Moving the Needle

Do you ever have one of those days where it feels like you worked all day and yet got nothing done? It happens to us all, and it can be frustrating. We all have things we’d rather do than be working and there can be nothing more frustrating than realizing you’ve squandered a day on nonsense. One of the most important questions to ask yourself at the end of each day is, “How much time did I spend doing my most important work?” If we’re not mindful of that question, too often, we fall short.

I experience this all too often, and I got thinking about the problem. Hyper-scheduling helps but just because I’ve set aside time, doesn’t always mean that time gets spent wisely. How do I become more mindful of the work that matters when I’m in the trenches?

Lately, I’ve been doing a different sort of time tracking experiment that’s been helping me out. 

We’ve talked a lot lately about meaningful work on the Focused podcast and the phrase “moving the needle” has come up. I like that phrase, and it got me thinking about what moves the needle for me. What are the things that, at the end of the day, I want to know I accomplished? I’ve come up with a practice that helps me get better at that.

Identify What Moves the Needle

For everyone it’s different, but for me, the work that moves the needle was pretty easy to identify:

  1. Work on a Field Guide

  2. Writing for MacSparky

  3. Producing a Podcast

  4. Doing Client Legal Work

I’ve probably got more needle-movers than most people because my work is so diverse. The exercise of identifying this was important because it was the first step to putting this work at the front of my mind. I’m not sure determining what moves the needle for you will be as easy as it was for me. I’m at a stage of my career where I’ve been doing this long enough that I already had a pretty good idea. Nevertheless, you need to start by identifying what it is for you.

The obvious criteria for work that moves the needle is that it earns you money. While that is important, I don’t think it is the only, or even necessarily the most important criteria. I’m lucky enough to have work in my life that I enjoy doing and, at the same time, helps others and lets me earn a living. That didn’t happen overnight. If you are in a time of transition, what moves the needle for you may not be what pays you the most but instead pushes you forward to the next thing. The important thing at this first step is that you need to have that conversation with yourself and figure it out.

Also, what moves the needle today isn’t necessarily what will move the needle for you in one (or ten) years. This is an ongoing discussion with yourself.

Regardless, once you figure out what moves the needle, you need to keep yourself honest.

Track Your Work that Moves the Needle

At the beginning of the week, I lay out out a page in my notebook with a series of lines for each activity that moves the needle for me. Here’s my page from a few weeks ago. (PFG is a secret project. Grin.)


I do this with pen and paper, but you could do this digitally with a spreadsheet, or a text file, or just about any application where you can write things down. 

At the beginning of the week, I just put a series of hash marks on a grid page. There are for grids between each hash (representing 15 minutes) and 6 hours on a line. I fill in the line as I get work done. Here is this week’s page, as of Tuesday afternoon.

As I go through each day and spend time on work that moves the needle, I log it on this page. Consider it time-tracking light. I’m not keeping track of how much time I spend doing everything. I’m just keeping track of the time I spend moving the needle. This has several benefits.

First, I can see how much I’m getting done on the work that matters. That feels good, particularly when you end a day and know that you spent a substantial portion of your day doing this type of work.

Second, you have a mechanism to hold yourself accountable, not just at the end of the day but throughout the day. The process of finishing a few hours of client work and then logging it on this page comes with its own unique blend of happy chemicals in my brain. Likewise, when I get to mid-morning and realize I haven’t logged any work for the day that moves the needle, I get a kick in the pants to fix that.

I just started doing this in April, and I’m admittedly still in the honeymoon phase of this practice, but I can tell you it is working. It helps me stay focused throughout the day, and my enthusiasm for the idea is even higher now than when I first started doing it. The question of getting my most important work done is much more present in my mind now, and that has obvious benefits for me both mentally and in terms of actual production.

This practice is not meant as a substitute for time tracking. You can do this whether or not you time track. The point, at least to me, is to give myself an easy accountability measure for the work I want to get done every work day. I think the trick is to keep it simple so you can stick with it.

One of the effects on me is that I’m more vigilant about asking myself the question, “Does this move the needle” throughout the day and even before agreeing to additional projects. 

But Not All Work Moves the Needle

There still is some work that both must get done and doesn’t move the needle. I think plenty about that work as well every time I set time aside to do it. This is work that gets in the way and, with this practice, I’m more motivated than ever to throw it overboard. I’ve got a series of questions I ask myself every time I pick up this type of work:

  1. Does this need to be done at all?

  2. If it must be done, can I automate/delegate it?

  3. If I must do it, what is the least intrusive way for me to accomplish it?

There are a couple of insights I’ve had on those category three jobs. First, I’ve been intentionally scheduling time for that stuff when I’m the least productive. For me, that’s after 3 pm on most days. Also, I find I get that type of work done faster if I pile it all together and set aside a few hours to do it, rather than picking it up piecemeal throughout the day and week. I’m currently experimenting with ganging all that work into one block in the week (currently Wednesday afternoon). I’m not sure if that is going to work or not, but it sure feels better knowing I have set aside a place for that work during the rest of the week.

Being deliberate about my work that moves the needle and tracking that daily has had immediate consequences for me. I’m doing better at getting client work done while at the same time, I shipped a new field guide. It’s working for me. I hope it works for you as well.

This whole system of moving the needle isn’t some stroke of inspiration from nowhere but instead results from me reading and talking to others about my own challenges and obstacles to getting my work done. Significant influences on me in coming up with this include Mike Schmitz, Shawn Blanc, Matt Ragland, and Michael Hyatt, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. Also, Mike and I speak about this at length in Focused 74.