The Productivity Box: Optimize the Day with a Balance of Strategic and Tactical Work

The average American works about 1,750 hours per year. That’s more than six other high-income nations: the U.K., Australia, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Germany. Even with all those hours on the clock, 88 percent of the workforce procrastinates for at least one hour each day. In other words, no matter how many tasks are written down (or crossed off) on their to-do list, people are still wasting valuable time and losing out on productivity. This is why it’s important to balance strategic vision with tactical execution, a work balance, if you will.

The Productivity Box: Optimize the Day with a Balance of Strategic and Tactical Work

In this installment of The Productivity Box, we’re covering all you need to know about work balance and a technique that could change how you approach to-do lists from now on.

What does it mean to balance strategic and tactical work

Strategic and tactical might sound like similar concepts, but there are a few key differences to be aware of.

  • Strategic work focuses on the macro vision: how to align daily tasks with the long-term objectives you want to accomplish.
  • Tactical work fuels the micro execution: what you can do right now to prioritize deliverables for efficient, successful completion.

Strategic work requires deep thought and careful planning, whereas tactical work is all about time management and action-oriented results. You need both for maximum productivity. One way to think about this is in terms of a red and blue color scheme. Hang with us—this is about to make sense.

In his book Turn this Ship Around, U.S. naval officer and business leadership consultant David Marquet defines blue (strategic work) as the critical thinking part of a job and red (tactical work) as the actual doing part. In other words, blue work outlines the specific red work that you need to concentrate on, so you can take immediate, actionable steps forward.

For example, if red work is the process of finishing a task on your to-do list, blue work points your attention to the right task and ensures it’s done correctly.

This way of thinking can shift your mindset from non-essential time wasters—such as checking emails—so you can focus on projects that contribute to productive outcomes and further your goals or priorities.

How to find a productive balance

According to research from the Journal of Cognition, effective task prioritization like this can help you filter out distractions, resulting in more attention control. This, in turn, can cut down on the urge to procrastinate and, instead, increase your job performance overall. Here’s how to maintain a balance between strategic blue work and tactical red work in your own schedule.

This idea is great in theory, but implementing it is what really matters. Use the steps below to combine strategic vision with tactical execution so you can increase productivity and streamline your process.

Block out structured time on your to-do list for thinking and doing

Your first instinct might be to leap into action mode as soon as your feet hit the floor each morning. If you just start doing without a clear plan for the day, it becomes much harder to separate critical tasks from non-essential ones.

To maximize your time, make a habit of allocating a block in your schedule for blue work before moving on concrete tasks each day. This will force you to think and strategize on the front end and get more done later.

Determine your main goal and the associated actions steps

During this blue time block in the morning, identify one precise, attainable goal to strive for in the workday. Choose a goal that will help advance your longer-term objectives or current deadlines and then map out the deliverables needed to reach that goal.

Consider how much time it will take to accomplish this and what skills or resources you need to get it done. From there, you can create your blueprint (to-do list) for the red work portion of your schedule.

Evaluate whether the projects or activities on your list align with this objective

Look at the doing items on your calendar. Are they relevant and essential to the pursuit of this specific goal? Or are they filler tasks that can be moved to a later date or set aside entirely? That’s for you to determine, but it’s important to be logical, focused, and realistic.

Consider potential obstacles and how you can mitigate them

Problem-solving is a key part of both strategic vision and tactical execution. You can’t always predict when an issue might arise, but you can think ahead to be proactive about dealing with them.

Consider any obstacles you might encounter while working on your deliverables and how you’ll stay on track if they come up. This could be as simple as knowing your co-worker is going to stop by your desk to chat about the weekend, taking your attention away from work. Or maybe you know a package is going to arrive at your house mid-morning.

What can you do to minimize these productivity-suckers?

Rank each item on your list in order of priority and tackle one at a time

Once the strategy is in place, the tactical work begins. Prioritize all the tasks on your to-do list based on their importance, then fully concentrate on the first line item before you move on to anything else.

Set a timer for however long you need to finish this project, remove all distractions from your workstation, and follow the steps to completion with accuracy and efficiency. Planning ahead makes physical doing much easier and more effective.

Strategic and tactical work balance is the boost you need

If you wrestle with procrastination, this productivity hack will change how you structure to-do lists and, in turn, make you more productive.

With a work balance of strategic blue work and tactical red work, you can identify a goal, take action, and get more done, without wasting valuable time in the process. It’s all about working smarter—not harder.

And keep reading The Productivity Box series for more small, but highly efficient hacks to improve your work performance!

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