How doing the right thing at the wrong time hurts your productivity


We have all been there. A mountain of work. Everything is screaming for attention. All of it is ASAP. The sheer scope of the task ahead makes you want to get up and leave, never to come back. In an attempt to overcome your panic, you want to do something. You notice that industry magazine on your desk and think to yourself: “I haven’t really done any research lately.” For the next hours, you sink into your research, look for good blogs about it and generally escape the mountain for a while.

The Problem

Research is important. It will give you impulses to try new techniques in your field or refine existing ones. Why should doing research ever be a problem? The answer is simple: if you do it at the wrong time. To keep with our starting metaphor, the next day you come to the office and want to put your new knowledge to use – you found a new interesting approach. What you don’t realise is that you just made your mountain bigger. Here you are sitting in front of an even bigger mountain that instils, even more, fear in you. The tasks got a day more urgent and the pressure is rising. Well, you haven’t sorted your file cabinet in a while. The mountain keeps growing. Soon the tasks at the bottom will rot and you will have to spend precious time with disgruntled customers, CEOs and co-workers.


There are several solutions for this problem, which all have one goal in common: Control the mountain. A one size fits all solution does not exist. Everyone works differently so different things will work for different people.

  • Delegation: This one is pretty obvious, but still a high percentage of people struggle with it. This can be rooted in a desire for control, not wanting to look incompetent or a false sense of courtesy. Whatever the cause, there is a reason that companies usually consist of more than one person. Get help mastering the mountain. You might be surprised; someone else will be more suited for some of the tasks that found their way into your mountain. All you have to do is ask for help.
  • Prioritisation: Thinking that research was the best usage of your time at this particular moment was a result of missing prioritisation. Instead of doing things unorganised and in the order they come in you need to evaluate every task by urgency and importance. Now you can separate your task into four smaller parts: Highest priority (urgent and important), two medium priorities (important or urgent) and a low priority segment (neither urgent nor important). Now solve the tasks in the following order: High -> medium (urgent) -> medium (important) -> low. This way you will not have to worry about missing any deadlines. Research, for example, would be medium (important) because it is important without being immediately urgent. It would turn into a high priority if you would have to research the solution to an immediate problem.
  • Brute Force: This approach will seem a bit counterintuitive, but can, under the right circumstances, help to get things done. You basically attack the mountain head on. You grab the nearest task and solve it as fast as possible, to move on to the next, and then the next and so on. Only apply this approach if you know you can finish the mountain in a reasonable time frame because it is extremely taxing to work like this and is in no way a long time solution. The reason I still recommend it is that it gets you started. Most people struggle with the starting part. It is easy to follow my advice and spend a day prioritising the tasks, which is a paradox because it creates the exact problem it should solve.


Whichever approach or combination of approaches is best suited for you, next time you do something, ask yourself if it is really the most productive thing you could do right now. If not, do what is!

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