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It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction. “Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored. So think about it more!” entrepreneur Sam Altman says on his blog.

His own system boils down to three rules: Make sure to get the important stuff done. Don’t waste time on stupid stuff. Make a lot of lists.

Lists help with focus. Properly made, they point to what’s important. You also don’t have to keep as much in your head, reducing distractions. If Altman is not in the mood for the task he is doing, he can always find something else.

“I’ve learned that I can’t be very productive working on things I don’t care about or don’t like. So I just try not to put myself in a position where I have to do them (by delegating, avoiding, or something else). Stuff that you don’t like is a painful drag on morale and momentum,” he writes. And remember that’s also true for others; they won’t be productive at things they don’t like, so figure out what your subordinates enjoy and delegate that to them.

If deciding your most important task is difficult, productivity consultant Chris Bailey has a five-minute exercise to handle it:

Make a list of every activity you do in your job over the course of a given month.

Ask yourself: If you were limited to doing just one thing every single day, day in and day out, which one would lead to the most being accomplished? “Which is the one task that adds the most value to your team, and makes you the most productive? Which one is the most consequential?” Bailey writes on his blog.

If you could only do one additional activity from the list during the day, which would it be – which offers the most additional value? That’s the second-most important activity.

Similarly, which is your third-most important activity?

That’s probably enough – the most important tasks that help you be productive. Make them visible, putting them on a sheet of paper on your desk or atop your to-do list to internalize them.

But as well as knowing them, you must actually do them and ignore the rest. “When you can, stop doing the activities that remain on your list. If you can’t, plan ways to spend less time on them. If something is a distraction, tame it. If you have a team, delegate as many of the tasks that remain on your list to them as possible,” Bailey says.

The one exception – the thing not to strike from your list – is something that is fun. He says the point in investing in productivity is not to become a mindless, super-efficient robot, but to let you do more of what you love.

Another approach is to aim for a one-three-five list. Michele Debczak, a senior staff writer with Mental Floss, explains that system allows you to organize not just by importance but by size of the task. Start by identifying the biggest job of the day; then write down three smaller, but still important tasks to fill out the middle of your list; and finally pick five small items you’ll be able to take care of quickly. That allows you to contour your work to the day’s ebb and flows.

Here’s one more list to keep you focused: A tangent log. Keep a notebook or piece of paper beside you and every time you think of something you should do that will take you away from what’s important now – for example, realizing you need to book a doctor’s appointment – write it down for later, Grace Marshall, author of How to Be Really Productive, tells Good Housekeeping.

Quick Hits

  • Knowledge is the compound interest of curiosity, says blogger-author James Clear.
  • “What constraints make you more creative?” asks entrepreneur Lauren Bacon.
  • In periods of uncertainty, people shut down their job searches, notes executive recruiter Gerald Walsh. They feel like nothing is happening. He advises you to do the opposite: Heighten your job search efforts and establish as many contacts as you can, notably work-related colleagues and associates who move in different circles than you.
  • Here’s entrepreneur Seth Godin’s plea, on behalf of your customers or colleagues: “Tell us when you are going to finish. Tell us if you fall behind. Don’t make us ask.”
  • Toronto executive coach Rachel Weinstein has put together a free, downloadable Q&A – Quarantine and After – Journal with provocative questions to help you make sense of the situation and take action. Sample: How do you feel about working from home, on a spectrum from “love it” to “I’d pay to go back to the office?” Name six things that would make working from home awesome. What’s one way to make it just one per cent better, as a starting point?

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