To-do lists are great…in theory. We record the things we need to do, and we cross them off as we do them. Nothing could be simpler.
But so many times, in practice, one of two things happens. We do a bunch of things on the list, but still feel like we’re not getting anywhere. Or, we end up procrastinating, or doing things other than what’s on the list, and again, feel like we’re not getting anywhere. Neither one of those is being productive. And we feel this, so we’re uneasy.
So what’s wrong? Why do these things happen? Why do we feel unproductive when we get the items done? Or alternatively, why do we procrastinate or get distracted so easily?
It’s because we don’t trust ourselves.
Specifically, we don’t trust our ability to recognize the difference between to fundamental types essential work for being productive: red work and blue work. Understanding them and implementing them in the right balance is critical to being productive and feeling productive along the way.
The Two Types of Work
In his bestselling book about leadership — *Turn This Ship Around — *David Marquet identifies two fundamental types of work, red work and blue work.
Red work is work that is fundamentally about reducing variability. Red work is the kind of work we are very familiar with…Red work is about doing…It is about execution….. Blue work is fundamentally about embracing variability. Blue work is thinking work, not just doing. Blue work is about achieving excellence, not just avoiding errors. Blue work is about decision making, not just executing our tasks.
Another way to think about the difference is this: you can think of red work as just plain doing stuff. Blue work, on the other hand, is fundamentally about determining what work you should be doing.
Red work is the stuff you can start doing right now, because it’s just about following the process. Blue work isn’t defined. In fact, blue work is the work of defining what the red work should be, and how it should be done.
When it comes to your to-do list, the red work is what’s on the list. The blue work is figuring out what should be on that list, whether or not you can do it, and how you’re going to get it done.
It’s when you don’t do that blue work — when you just throw any old things that come to mind on your to-do list — that you lose your own trust. That’s when you fail to get motivated. That’s when you procrastinate. That’s when you find yourself in slumps.
The classic example of blue work is a weekly review — made famous as part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity system. But any activity that centers around reviewing or coming up with goals, major projects, values, or things like that is blue work. It’s high-level and focuses on deciding what red work is important to do.
Doing Better Blue Work
Productivity starts and ends with blue work. You can do a million things on your to-do list (red work), but still feel like you’re going nowhere. You may be busy, but you’re not getting the right things done. That happens when you haven’t spent enough time doing quality blue work.
Like anything, blue work can be done either well or poorly. What determines how well you do it is two things: time and mindset. Allow yourself enough dedicated time to do good blue work, and get yourself in the right mindset, and you’re 95% of the way there.
There are two little secrets about blue work that are helpful to know.
First, if you carve out the dedicated time to do blue work, the mindset will usually come with it. Once you stop letting your mind gravitate toward red work (like checking your inbox), it will settle into blue work mode. A great way to jump start that is to have a list of projects or goals in front of you to review and change. Alternatively, you can have a blank sheet of paper in front of you, and just begin writing down the things that you want to do something about in the next week.
The second secret is that blue work is actually easier to do than red work — but only once you’ve started doing it. The enthusiasm and energy to do blue work feeds off itself. Once you begin actually planning how to control all the seemingly out of control things in your life, you get energized. You want more.
Once you start acting like a thoughtful, proactive, and encouraging coach to yourself — rather than a reactive, thoughtless, and verbally abusive one — you’ll be all-in on tomorrow’s to-do list. You know this deep down, which is why planning ahead feels so good. A good session of blue work will fly by, and will leave you feeling much better about the week or month ahead.
Rebuilding Trust in Yourself
The problem of self-trust boils down to a few key things:
- no trust in prioritization (i.e., I don’t believe these things on my to-do list are the most important things for me to do now)
- no trust in practicality (i.e., I don’t believe I’ve really thought about how much time & energy all this will take — I’m expecting too much of myself today)
- no trust in process analysis (i.e., I don’t believe that I’ve defined the process of what I need to do here) — we see this when we have lists like “Fix car” or “buy a present for Vijay”
There are likely more variations of these, but most self-trust failures fall under these 3 categories. And getting in good blue work is all about remedying these three problem areas. So when you set aside time to think through what you need to do, keep these things in mind.
Remember today that you have 3 long meetings tomorrow, so don’t put 10 things on your to-do list that you won’t have time or energy to do. Remember that the most important project you have on your plate is sitting there with undefined next actions. You need to define those today, or you’ll rebel against tomorrow’s to-do list, which doesn’t include stuff about your most important project.
Respect the Difference Between Blue and Red
Perhaps most importantly, you need to respect the division between the two types of work. Don’t mix blue work and red work. Don’t make yourself think about the work that you’ve put on your list to do.
Treat your red work self as completely different from your blue work self. Your red work self just wants to be told what exactly to do. She doesn’t want to be given vague directives that require a bunch of thinking about how to do what’s on the list. That’s where procrastination, poor quality work, or a feeling of empty achievement comes from.
Again, do your blue work during blue work time, and don’t leave it for your red work time. Divide and conquer. Leverage the difference between the red mindset and the blue mindset. You’ll get stronger and more consistent results.
As you do this more — as you set aside time for quality blue work — you will get used to taking a well thought-out to-do list and getting to work on it. Your red work self will fly through the items excitedly — with the confidence that they’ve been thoroughly selected and defined. There are few greater feelings in the day to day grind than that.
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