view of the above research. The two categories serve to separate out the items that can be “multitasked” from the more complex project tasks requiring focused attention.

Examples of straightforward tasks are: checking e-mail, completing routine paperwork, returning phone calls, instant messaging, reading standard reports. More complex projects have a longer time frame and are not clearly defined—developing a strategy, designing a product, writing a milestone report.

3. Separately rank the priority for projects in both the complex and straightforward categories.

4. Set out time for the highest priority complex project and put full attention into that project. Defer all straightforward tasks, including e-mail, until that work period is complete.

People can do one thing at a time; concentrate first on the highest priority complex project. Since it is the most important, there is no need to be concerned with the other activities during this period.


In summary, being busy is not enough. Avoiding the complications of mixing priorities with the difficult tasks can lead to higher productivity without more effort.


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