Today’s guest post is written by Curt Steinhorst, best-selling author of “Can I Have Your Attention?”, founder of Focuswise, and contributor to Forbes. He travels the globe working with organizations to reduce distraction and improve communication—to help put the “work” back in the workplace.
Productivity requires priorities
Distraction is not a phone, it’s confusion about what matters. That confusion is uncomfortable, and so we naturally seek clarity. We reach for something, anything, that resolves the confusion by providing an immediate sense of purpose. The smartphone, then, isn’t a “distraction”—it’s simpler than that. The smartphone is just a very efficient “sense-of-purpose-creating” machine, and when we are confused, it’s almost always nearby.
If distraction is confusion, then clarity is the true first step towards productivity. We have to do a better job of defining and communicating what matters—here, now, in this space, with these people, for these customers, to achieve these outcomes.
That sounds nice, but we are overwhelmed at work. We don’t have time to clear out our inboxes, much less have philosophical conversations about “what matters”. So how do we integrate this big idea into our actual work life?
A practical task-based approach
Let’s start, instead, with the list of tasks you already have. For most of us, our work week centers around trying to accomplish more of an ever-growing collection of tasks.
An important note: the system I present here is NOT a replacement for your current task-management method. It’s a framework, a filter for better understanding—whether you use a fancy, expensive project management app, or a simple paper planner. Heck, if all you do is write tasks down on various napkins, this still applies.
The point here is to create a better mental model for dividing up our tasks, and to create a structural framework for more robust communication with our teams about our workday.
Defining the 5 D’s
It’s a serious model, but it has a silly name: “The 5 D’s”. The downloadable worksheet is at the end of the article. But first, let’s define each of the D’s, and how they interrelate.
This process makes a ton more sense if you actually pull out your task list, right now, and take note of how these categories apply.
This is the simple place to start. Diamonds are the tasks you simply must accomplish, today. For most of us, these are relatively easy to identify—a combination of importance and urgency makes them stand out. “Finish writing the proposal” is a Diamond I have for today. It’s a big job, it will take real time, and it moves me closer to my goals.
We’ll return to these later, but for now, just take note of which items on your list are easily identifiable as “must-do”.
If Diamonds are “must-do”, these are “could-do”. Dollars are tasks that you are certain you must accomplish … eventually. They aren’t as valuable or urgent as Diamonds, but they still have clear value. “Sync call with Knic” is an example Dollar for me this week, as is “run a load of laundry”.
Most of our task list in a given week is full of Dollars—and they are most valuable when addressed in stacks, rather than sporadically one-at-a-time.
Dirt are the “not-yet”. Don’t get lost in the label: Dirt tasks are not pointless. Why write something down if you know you’ll never do it? Dirt is where you store currently inert tasks for future benefit.
Here’s the secret: when you’re properly keeping track, tomorrow’s Dollars and Diamonds usually come from the Dirt you wrote down before.
The value of a Dime is pretty small—not really much more than dirt. In this framework, Dimes represent the “useful distractions”, tasks that don’t necessarily move you toward a specific goal, but are still related to your job. A compelling TED video that a colleague sends your way, for example, is a great example of a Dime.
Don’t spend your workday in them, but keep them somewhere for when you need a fun, shiny thing to play with and restore your energy.
This is the big one. Dynamite are not really “tasks”, so much as they are the bigger projects that define your week, or your month. Yes, they can be completed, but they usually require a combination of several Dollars and Diamonds to get there. These are near-future goals, not company values, or your overarching mission statement. Dynamite must be embedded in time, and that time must be ticking down.
Often, we write down the Dynamite as if it were its own task to be completed. “Land 2 new clients” looks like a task, but it’s not like I can “save” it until Friday afternoon. There’s too much hidden within the simple phrase. It’s a Dynamite.
The framework is actually a process
The five labels given here are not an endpoint, a static set of buckets to place tasks and leave them alone. They are a mental trick, guiding you toward a deeper truth. The truth is what we already stated: if you want to be productive, you have to start with defining your priorities.
Once you truly start identifying your Dynamite, you’ll soon find yourself reshuffling your definitions of Diamonds and Dollars. And the Dirt category will teach you that all your tasks need proactive reshuffling on a regular basis—not just in order of what’s next or what’s easiest, but in order of what’s most valuable toward your stated goals.
Applying the 5 D’s framework to your current task list can help you shift perspective in the right direction. Is “get to inbox zero” really a productive task? Well, does it actually help you achieve your Dynamite? That’s the important question.
The biggest benefit of this framework, however, is how it helps you communicate with your team.
Toward an Attention Alliance
As we learned in the first part of this series, productivity is not a personal endeavor. To improve focus, we must establish better communication (with tools like the provided Communication Compact). In the second part, we learned that small aspects of our immediate environment have massive impact (and that we can all set up our own Focus Vaults). And today, we’ve established a framework for clarifying our true priorities by starting with the simplest element of a workday: the tasks on our list.
All three of these articles and downloadable tools are intended to accomplish the same thing: provide a structure for better conversations with our teams. An Attention Alliance means a clear understanding of the communication tools we agree to use. It means intentionally designing our spaces to foster focus, and agreeing on signals for when we need our own space. And, of course, it means a clearer understanding and expression of what our Dynamite are, individually and as an organization.
These tools are indeed powerful, but only when you use them—together.