Improving Productivity By Letting Things Go

improve productivity

I’ve been thinking a lot about quitting. The idea of quitting. When people first hear the word “quitting,” they think of acquiescence, of giving up. They think of quitting jobs, and sports teams, and relationships. But, what about quitting in terms of focus? In terms of how much energy and mind space is taken up by unnecessary thoughts and tasks? What if you didn’t really need to deal with all those nagging thoughts plaguing your mind? Can you improve productivity by letting things go? What if you just quit? Just gave up on them? Just let them go? What if letting them go meant checking off that mental task? Can you complete tasks by quitting them?

The Problem Here: The Hangover Effect

Those tasks or projects that you don’t finish, that you carry around with you, in the back of your mind, take a toll on you. According to Dr. Christian Jarrett, “an unfinished task can linger in your mind like a mental itch, adversely affecting your future performance.” Psychologists call this “attentional residue.” Jarrett goes on to say “we find it very difficult to let go of unfinished challenges. They continue to draw on our mental resources even after we think we’ve switched focus. What’s more, attempting to ignore this mental tug drains us even further.” In a world of constant multitasking, this continual task switching can be a huge drain on our focus and our creativity. We all know that feeling at the end day, where you realize you haven’t finished anything even though you worked your ass off. It’s an unfulfilled, if not totally frustrating feeling.

Giving Up What Matters Less, But Still Matters

Recently the lyrics of the song ‘Horses’ by Grand Hallway reminded me that you can make room to focus on what matters by letting go of things that matter less. “There is freedom when you say I am through, I am through. Room for something to begin all anew.” This is the crucial part, it’s easy to give up things that don’t matter, that’s not what’s being argued here. The real challenge is to give up what matters less (yet what still seemingly matters at the moment). In the heat of the moment, most things seem meaningful, however we have a better gauge of what actually mattered when looking back things in retrospect. Sometimes we’re surprised by what didn’t turn out to matter, and how liberating it was to give it up.

Case Study: 37Signals Gives Up

37Signals was founded in 1999, and is now a very successful software company. Their 10 software products include Ta-da List, Writeboard, Backpack, Campfire, The Job Board & Gig Board, Highrise, Sortfolio, Basecamp, We Work Remotely, and Know Your Company. Then in February of this year they dropped all their products except Basecamp. Here’s part of a letter to their customers about this decision:

We’re proud of the work we’ve done and the business we’ve built. And business has never been better. However, because we’ve released so many products over the years, we’ve become a bit scattered, a bit diluted. Nobody does their best work when they’re spread too thin. We certainly don’t. We do our best work when we’re all focused on one thing.

Moving forward, we will be a one product company. That product will be Basecamp. Our entire company will rally around Basecamp. With our whole team – from design to development to customer service to ops – focused on one thing, Basecamp will continue to get better in every direction and on every dimension.

Basecamp is our best idea and our biggest winner. Over 15 million people have Basecamp accounts, and just last week another 6,622 companies signed up for new Basecamp accounts. Ten years into it, Basecamp keeps accelerating. We’ve had other big hits, but nothing quite like Basecamp.

So here’s the second big announcement: We’re changing our name. 37signals is now Basecamp. “37signals” goes into the history books. From now on, we are Basecamp. Basecamp the company, Basecamp the product. We’re one and the same.

This announcement was received with mixed reactions. Many customers were immediately concerned with what would happen to all their other software products. Others were excited with what this meant for the future of the Basecamp product. It was a bold move, but it was a strategic move to focus on what mattered most by discarding all the distractions of their other products. Thus improving productivity all around on Basecamp. They said, this is where we want to be, and this is the best way to get there. They defined their objectives and then they made tactical decisions to accomplish them. Moving forward by creating focus.

Completing Projects By Dropping Them

Arianna Huffington teaches us that sometimes the best way to complete a project is to drop it:

“I thought I was going to learn German. I thought I was going to learn to ski. I thought I was going to learn to cook. And then one day I decided I was actually never going to do any of these things. So I dropped them. You have to decide what you are going to put your energy into, and what you are not going to put your energy into, and that’s just as valuable. If you pretend to yourself that you will one day, maybe, hopefully, put your energy into skiing or cooking and you don’t… your subconscious treats those as an incomplete projects.”

The same is true at work. Decide what your team’s goals are – and more importantly, what they are not. Let your employees focus on what actually matters – to your company’s goals. Focus on goals that move your company forward. Assess what your employees are spending time on and ask yourself if this accomplishes your company’s goals and objectives.

Drop It.

We all have lists of things we want to accomplish. But maybe we should make lists of things we do not want to accomplish, to keep us from being distracted, to remind of us of our actual compass heading. We’re here for a very short time. To quote a letterpress poster I saw once on Pinterest, “Life Is Short. Make Moves.” Embrace time as a constraint and use it to your advantage. Discard those thoughts and tasks that are weighing you down and focus on getting done what moves you forward.

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