How to Choose and Plan Your Highest Leverage Tasks

Jonah Larkin

“Success comes from doing one highly valued thing exceptionally well.”

-Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work”


Super productivity is most often created not from moving quickly but from moving slowly.  

In order to avoid distraction and attention traps (social media, email, slack etc.) you need to have a very clear intention and goal.

That’s why you need to choose one high leverage task that will help you move forward on a top priority.  

High leverage tasks are what most people avoid  because they aren’t urgent, but they are extremely important in order to make significant progress.  

The Five Questions to Choose Your High Leverage Task

  1. What is something that if I were to do would make other tasks un-necessary?
  1. What task if I complete would increase my unit of output per unit of input?  
  1. If I could be world class at one thing, what would it be?
  1. What is the meat of what I get paid for?
  1. What is something that I’ve been procrastinating at or putting off that if I completed would free up a bunch of brain space?

For additional context and a deeper dive into each, read on.

Choosing Your High Leverage Task

Most of the things the average knowledge worker does on a daily basis are low leverage tasks.  

Answering emails, responding to slack messages, meetings that go on too long and communication that talks around the real issue are all low leverage.  

Many of these tasks fall into the category of Urgent-Not Important.  

They’re low leverage because they don’t truly move the needle.  

You’re never going to inbox zero your way to success.

It might help at the margins, but it’s not going to create the kind of change that will help you, your company, your family or your community take a bold step that can make things better.

The problem with high leverage tasks is that they can seem overwhelming.  

When you want to write that book, or even a well researched blog post, it can seem daunting.  

That slight feeling of dread when it comes up can push you right back to your email inbox where you can get to inbox zero and feel the satisfaction that comes with completing your task.  

The fact is that often, high leverage tasks require incremental progress.  They require commitment.  They require struggle.  

Struggle however, is a necessary component of the flow cycle (see below).  

If you’ve ever exercised when you’re not quite feeling you know exactly what this is like.  

It can be a real struggle to get going.  

But once you start to warm up a bit, you start to breathe deeper, and soon the struggle begins to feel good.  

By the end of the workout you’re probably feeling great.  

That’s how the flow cycle works.  

Exercise is also a great example of a high leverage task.  

It’s something that if you do once doesn’t make too much difference.  

But if you can do it consistently over time, it drastically decreases your chance of an early death, it makes you stronger, increases your cognitive abilities and increases feel good neurotransmitters in your body and your brain.  

In choosing your high leverage task, it can be helpful to ask yourself a couple of questions.  

  1. What is something that if I were to do would make other tasks un-necessary?  
  2. This might involve building a system.  It could be one for your email so that you can get to inbox zero in half the time.  Or it could be finally scheduling that couples therapy session for you and your significant other.  After all, a couple hours per month of working through things can help prevent huge relationship headaches later on.
  3. What task if I complete would increase my unit of output per unit of input?
  4. A recent client of mine who is a Chief Marketing Officer used his Deep Work Day to create and define his strategic plan and put it into a GANTT chart to make sure he’s working on the right tasks and not the wrong tasks.  The Gantt chart prevents him from increasing his input and not his output.  You might also create a system in Evernote to track things you are researching or even help with your grocery shopping so you can save time.
  5. If I could be world class at one thing, what would it be?
  6. The top 5 percent of people in any industry are usually not any smarter than the rest of us.  They don’t necessarily work more hours.  What distinguishes those who are truly successful is they are almost to a tee, unusually focused.  This means they say no to most things that don’t coincide with what they are trying to do.  Whether they are a software engineer, a visual artist, an athlete or a doctor, the top 5 percent are ultra outcome and results focused.  So what is that you are really good at and if you focused even more, you could step into the top 5 percent of all people?
  7. What is the meat of what I get paid for?  
  8. Do you get paid to write, make decisions, understand problems, think about the future of transportation, design kitchens or something else?  Whatever that is, you probably ought to be spending a very high ratio of your working hours doing that.  By getting caught up in low leverage tasks you are avoiding the actual thing that makes you or your company money.
  9. What is something that I’ve been procrastinating at or putting off that if I completed would free up a bunch of brain space?
  10. Almost everyone has those things that they’ve been putting off.  Maybe it’s finally dealing with your health, making those doctors appointments and hiring a trainer.  Perhaps it’s doing your taxes, or organizing your closet so that you don’t have to spend valuable brain power figuring out what you’re going to wear.  Oftentimes, those tasks that you’ve been procrastinating on might also fall into one of the other categories.  In this case, it’s a double win.

Plan Your High Leverage Task

Now that you’ve chosen your task, a little bit of prep can go a long way.  

Let’s say you’re a rocket scientist and your high leverage task is to write a blog post about an experimental propulsion system you’ve been working on.  

Ask yourself these questions to prepare.

  1. Will I need any equipment or supplies for my high leverage tasks? Maybe you need a big whiteboard or post-it notes for organizing thoughts.
  2. Can I create an outline of my high leverage task? If you’re trying to explain your propulsion system, an outline could be hugely helpful in organizing your thoughts so you don’t waste a bunch of time writing about unnecessary things.  
  3. What else would help me do my task even better?  Is there any source material that you need to have access to?  If so, perhaps you want to prep that beforehand so you have your source catalog in front of you.

Once you’ve gone through those questions look at each deep work block you have planned.  

Now make an educated guess of what you can accomplish in each block of work.  

Can you write your  1000 word introduction to your blog post in the first block and edit as well?  

Put that goal into your first work block.  

What can you do for your second block?  

Can you take your basic outline and distill it into an outline so detailed, it will make your writing go much faster?

You can do this planning very generally or very specifically.  

Besides giving you a plan to follow, it also helps you to plan better when you reflect on it after each deep work block.  

One important word of warning though.  


Read that again.  

Your block plan is to help you get in the zone so you don’t have to think.  

However If you are in “the zone” and you realize you aren’t following your plan, don’t worry about it.  Being in “the zone” is about flow and flow is the magic place for massive productivity.