Elimination Over Efficiency: Why Cutting Out Tasks Makes You More Productive

A priority notepad filled out with to-do items

If you have a lot on your plate, you probably think about how you can become more efficient, so you can get it all done. This is the wrong strategy.

Rather than trying to do more things quickly, consider a new way of thinking - that actually comes from the past.

The 1950s were a pivotal time in American history. A post-WWII nation was brimming with opportunity and innovation while also contending with a new fight for social justice as well as continued foreign conflicts.

At the helm was then-President Dwight Eisenhower, who was no doubt one of the busiest leaders of his time. 

Historians credit Eisenhower with top accomplishments such as the Civil Rights Act of 1957, instituting the country’s interstate highway system, keeping a balanced federal budget and avoiding detrimental conflict with Russia during the Cold War.

Results like that comes don't happen without a method, which is another important contribution Eisenhower made in his lifetime. 

The president was known for how he prioritized tasks - and the tasks that didn’t serve him? He eliminated them.

This may seem like a technique only viable to those with dozens of aides and a dedicated staff, but you can pretty easily replicate one of the most effective presidents in American history by scaling it to fit your life.

Eisenhower perfected the Time Management Matrix, which works like this. Sketch a graph that divides tasks into four different quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Tasks that are urgent and important 
  • Quadrant 2: Tasks that are not urgent and important
  • Quadrant 3: Tasks that are urgent and not important
  • Quadrant 4: Tasks that are not urgent and not important

Anything in Quadrant 4 automatically gets eliminated from your workflow, leaving you with only 3 quadrants to contend with. (If you want to know more about how to deal with the rest of the quadrants, read up here). 

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important,” Eisenhower famously said of his presidential duties. “The urgent (problems) are not important, and the important are never urgent.” 

He didn’t think much about the problems that were neither urgent nor important.

This method of elimination has captured the attention of psychologists and organizational experts alike

“The great thing about this matrix is that it can be used for broad productivity plans (‘How should I spend my time each week?’) and for smaller, daily plans (‘What should I do today?’),” says writer James Clear.

Think about your to-do list and how you manage your workflow. Do you work top-down, regardless of importance/urgency? Do you fly by the seat of your pants, working on whatever happens to be in front of you? Are you constantly interrupted and shifting with the needs of others? 

These strategies can "work", in that you continue to get things done - but you will not thrive the way you could if you were being more purposeful.

Rather than trying to find time to fit it all in, be continually on the lookout for tasks that you can discard.

The human brain wasn’t built to multitask, so no matter how good you think you are at juggling multiple tasks at once, your productivity won't be as powerful as it would be if you picked one task to focus on and figured out a way to delay or delegate the others.

“Multitasking is not humanly possible,” Earl K. Miller, a neuroscience professor at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells the New York Times. 

Completing tasks — and completing them well — really depends on how you are able to focus on them

If you split your attention among three or four different tasks, well, you can easily see where this is going. You’re probably not going to be as effective as if you did one at a time and it will take you much longer to complete the task.

Writer James Clear sums this idea up in a really nice way: "More effort is wasted doing things that don’t matter than is wasted doing things inefficiently. Elimination is the highest form of optimization." 

If you want a workflow that helps you focus, achieve goals, and think bigger, you should start with what you can eliminate. Sometimes this is a daily occurrence. Ask yourself what you can eliminate today or this week. 

This method is also a great way to approach problem-solving, just as Eisenhower alluded to. If something was nagging at him that wasn’t urgent and he didn’t deem in important, then he let it go. It wasn’t a problem after all. 

We tend to get caught up in tasks or ideas that would fall into that fourth quadrant without even realizing it, but being open to harnessing the power of elimination allows us to create some bandwidth and focus on the things that really matter and are actually pressing.

It is likely this way that Eisenhower was able to keep relative global peace while in the White House and manage to lay the ground for NASA, a highway system, and so many other innovative programs.

So how do you do this? 

Making your own quadrant and auditing your priorities is a good place to start. 

We created a specialty notepad based on Eisenhower’s ideas that make the method a little more palatable and not so intimidating. The Ink+Volt Priority Pad works in the same way, but helps you to determine what kinds of things might be urgent or important or neither. 

Goals and endeavors are big ideas that are important, while a favor for your boss might be less "important" but still urgent to complete. An obligation may be both, and guilty pleasures may fall under neither. 

It’s important to remember that not everything that is neither urgent nor important needs to be immediately eliminated.

Sometimes they’re things that make us happy. They fill our cup in an otherwise stressful time, but they don't have to carry the same weight as some of your other priorities. 

It’s easy to look at a to-do list and see everything as equally important, and the goal becomes just checking them off instead of sticking to a plan dedicated to the overarching goal.

The Priority Pad and Eisenhower’s matrix both help your brain to reconsider your tasks in a more informed way so that you can weigh them appropriately, give them the attention they require and axe them altogether.

In the end you should see priorities align and your productivity skyrocket (you know, like NASA, which Eisenhower created in 1958).

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