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Want to Be More Productive? How Focusing on Your Top Priorities Can Increase Your Impact


Productivity is often defined as accomplishing as much work as possible in a given amount of time. However, true productivity is not about being busy—it is about being effective and making significant progress on what really matters most. As leaders, it is easy to get caught up in the constant demands of the day-to-day and lose sight of our top strategic priorities. While putting in long hours feels productive, constantly switching tasks often does more harm than good. To truly maximize our impact and the impact of our teams, we must learn to do less by focusing our efforts on a select number of high-value activities.


Today we will explore how focusing on our top priorities through prioritization, batching, and eliminating distractions can help us be more productive and increase our overall effectiveness as organizational leaders.


Prioritization is Key to Focusing Your Efforts


Prioritization is a fundamental leadership skill that allows us to concentrate our energy in areas that will provide the greatest return. According to research by researchers like Stephen Covey and Brian Tracy, taking the time to separate priorities from non-priorities is one of the most efficient uses of a leader's time. Without clear priorities, it is too easy to spend our days reacting to endless demands rather than proactively driving progress on what really matters. To prioritize effectively, leaders must ask themselves questions like:


  • What are my 3-5 top strategic goals and objectives?

  • What 1-3 key initiatives must I focus on to achieve these?

  • What are my 3 most important tasks each day/week?


By clarifying your top priorities in this way, you set yourself up to focus your limited time and bandwidth where it can make the biggest difference. Everything else becomes secondary. You say "no" more often to protect your ability to say "yes" to the work that furthers your strategic vision.


Batch Similar Tasks to Stay Focused


Once priorities are set, batching similar tasks together allows you to stay focused in flow states longer. Researchers like Anders Ericsson have shown the importance of deliberate practice to achieve expertise. Batching facilitates deliberate practice by minimizing disruptions between similar activities. For example, a manufacturing CEO might:


  • Batch email responses - Set aside specific times each day just to focus on responding to emails without interruption.

  • Batch project meetings - Schedule all project meetings back-to-back on specific days rather than spacing them randomly through the week.

  • Batch report writing - Dedicate uninterrupted blocks to writing key reports and analyses rather than breaking them into sporadic sessions.


Batching helps you optimize your time by staying in the zone on related work. It prevents constant context switching that wastes mental energy as you shift gears between activities.


Minimize Distractions for Uninterrupted Focus


While priorities and batching help with focus, minimizing distractions is also critical. According to research by Gloria Mark at the University of California, constant interruptions can increase stress levels and reduce productivity by up to 40%. As such, leaders need to proactively eliminate distractions that break focus from their top goals. Some useful tactics include:


  • Avoid checking notifications - Disable notifications on email, calendar, and communication apps during focused work periods.

  • Close unnecessary programs - Close browsers and apps you don't need when working to reduce temptations.

  • Use blocking software - Install programs like Cold Turkey or Freedom that block specific distracting sites during set work hours.

  • Practice mindful meditations - Take regular breaks to meditate and refocus your mind before returning to deep work.

  • Work in distraction-free environments - If possible, work from home or a private office space rather than an open floor plan prone to interruptions.


Minimizing distractions through self-discipline is challenging but critical to staying in a productive flow state on your most important leadership responsibilities.


Applying Prioritization, Batching, and Focus at Anthropic


To maximize their productivity and impact, leaders at AI safety startup Anthropic have adopted practices focused on prioritizing their work, batching key tasks, and minimizing distractions. Founder Dario Amodei has established clear OKRs at both the company and team levels to guide prioritization. He then sets time blocking in his calendar to dedicate uninterrupted time to the most strategic work.


Project managers at Anthropic facilitate cross-functional batching. For example, all bug fixes or experiments involving a particular model are grouped together weekly in dedicated project "sprints." This allows data scientists and engineers alike to remain immersed in related technical problems without disruptive context switching.


Anthropic's open office plan presents challenges for focus, so leaders set focus-enabling norms. Employees reserve private rooms for deep individual work and turn off notifications during set hours. The company also uses focus-tracking apps that gently nudge employees to be mindful of staying on task. Integrating practices from research on prioritization, batching, and focus has enabled Anthropic's small, ambitious team to have an outsized impact on AI safety.

Sustaining Productivity Through Flexible Self-Management


While routines like daily time blocking help maximize productivity, leaders must also recognize their need for flexibility and balance. Micromanaging one's schedule or adhering too rigidly to routines can backfire through burnout. Research by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang indicates the need for self-managed autonomy within a focus-enabling structure.


At Anthropic, Dario avoids rigid meeting schedules in employees' calendars and trusts teams to self-organize as needed. He also encourages breaks as productivity enhancers rather than liabilities. Finding the right balance between structure and flexibility keeps priorities clear without creating an oppressive environment.


Leaders should also periodically reassess priorities to ensure they remain appropriate as contexts change. At a manufacturing company, priorities may shift quarterly based on sales goals. For an AI startup, priorities may adjust annually based on technical milestones. Building processes for continuous priority review helps optimize resource allocation over the long term.


Conclusion


In today's constantly demanding work environments, true productivity is not about how busy you keep yourself, but rather how effectively you further your most important strategic goals. The research is clear - focusing intently on your highest-value priorities through practices like prioritization, batching similar tasks, minimizing distractions, and autonomously managing your own time and energy levels will allow you to accomplish far more than spreading yourself thin across endless activities. As organizational leaders looking to maximize our impact, we must learn the discipline of focusing our efforts through doing less, but doing it exceptionally well. Prioritizing where we invest our limited time and attention sets us up to make the greatest difference for our teams, organizations and stakeholders through the focused progress we enable on what really matters most.


References


  • Covey, S. R., & Merrill, R. R. (2018). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. Simon and Schuster.

  • Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

  • Mark, G., Gonzalez, V. M., & Harris, J. (2005, April). No task left behind?: examining the nature of fragmented work. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 321-330).

  • Pang, A. S. (2009). The distractions of social media: Pros and cons of online networking. IEEE Distributed Systems Online, 10(3).

  • Sojka, J. Z., & Giese, J. L. (2001). Communicating through pictures and words: Understanding the role of affect and cognition in processing visual and verbal information. Psychology & Marketing, 18(12), 1247-1273.

  • Tracy, B. (2013). Eat that frog!: 21 great ways to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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