The minimalist approach to productivity

It's not so much 'less is more' as 'quality over quantity', argues Workfront marketing boss Jada Balster.

by Jada Balster
Last Updated: 23 Aug 2019

Most of us assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. A new article pops up everyday offering techniques and tools to solve this crisis. Most offer a variation of superficial solutions such as "write your to-do list the night before" or "turn your notifications off so you can focus".

While these are perfectly fine pieces of advice, they do nothing to address the heart of the matter, which is that most of us approach productivity as a case of getting more things done each day instead of getting the right things done.

According to the 2019 State of Work Report, 65 per cent of employees say they’re so swamped with getting their day-to-day work done that they don’t have time to think beyond their daily to-do list. This alarming statistic goes to the root of the productivity challenges we’re all experiencing in our workplaces.

The do-it-all approach is how many businesses go about achieving their strategic goals. Don’t get me wrong, setting ambitious goals is laudable - there’s no point setting a goal that is too easily achieved. These big, lofty goals can feel overwhelming, and can leave employees lost and without direction. In the quest to reach these goals, workers often aren’t sure where and how to get started, and the cycle of unproductiveness continues.

I believe I’ve found a solution to cracking the perennial productivity crisis by embracing elements of minimalism. Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you that simply tidying your desk will solve all productivity issues (the jury’s out on that one). What I want to introduce to you is the idea of work management minimalism, specifically two key concepts that I follow: ‘Commander’s Intent’ and ‘Best Next Action’.

Set Your Commander’s Intent

Our CEO Alex Shootman introduced me to the idea of setting a ‘Commander’s Intent’ through his book Done Right. Simply put, Commander’s Intent is a clear articulation of the end goal. Former US Navy Seal Commander now turned management consultant, Mark McGinnis, describes Commander’s Intent as "the single most powerful leadership concept".

For him, setting the Commander’s Intent was a matter of life and death on the battlefield: "As a leader I’m going to communicate the purpose of the mission: what we’re trying to accomplish, the why and what the battle space is going to look like when the gun smoke settles."

Setting your Commander’s Intent involves communicating the purpose of the goal, why it’s important, and what it’ll take to achieve it. Exactly how the end goal is accomplished is down to your team – it’s key to trust in their expertise to execute against it, not to micromanage.  Commander’s Intent respects and even encourages the varied ways individuals work because the central and most important question – what are we trying to achieve? – has been answered.

I use Commander’s Intent with my own team. With this as our north star, we have a common language and destination, ensuring alignment and focus on the things that will make the biggest impact. And when tough decisions, disagreements or prioritisation is required it is the shared place where we turn for re-focus. 

What’s Your Best Next Action?

After setting a Commander’s Intent, productivity minimalism means embracing the ‘Best Next Action’ (BNA). The goals for my team are annual, but we review quarterly with the key activities and milestones being adjusted. We discover the Best Next Action by asking our team this simple question: "What’s the one thing we’re going to do within the next two weeks that will take us closer to our goal?"

Using this simple question makes any goal or project that initially seemed overwhelming feel much more manageable. It focuses the mind. I don’t need my team members to tackle the whole project at once, I just want them to think about the one thing that matters right now, the one thing they can accomplish this week that moves us closer to the larger goal.

It empowers each person without overwhelming them. Working in BNAs – manageable chunks – also allows me to course correct at pivotal moments without resorting to micromanaging. It also gives us the opportunity to look back at - and celebrate - the significant milestones we achieve along the way, providing that motivation to keep going and reach the finish line.

So always start with Commander’s Intent to ensure everything you and your team do supports the bigger picture. Guard against team members getting into the trap of prioritising tasks on their own to-do lists and then reverse engineering them into the goals you've set - this is a recipe for disaster. Make work management minimalism, in the form of Best Next Action, the spine of your own to-do list and prioritise ruthlessly, and if you do this while having a messy desk, then so be it.

Jada Balster is Vice President Marketing at Workfront

Image credit: c1n3ma/Pexels


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