The minimalist’s guide to getting work done

Clean, minimalist desk with just a phone, keyboard, mouse, and plant.

There’s no shortage of productivity tips on the Internet. You can find them in business publications, lifestyle magazines, and every corner of social media. And everyone, expert or amateur, has a slightly different take on what works. The advice that’s out there ranges from the practical (“turn off your notifications”) to the eccentric (“take cold showers”) to the playful (“find the right playlist”).

As helpful as these tips may be, they often fail to address the heart of the matter. Many of us are so focused on getting more and more things done each day that we forget to pay attention to whether we’re getting the right things done. It doesn’t matter how fast you can climb the ladder if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

Take the minimalist’s approach.

Workfront’s latest State of Work report reveals that the average knowledge worker today spends just 43% of their time on their primary job duties, while things like email, meetings, administrative tasks, and other interruptions fill up the rest. Email alone eats up nearly 15% of the average workweek, while outdated tools (and an overabundance of disconnected tools) exacerbate the problem as well.

This problem could be attacked from dozens of directions, but there are  two key concepts I’d like to share that have made a significant difference in my own and my team’s ability to not just get more things done at work, but to get the right things done.

1. What is your commander’s intent?

In his book, Done Right, Workfront CEO Alex Shootman introduces the concept of setting a Commander’s Intent. He quotes former US Navy SEAL Commander Mark McGinnis in saying, “Whatever anyone else says, the single most powerful leadership concept is Commander’s Intent”—or a crystal clear statement of what you’re trying to achieve.

“As a leader, I’m going to communicate what we’re trying to accomplish and why, as well as what the battle space is going to look like when the gun smoke settles,” McGinnis says. “At that point, I’m going to get out of your way and let you figure out how we’re going to get there. You’re the expert.”

I use this approach with my own team. I clearly articulate what our North Star is, so we always have a common vision and destination to keep us aligned and moving in the same direction. When distractions, disagreements, or tough decisions arise, we return to our Commander’s Intent to refocus.

This approach is about more than simply stating a goal again and again, however. It’s about aligning all efforts, at the organisational, team and individual levels, towards our stated objective in the most transparent way possible, and then trusting each person to execute on their part of the plan without excessive oversight. And none of it would be possible if we didn’t have our work platformed in a centralised software solution that offers ongoing and comprehensive visibility into how everyone’s work is progressing—and how it fits into the greater goal.

2. What is your best next action?

With our Commander’s Intent set and our work platformed for maximum visibility, my second productivity tip is simple: find the Best Next Action (BNA). This concept is also explained in greater detail in Alex’s book, but I’ll share how I use it within my team.

Like many teams, we set annual goals. Every quarter, we meet to review our milestones and our progress toward those goals, and we adjust our activities accordingly. This works great for keeping our Commander’s Intent at the forefront of our minds and understanding our high-level priorities. But when it comes to deciding exactly what steps to take day by day to progress towards those priorities, we ask ourselves a simple question: “What’s the one thing we can do in the next two weeks that will bring us closer to our goal?” The answer to that question becomes our Next Best Action.

By engaging in this process again and again, we make even the most overwhelming objective more manageable. We’re able to focus on what’s directly in front of us, on what matters right now, instead of feeling like we have to tackle the whole project all at once. And we’re not just checking things off as quickly as we can; we’re checking off the right things first, and then moving on to the next right thing.

When you focus on manageable chunks of work and continually reprioritise your BNAs, you also become more agile. You’re able to easily pivot as circumstances shift around you, which gives you a sense of ease and flexibility in your work. And it provides a natural place to pause and celebrate each milestone you achieve on your way to the finish line. It’s a great motivator.

Get the right work done.

Once you’ve set your Commander’s Intent, clearly communicated it, and established a process for setting and achieving your BNAs, you’ll know for sure that your ladder is leaning against the right wall. Armed with the assurance that your efforts are focused on the right work, you may even find that true motivation and productivity come more easily than ever, although certain productivity hacks (like noise-cancelling headphones and turning off notifications) will always be a good idea.