The math just never seems to works out. We have 7,000 items on our to-do list and time in the day to do about 12 of them. Inboxes and meetings and projects and reading… This problem is of course unsolvable, but that doesn't stop us from trying to stuff 10 pounds of work into a five-pound bag. And the issue just compounds because the more effort we give, the more successes and fires that get created, producing additional opportunities and urgencies for us to address. So we can either get eternally tossed around in this never-ending cycle like laundry in a dryer with a broken timer, or we can rethink what it means to be productive. The latter option seems less dizzying.
We've all heard the saying, "work smarter, not harder." This concept is at the crux of true productivity. Just because you're getting a lot done, doesn't mean you're getting the right things done. Efficiency and productivity often get mistaken for one another. You can be the most effective person in the world at getting completely unnecessary tasks completed, thus actually producing nothing of value. It's no different than having a bad workout program at the gym. You've exhausted yourself and are now standing in the locker-room mirror dejected by the lack of detectable gains.
The key to ejecting yourself from this infertile corn maze is to reflect on what you really want to accomplish, and then aligning your goals with that vision. Once you've wisely chosen your goals you can draw out the roadmap of tasks needed to reaching them. Pinpoint your focus on the manner in which you spend your time rather than the items that fill it. Process is the only aspect you can fully control. Randomness will often arise, human performance will frequently fluctuate, but your method can always remain constant. Of course, process will constantly be eligible for improvement and consequently change shape from time-to-time. But the one you select should consistently be the most fit for the job, to the best of your knowledge. This will create an expedition where you get more done, while enduring less stress and waste along the way.
A plan comprised of merely crossing items off of a to-do list often lends itself to excessive breaks, false senses of accomplishment and veers off path. It's not about the number of times you can mark something as complete, it's about each step forward you can take toward your end goal. When every action you take moves the chess piece with your face on it closer to earning a checkmate, your mind will find it easier to detect the inconsistencies and ignore the interferences. And you'll be in position to take that king in no time.
The irony of all of this is the most productive people aren't the busiest. They are often the ones with the most free time for their families, vacations, and hobbies. Sounds like a productive life, doesn't it?