How to be proactive to reach your goals

I doubt there are any dedicated bloggers, webmasters, or web 2.0 users who feel they have enough time to do everything they want to do online.

The recent proliferation of lifehacks and productivity tips reflect this. It’s a reaction to a climate where web users have more tasks and less time than ever before.

These tasks can be divided into two types: proactive and reactive.

Proactive tasks involve action that originates from you. Reactive tasks are actions in response to the actions of another.

In this post, I’m going to discuss why web 2.0 marks the ascendancy of reactive tasks, how this is damaging our productivity, and what we can do about it.

The proliferation of reactive tasks

My School of Thought:  Reactive tasks are actions from others which encourage a response. In the pre-Web 2.0 world, reactive online tasks would have revolved around four spheres: email, Instant Messenger, blog comments, and forums.

Enter Web 2.0 and the proliferation of reactive tasks begins.

Social networks provide a constant stream of messages, comments, blog posts, bulletins, ‘gifts’, status changes, invitations, and so on.

Networks like Digg and StumbleUpon arrive with ‘friends’ and ‘fans’, messages, reviews, ratings, and more.

w211Feeds arrive in our inbox, waiting to be read, or at least considered.

Twitter and its equivalents add their constant stream of comments and responses, links to follow, friends to add, to the general cacophony of reactive tasks.

I could add dozens more, but I think these examples should illustrate my point: every person who takes part in the Web 2.0 world is inundated with a constant stream of reactive tasks, usually completed on time borrowed from proactive tasks.

The problems presented by reactive tasks

If each of us calculated our reactive tasks — including every email, new IM conversation, Twitter response, MySpace comment, blog comment, a new feed item, Bookmooch request, inbound link, and so on — they would add up to dozens each day. For those of us more firmly immersed in the Web 2.0 world, the number could climb above a hundred.

This build-up of reactive tasks presents three problems:

  • We often interrupt proactive tasks (blog posting, networking, commenting on other blogs, brainstorming ideas, etc.) with reactive tasks.
  • The sheer number of reactive tasks can leave little time for proactive tasks.
  • Reactive tasks are often thinly disguised exercises in procrastination/avoidance.

How can we overcome these problems?

The three problems above can be eliminated and I’ll be suggesting ways to do that in the rest of this post. Being able to process reactive tasks effectively will have a number of distinct benefits:

  • The ability to complete proactive tasks without distraction will make you more productive.
  • Being smart about how you process reactive tasks will allow you to allocate more time to proactive tasks.
  • You’ll spend less time procrastinating and more time doing.

#1 — Batching

If you’ve previously followed discussions around productivity you’ll be familiar with the concept of batching. This refers to the act of grouping tasks by type and completing them all at once. For example, processing your email by batching would involve processing your inbox down to zero all at once, focusing only on that task until it’s completed.

The strategy I want to suggest is to batch reactive tasks collectively and batch specific types of tasks within that.

In the time you set aside for reactive tasks, you might process your inbox to zero, then moderate blog comments, then respond to blog comments, then check Twitter, and so on. The idea is that you don’t scatter your attention across a multiplicity of different tasks, but instead tackle them all sequentially.

The reasoning behind the batching process works across two lines: first, that every time you attempt a different kind of task a mental gear-shift is required. Like changing gears on a car, this shift is generally followed by a brief period of slow-down as you adjust to the new task. Secondly, batching encourages you to avoid procrastination and time-wasting by completing one set of tasks at a time.

#2 — Evaluate your reactive commitments

One common-sense way to reduce the time you spend on reactive tasks is to eliminate or ignore some of them. A good way to do this is to write down all the reactive web tasks you undertake on a daily basis. Evaluate whether the rewards gained are enough to compensate for the time spent on each task.

#3 — Allocate time limits

An effective way to manage the time you spend on reactive tasks is to allocate a time limit for batching. There is no blanket rule: the time you can afford to spare will depend on how much time you can afford to spend in front of a computer screen.

Enforcing a tight limit will ensure you focus on essential reactive tasks, or those which you find most rewarding. If you find yourself regularly leaving out a particular set of tasks due to time constraints then I’d recommend considering the removal of that task all-together.

#4 — Prioritize reactive tasks

Some reactive tasks are essential, like responding to email and moderating comments. Others you’ll do for enjoyment alone. Place essential or important tasks at the head of the queue. This will help you fit everything you need to do into the time you’ve allocated.

#5 — Eliminate unnecessary reactions

Part of the problem is a tendency to create reactive tasks for ourselves. We often respond when a response is not required. For example, most emails which do not contain a ‘?’ don’t require a response.

Be selective about who you respond to, and when, but don’t take this as an excuse to under-respond. When you stop responding to emails and comments which contain a question mark, you’ve taken this too far.

#6 — During proactive time, ignorance is bliss

When operating outside batching time it’s important to block all notifications of the reactive tasks that await you when batching begins.

Sign out of Gchat, Skype and your IM of choice. Switch off automatic email notifiers. Don’t check up on your social media accounts, and don’t peek into your feed reader. If you can’t act on any of these stimuli (and you shouldn’t until batching time), there’s no point in allowing it to become a fruitless distraction.

My own process

If you set comments to moderate, I’d recommend allocating a small batching time at the opposite end of the day to when you do your usual batching. For example, I batch reactive tasks in the evening, but I try to spend 5 to 10 minutes in the morning moderating comments which have accumulated overnight.

My main batching time is broken up to eight task types. I tackle each in the following order:

  1. Processing my inbox.
  2. Moderating comments that have accumulated during the day.
  3. Responding to comments.
  4. Checking traffic stats once.
  5. Checking subscriber stats once.
  6. Checking inbound links on Technorati once.
  7. Processing feeds and bookmarking items I want to comment on (commenting on other blogs is a proactive task, so I leave that until after batching).
  8. Finally, I check social media accounts. Due to some evaluation I’m only active on a few.