Author: Aytekin Tank
Distraction. Boredom. Forgetfulness.
Sounds like some dull film you’re watching? What if I told you that this is your brain on low-impact tasks? You’re probably overly familiar with the above kind of busy work: endless emails and to-do lists, mind-numbing data you have to manually input.
If you ever struggle to do what matters (versus what’s easy), you can blame the urgency effect: Your brain likes to close loops, so it seeks tasks you can finish fast over those with long-term value.
Simply put: We have to fight biology to be productive, instead of just busy.
When writing Automate Your Busywork, the urgency effect bothered me a lot because of how often it popped up.
Consider a usual day at work. Say you have a few hours in the morning before your first meeting, so you decide to quickly check off items on your to-do list rather than work on higher-value tasks. That rush of accomplishment gives you the feeling of satisfaction that you’re progressing, but in reality, you’re just wasting valuable time.
An added twist? If you’re stressed out, it only makes the urgency effect worse. So, if you’re stretched for time, it’s best to leave low-impact tasks last.
Why multitasking isn’t the answer
In his illuminating story for The Guardian, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin puts it more severely. “Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion.”
When I first founded Jotform, I was an expert multitasker. It felt good at the moment to feel like I could take on so much at the same time. But after a few years of running myself into the ground, I realized there had to be a better way. I was juggling too much to prioritize what was most meaningful.
According to Levitin, there’s a physiological factor that comes into play. “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.”
He adds: “Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.”
This explains why you feel the need to immediately respond to that phone notification instead of waiting until your lunch break. Even when it’s not urgent, that sense of completion gives you a hit of dopamine.
Focusing on low-impact tasks ruins your career
When building my company, I faced a lot of barriers. For example, when Google decided to come into the same form-building arena, I braced myself for the worst. But I was also forced to become more strategic and creative with my time.
It’s part of what led me to write an entire book about the benefits of automation. Rather than spend my time on endless low-impact tasks, I made sure I was dedicating my energy and resources to what mattered most:
- Hiring top talent
- Fostering a positive work culture
- Creating a top-quality product
- Making our users’ lives easier
I refused to take on anything that deviated from these categories. It’s the same advice I give to all my mentees: Focus on your high-value tasks first if you want to advance your career.
Low-impact tasks might not seem so problematic, but they end up diluting your mission and purpose and ultimately holding you back from your true potential.
Keep in mind: What are your primary endeavors? What gets you excited about working on a task? More likely than not, it’s not typing in manual data or ticking off a to-do list. You should be placing all your energy into tasks that make you excited.
The bottom line
You might think that your productivity (or lack thereof) is your biggest problem. But I’m here to tell you that that’s false. Spending hours upon hours on mindless busy work like low-impact tasks is the real culprit. Although automation won’t whittle down your workload, it will help you build systems to dramatically change your focus. Because, ultimately, building a long-lasting business is about creating something of value. And we can only achieve that by being conscious and aware of what we’re bringing to the table.
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