The 90-10 Fallacy of High Productivity

Don’t be so busy that you don’t get anything done.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Before going home for the night, you write out the top ten things you need to do tomorrow, in priority order.

The next morning, you sit down to get started and realize something: the first task on the list will take a long time to finish and the other nine should all go pretty quickly.

Now you have a choice. Do you stick with the plan or knock out the smaller tasks first?

If you stick to your plan, you spend all day working on the first task and get it done just in time to wrap up for the day. The other nine tasks never get touched. You create a new list for the next day. At the top is a new large task, followed by the nine tasks you didn’t get to today.

If you knock out the smaller tasks, you get all nine done just in time to wrap up for the day. At the top of your list is that one big task you never did get around to today. It had better go at the top. You’ll be able to get to it tomorrow, since you spent the day clearing the decks. It will go quickly, surely, so you write down nine more smaller tasks you can do once you finish it.

Which choice led to the more productive day?

It was the second choice, right? By tackling the smaller tasks first, you checked off 90% of your list. 90% is an A under most grading systems. You rocked it, right? I mean, can you imagine only getting 10% of your task list done? What a wasted day!

Except that’s the wrong way of looking at productivity. This is the 90-10 fallacy of high productivity that keeps us so busy that we don’t have time to be productive: we’ll achieve more if we do more. It’s an incredibly common—and incredibly seductive—way of thinking about it, but it’s still wrong.

Going for numbers (checking off as many tasks as we can) leads us in the wrong direction. We start seeking out the quick, small wins that don’t really have any consequence. Instead of working on important tasks, no matter how hard they are or how long it takes, we gravitate towards trivial urgent matters. All those little check marks add up and they feel good!

Except productivity isn’t about getting the most things done. It’s about getting the right things done.

The first task on your list is the most important thing you could do today, right? That’s where you should start.

You might be able to make a case for the total gains from tasks #2–10 giving you a greater benefit than #1 alone. If that’s the case, why didn’t you plan them that way?

When we plan, we’re thinking at a higher altitude than when we execute. We have a clearer connection to our priorities and what really does need to get done first. It takes strength and courage to stick to that plan. If the ground truth changes, that’s a separate conversation—update your plan.

If working on the most important task on your list means you only get one task done, that’s fine. You had a productive day. You moved yourself closer to your goals. What does it matter if you didn’t get to 90% of your list? The data has shown that we are never going to do 41% of our tasks anyway.

Don’t get caught up thinking that more is better. Productivity is not about how busy you are—it’s about the progress you’re making towards living the life you want to live.

Question: Which choice will you feel better about making? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.