Ruthless prioritisation in a world of distraction


We are inundated with technologies in the world of work. The current coronavirus pandemic has made this even more apparent; we’re using more technology than ever before in our work and personal lives to try and do our jobs well, stay connected to the world, and to keep our information safe and secure.

Every app, tool and notification competes for our time and attention. Technology which was once designed to make us more productive, is in fact, doing the opposite.

There’s a study, which I think perfectly illustrates this, carried out at London’s Institute of Psychiatry all the way back in 2005. Researchers found that when workers were distracted by emails and phone calls, they experienced a 10-point fall in their IQ. The head researcher, Dr. Glen Wilson, warned at the time of the impact of ‘infomania’ on our mental sharpness. Fast-forward 15 years, and I wonder what he’d make of the ‘infomania’ we face at work today.

But this can change. The current coronavirus pandemic—which has seen knowledge-workers worldwide radically overhaul their ways of working—is accelerating the need to reassess how we work. Businesses are still getting to grips with managing the new dynamic that comes with fully distributed teams, but with this challenge comes an opportunity to go back to the drawing board when it comes to how we manage and measure our work. Part of the answer lies in ruthless prioritisation.

The problem: wasted time

The eternal question that businesses face - especially under the pressure of a global pandemic - is “how can we be more productive?” In fact, a recent survey carried out for Dropbox by Vanson Bourne found that over a third (38%) of UK business leaders said that increasing employee productivity is a main priority for their business over the next 12 months.

This desire for greater productivity is coinciding with us working more hours than ever - last year, the New Economics Foundation found the average British worker spends 4,512 hours on unpaid overtime over their career. That amounts to over half a year of unpaid work. The current situation has meant that the boundaries between work and home are blurred and as a result we’re putting in more hours than ever. According to an analysis of server activity on its network, NordVPN found that the average working day has increased by two hours in the UK, France and Spain since mid-March. So - surely this must be resulting in greater productivity? 

Not according to our research, which showed that business and IT decision makers from UK organisations waste 27% of their time at work on tasks that do not add critical value. Our research found that business leaders feel that better, more streamlined cross-team collaboration is essential to improve these figures, and thus increase productivity.

Add to this the increase in anxiety people are feeling during the pandemic - alongside additional caring duties, homeschooling, and the need to manage our own mental and physical wellbeing - it’s more vital than ever that organisations reduce this waste, and maximise the amount of time that their employees allocate towards business-critical activities. But how can businesses actually do this?

The solution: ruthless prioritisation

We’ve all fallen into the trap of endless to-do lists that inhibit our productivity rather than improve it, and mistaking being busy with being productive. That’s why encouraging teams—especially team leaders—to ruthlessly prioritise is the first step toward using our time more productively. 

First, we should look at our tasks. An average to-do list does not encourage productivity or working smarter; 41% of tasks are never completed, and we’re drawn towards the most urgent tasks rather than the most important. If you usually have a list of ten priorities, you now need to look at this again and ask yourself, what are the three that will have the most meaningful impact on the business? Leaders have a major role to play here in taking a look at their strategic priorities, goals and OKRs and considering what they can do without this year. We all need to think about what is truly important in light of our companies’ mission, and brutally prioritise accordingly.

Next, let’s refocus our time, and all those hours we are spending having video meetings at the moment. The fatigue people are feeling should be a warning sign that we have the balance wrong. We need to take a look at our calendars and prioritise the requests we are making of people’s time. I suggest asking ‘can this meeting be an email?’, so that you schedule meetings only when absolutely necessary. When you do schedule a meeting, make sure to provide information and materials ahead of time to allow people to prepare to bring their most thought-out contributions to the meeting, which saves time spent working through ideas.

Being able to identify a small number of the most meaningful tasks and streamline workloads will give teams more space to create and innovate.  But this newfound headspace must also be coupled with improved collaboration across teams as, without open communication, we can’t support one another on our highest-impact work. That’s why we need to think about our tools.

The outcome: output-focused work

So, what will be the outcome of a workforce able to prioritise better, and as a result, collaborate and work together more easily and seamlessly? I believe we’ll see a fundamental shift in how we measure our work.

Our traditional work routine and habits are based on outdated assumptions on productivity. Before the pandemic, a 9-5 workday was considered the basic requirement to deliver a certain output. However, as we begin to reassess our workload through prioritisation and collaboration, this perception should shift from an hours to output-focused concept of work.

This change in mindset will lead to a change in the types of questions coming from business leaders: rather than “what have you done on this?”, we should ask, “how are you progressing against your set goals?”.  In turn, companies will begin to see significant changes in how we work and the value we place on certain tasks, which could lead to greater opportunities for creativity and innovation.

The current environment should give all of us the opportunity to reassess the tasks at hand, the time we are spending on them, and the tools we are using to help us get there. There’s a quote, widely credited to Hemingway, that sums up the predicament we can find ourselves in: ‘never mistake motion for action’. Just because we are busy and tick off our to-do lists, doesn’t mean we are moving the dial on what really matters to a business. We need to take this opportunity to get ruthless with our prioritisation: that means doing less, but achieving more.

Adrienne Gormley is Head of EMEA and Vice President of Global Customer Experience at Dropbox