Pulling the Weeds in My Productivity

This morning I took a walk with the kids, fed the pets, and weeded the flower beds in the front lawn.

While listening to podcasts as I pulled the green invaders from their roots, I got to thinking about all the work I had in the house to do, and work for my professional job itself. It was an unpleasant thought in the back of my mind. What I had on my plate in OmniFocus was building up stress.

What I dreaded was returning to my OmniFocus app, and seeing that I hadn’t accomplished much in the last week. A few huge projects were taking up all my time between May 30th - July 4th. These massive projects are the kind with a task like "design a mockup that makes everyone happy" and needed to be completed in less than a week. That’s a tall order, and it’s the important assignments like these that crowded out other to-dos that didn’t have a due date.

Tasks I’d added to OmniFocus between June 15th - June 29th are mostly undone. And like the hinderance of the weeds in my lawn, I couldn’t stand the thought of them. They had been in my to-dos too long for my liking.

The tasks I’m talking about range from "call the animal clinic" to "design another mockup" to "buy eggs." Some of these would just be time-consumers, and other tasks would be productive ones I really need to check off the lists.

But, to be brutally honest, many of the tasks that make it into my project management system aren’t really all that productive. These are tasks like "watch Inception" and "tinker with my blog post’s layout in CSS." They seemed helpful when I added them to OmniFocus, then the negative impact they have later on my to-do lists starts to grow and get out of control.

Letting to-dos grow out of control

Are you checking off tasks or are you being productive? Or, are you simply adding to your lists, then finding little time you want to take action for them?

I find that lots of what my imagine allows me to add to my to-do lists are unnecessary; holding me back from the important tasks. I think, Oh, I should read this article about productivity, so I'll save a task for it. Later, I resent the task in my OmniFocus Inbox. It seemed helpful at the time I added it. In the now, I like it about as much as the weeds I pulled from the flower bed. I don’t want to sacrifice space in my day to read "5 Ways To Get To The Important Things." If I read it, I'm delaying the important things I need to do!

Why is it that I can’t seem to check off enough of my to-dos? Does this mean I have a broken system? Am I using OmniFocus poorly? Is my task management app the fault for my unproductive week? Have I failed work because I’m the problem?

I already know what I think is the answer. OmniFocus isn’t at fault for my unproductive week. My weeds aren’t either, necessarily. Really, I’m the creature that gets in my own way.

I added the weeds to my OmniFocus. I allowed unnecessary tasks to infiltrate my task management workflow. I let them pile up in the queue, then I let them grate on my nerves in the back of my mind. I made dozens of little careless choices (when I wasn’t using intentional sensibility), which led to the weeds in my project management system.

I allow for too many tasks. Then later I feel overwhelmed and distracted by the growing lists. Lists that I created and loath.

Cultivating my task management

I have found that the effort I put into thinking straight and actively maintaining efficient productivity in the day-to-day rarely crosses over to the next day. What I mean is, I have to be proactively working hard and smart. I can’t take shortcuts. I have to continually focus on being productive each and every day. It's not enough that I was productive yesterday, because today I can still blow it.

Each and every day I have to assess my to-dos, delete the ones that don’t belong after further consideration. I have to give myself permission to take the time to pull the weeds that I allow in.

Although it is incredibly mundane and boring, I need to get rid of the weeds if I want my productivity to thrive. I need to clear the space of the unwanted so the wanted tasks have room to grow. I make space and time for the tasks that are necessary to my real output—clearing away the trivial tasks that gum up my tangible progress.

Tasks like "check into this startup book" get trashed. I already have a list of 10+ books I want to read. If I don’t have time to read them, why do I think I should consider reading this new one? The task is wasted text lingering in my task management that I want to be free from.

Another task I can be rid of goes something like "brainstorm new product idea for my site." If I don’t have time for the other important products that I already have in mind, do I think I have time for one more? At this time? No.

The tasks that get priority are the productive ones, like "produce another podcast" and "replace the broken toilet seat." Depending on your circumstances, these might be unproductive tasks as well. In my current situation, I value these projects highly. They are the meaningful ones I should complete.

Never stop weeding

The tasks that are excessive, unwarranted, and counter-productive get sifted. As often as necessary. Usually I know that it’s time to sift them when I start to resent looking at OmniFocus again. If there’s something in my lists that I resent, it probably doesn’t belong. My interest, passion, and the need to execute the task has probably gone away on its own.

I kick myself for letting the weeds in, then I get back to pulling them. I’ve done this enough that I don’t pull as many now as when I lacked experience and sensibility. I’ve got better at what I allow in. I am faster at spotting the trivial tasks that want to get in my to-dos. They get a firm no and rarely make it in.

And over time, I have less and less anxiety about returning to my project management. I see the important projects are thriving. The good work—in particular, the weeding—is paying off.

Joe Darnell

Joe is a UI and graphic designer with prior experience as the creative director for three media-based businesses. Joe’s passionate about web design and graphic design with about 15 years of experience in the media industry. Additionally, Joe is the host of the Top Brew and Techtonic podasts, both featured on iTunes.