Can you be more productive by aiming for less?
“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” Leo Babauta
Productivity. Ah to feel productive. Is there any better feeling then falling onto the sofa after a long day and thinking “what a productive day”.
Consequently, to chase that feeling we try and achieve a lot in a day. My to-do lists used to comprise of at least 15 items. After all, was I really going to have a productive day if I only got two things done? Everything from clean the whole house to film six YouTube videos and do a podcast. However, I quickly realised is that one of two things were happening every single time:
I would half arse a lot of the tasks in order to complete them and tick them off my list. This would result in poor quality work but at least I could say I’d got it done.
I would get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work I had to do and get stuck procrastinating and feeling overwhelmed. One task seemed pointless to do because it was so tiny in the comparison to the amount I was trying to do. So I would end up doing nothing for the entire day.
So how can we be more productive by aiming for less?
Overestimate the day, underestimate the year
We burden ourselves with overwhelming to do list because, mostly, we feel like time is running out. We’ve got so much to do and we need to do it now. There is no time tomorrow because you’re busy with other things. It needs to happen now.
The result is we have an incredible amount to do in a day. Too much to do.
Now, when it comes to the year, we think there is no chance we could have written a book, learnt guitar or doubled our income. However, if you multiply what we tried to achieve in a day with the amount of days we have in a year, well we probably could have become an astrophysicist.
A day is probably going to equate to about 6–8 hours actual work. We can only do so much in a day, despite what we might tell ourselves. By burdening ourselves with a to-do list as long as our arm we are creating a recipe for disaster. Either way we’re going to feel defeated at the end of the day. The more sustainable way to think about it is write down everything you can think of right now that needs doing. Then divide it up between the next 5–7 days. Put your most important things on today’s list, the trick though, is you’re only allowed 3 things on today’s to do list.
Be less ambitious with your days and more ambitious with your year. Work to get sustainable amounts of work done.
Focus on the important
You can be more productive by aiming for less if you focus on the important tasks.
“Focus on being productive instead of busy.” — Tim Ferriss, American podcaster, author and entrepreneur
In a to-do list there are perhaps 3 important tasks for the day. More than 3 and you start to become overwhelmed. Now these tasks shouldn’t be 5-minute tasks. For example, ‘writing a to-do list’ is not something that needs to go on the to-do list. To-do list items should be a good 30–60 minutes tasks.
Here are some good examples:
Research an article idea
Clean the bedroom
Apply for that job
Paint the living room
Each task in that list will take anywhere between 30 minutes to 2–3 hours. Those are good list items. Those six items would be quite ambitious to achieve in a day. If you aimed to get all that done in one day you’d be bitterly disappointed by the end of it.
Instead, read through the list and understand the most important items. What needs doing today? You can figure this out by asking yourself some questions:
A) Which of these tasks has a deadline?
B) Which of these would you be most disappointed if you didn’t complete today?
C) Which of these leads to other tasks getting done? For example if you are a freelancer writer, writing an article is fairly important and will allow you to buy the food shop.
D) Which one of these will enjoy the most?
Question D is quite an interesting one. It’s one to pay attention to if you find you have low motivation. By doing something you enjoy and being able to tick it off the to-do list you are able to get a bit of momentum to spur you on to do the other items on the list.
Create the habit
Create the habit of writing down 3 important things to get done today and actual do them. You can be more productive by aiming for less if you make it habit to prioritise habits. You will create a reliability on yourself to do as you say you are going to do. It’s quite insightful how important it can be to stick to your word once you’ve done it ten times or more. It’ll start to become natural that you focus on the most important tasks and forget the rest.
The Pareto Principle dictates that 20% of the activities get 80% of the results. It is incredibly true if you apply it to your own life. I would be willing to bet that 20% of your writing gets 80% of the results. I wonder if 20% your work gets 80% of the praise. With that in mind, only 20% of your to-do list will account for 80% of the productivity. We so often get into the habit of adding endless amounts to the to-do list but in actual fact, the majority of those tasks are so small that they don’t really warrant going on the to-do list in the first place.
Once you create the habit of having a smaller to do list, with the most important things on there, you may find that you become much more productive.
How to tackle the big tasks
Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.”- Dale Carnegie, American writer
Having 3 things on the to-do list feels much more managable. However, they are still on the to-do list to get ticked off. Just having them on the list hasn’t got us anywhere just yet.
In order to get the momentum to get things ticked off you need to work out what works best for you. Sometimes what works quite well is playing a game with yourself. So, lets say you to-do list looks like this for the day (we’ll take my actual to-do list for today).
Research article idea for working title “How to Leave Your Ego at the Door” (Published tomorrow)
Write the introduction for “How to Leave Your Ego at the Door”
Clean the kitchen
What I’ll say to myself is if I do an hour of research I’ll reward myself with breakfast. I’ve got to have breakfast anyway and I happen to be a huge fan of eating, so I put it at the end of doing something, it acts as a reward. Then once I’ve research for an hour and ticked something off my list, I’ll feel the momentum to keep going. After having enjoyed my breakfast I can then say to myself when I’ve wrote my introduction I can go for a walk. Again, something I need to do today and the reward system seems to help keep me focused.
This might not work for everyone, however, I find that scheduling rewards after a period of work keeps me motivated and focused at the task at hand.
We don’t need to aim to do more or have a to-do list as long as our arm. By simply changing the way we look at our to-do list and prioritising the most important things you can find that quite quickly you become infinitely more productive. Not busy, productive.
By aiming for less you can become more productive.