My favorite strategy for improving output is sequential completion.

With sequential completion, you do the exact same work, but get everything done faster.

The key insight in using sequential completion is that the value of work is not achieved until something is 100% complete.  For example, if you are trying to launch a product, when you are 99% done you have achieved none of the revenues but put in 99% of the work.  I’ve seen teams go months without actually getting anything done because they were drowning in tasks that are 20%, 40%, or 60% completed.

An illustration

Let’s say you have 5 tasks.  We’ll call them A, B, C, D, and E.

Each task takes 1 day.

You have 5 days in a week.

Normal approach

Do 20% of each of task A,B,C,D, and E every day.

On day 4 you are 80% done with each of A,B,C,D, and E.

On day 5, you complete each task.

Your average time to completion is 5 days.

Sequential completion

Do 100% of one task every day.

You complete task A on day 1.  You complete task B on day 2, and so on.

Your average time to completion is 3 days.

I want you to notice a few things about this.

  1. It requires doing absolutely nothing on tasks that are not important that day
  2. There was no additional work required of you - it was simply sequencing
  3. If we double the number of tasks you worked on, you would double the average time to completion without changing the amount of work.
  4. It mattered less what you prioritized than how focused you were

OK, this sounds great in theory but what does it really mean in terms of how you work every day.

  1. Cut your to do list by 70% or more.  You can always add things later as you accomplish your top few items.
  2. Be ruthless about which projects you choose to work on.  A common fallacy is for managers to think they can add work to your plate and more work will get done.  Be incredibly aggressive about telling people “I'm focused on finishing other things right now”.  Your results and output will speak for themselves.
  3. Having priorities is important, but your task sequence is less so.  This usually means that you should work on things that match your energy and competence in that moment, within the framework of your priorities.
  4. Know what “complete” looks like for a task.  Sometimes projects drag on because we’re unsure exactly what complete looks like.  Understand what complete looks like, even define it in writing, and then pursue it with everything you’ve got.

This approach has the additional benefit of reducing stress around work.  If you simply know the most important thing to you that day and focus on it until your task is complete, you constantly are feeling the satisfaction of getting things done and you can confidently say no to distractions that don’t move you forward.

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