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Big Ideas

Beware of Reactionary Workflow

As our penchant for over-communication makes reaching "Inbox Zero" increasingly unlikely, we look at some key ways to combat "reactionary workflow."

In an era of mobile devices, instant connectivity, and automated mailing lists and notifications, it is all too easy for people to contact us. As a consequence, we live our lives just trying to keep our heads above water. Our ability to prioritize and control our focus is crippled by an unyielding flow of incoming communication: email, texts, tweets, facebook messages, phone calls, and so on (and on).

Without realizing it, most of us have entered the new era of what I call “reactionary workflow.” Rather than being proactive with our energy, we are acting in response to what is incoming. Having relinquished control over our focus, it has become harder and harder to embark on our work with intention.

Amidst the research for my upcoming book on extremely productive creative people and teams, I have found that the “uber productive” actively develop methods for defying this new and dangerous trend. They impose discipline on themselves and set up blockades when necessary. And, most importantly, they have a “separation of church and state” philosophy for communications and actionable stuff.

Proactively blocking out time for creating – rather than just responding – is a key tactic of productive creatives.

I’ve interviewed a number of people who literally quit (or minimize) their email program at certain times during the day. For example, Piers Fawkes, founder and editor of PSFK, reserves a good chunk of his morning – from 7-10am every day – to do research and digest the day’s trends and news prior to going through his email. Proactively blocking out time for creating – rather than just responding – is a key tactic of productive creatives.

You should also consider keeping the “actionable” stuff in your life separate from your email and calendars. Whether through post-it notes, action management programs (like, or even using a separate color pen or notebook for items requiring activity, try to manage your action steps in a sacred space. Doing so will empower you to prioritize and focus on the stuff you want (and need) to do, rather than living a life reacting to whatever flows in.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (19)
  • Pablo Lara H

    It is necessary to separate and filter the information. The time I spent in Twitter is for getting information and I have hours in the day just for work in my stuff. All the information that you get needs a time for maturing and be revealed. The trick is just give some time for ourselves…not for me and my computer or my phone.

  • JohnnyCaraveo

    Excellent article, well written, extremely thougt out. ~Johnny Caraveo. Can’t wait for yout book.

  • heathquinn

    Great post. Creating is what we do, and should get first priority. For me, bliss is to reserve most of my day for working, with everything else getting slotted in (except for incoming mobile calls, which I view as possible emergencies).

  • Ada Wong

    Powerful stuff – brilliant thinking. Thanks for sharing.

  • sherry truitt

    This makes perfect sense and I’ve been trying to structure my time to be more productive, and more importantly, focused. I even removed the laptop from my studio at times, so I ‘ll not be tempted to answer emails or the lure of the tweet from tweet deck.

  • Brett

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve often fallen into the trap of believing I’m productive because I am so busy responding to messages all day. A productive day should, in contrast, be defined by completing high-priority tasks. For several months now I’ve been working on taking control of my inbox and have posted some thoughts on the subject:….

    Thanks for the great article!

  • didact

    good point but you mean “reactive” not “reactionary”

  • Elizabeth K. Barone

    I spend entirely too much time responding to blog comments, email, Facebook comments, MySpace comments, tweets, DMs… The list goes on and on! I know that responding to these things is important, but if I’m not getting anything else done it’s more harmful than helpful. I sometimes neglect all of these things for days at a time when I’m really busy, but other times I spend hours catching up on them!

  • Eugen

    Excellent point Scott. It seems that every e-mail, IM, comment you get, takes bit by bit from your precious time. Interesting is the fact that the most efficient way in “defying this new and dangerous trend” is to simply IGNORE it and exclude yourself from it. Like any other trend, it will pass. And i also believe that true socializing skills are obtained not in front of the display, but instead, in the real world.

  • Christopher

    I first came across this article having just said to our VP that our web department has become more “reactionary” than anything else – which is the polar opposite “creativity.” The result is very low morale within the department. Creatives can’t survive very well or for very long in a reactionary environment. I appreciate the tips given in this article. Thank you!

  • David Miller

    really great reminder

  • Jeff Vlahovich

    Check out Covey’s 7 Habits. The main thing I got out of it was the seperation of urgent an important tasks. Once you can seperate them, and focus on the imortant tasks, you’ll begin to ‘kick goals’.

  • Parin Patel

    Great post!

    It’s not how much time we spend, but how we spend our time. Blocking out time to be proactive and work on your goals is an absolute must!

    Thanks for writing this Scott. It got me thinking and here are some of additional thoughts on Being Proactive:

  • Marcos Lavorato

    Awesome post. I think that is the only solutions for this “crazy social times” – Marcos

  • irena bukhshtaber

    I decided not to have data on my mobile phone. this means in a cafe, i read the paper not my screen. it does feel like i’m missing something but it allows me to be proactive and also not waste time worrying about something like an email i can’t do anything about.

  • just me

    right is reactive…not reactionary.
    good observation


    I guess reading and commenting on this post are reactionary as well.

  • JamalLe

    I like this website given and it has given me some sort of inspiration to succeed for some reason, so thank you.

  • Anton Agestam

    I am a terrible morning person so I usually tend to incoming emails and such during the mornings. Then I turn my phone to silent and close down my Gmail-tab and start killing tasks.

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