I used to work 10–12h a day, every day, not so long ago. And there was a problem about that. It wasn’t about putting long hours though; I’m still working as much if not more these days, but after I shifted my mindset, it wasn’t a problem anymore. Let me tell you what was the shift was about, why it was vital for me to make it and how it changed everything for me.
I’m kind of workaholic, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you work on the right things. My problem was that, in the end, it wasn’t real work.
Fauxductivity and The False Hustle
This would make a nice movie title, don’t you think ?
I was doing things, yeah. Sure, I was accomplishing tasks. I certainly wasn’t spending leisure time, relaxing or spending time with my family and friends.
It’s just that, instead of working on my business, I was working for busyness.
In every single endeavor, it’s not about the amount of work. It’s about being focused and effective. What I was doing was merely a patchwork of distractions, real work, light work and business. All in those 12 hours. To people around me, it would seem like I was incredibly productive, but it was just fake. I wasn’t voluntarily faking it, but I was fooling myself in believing that I’m productive because I would put up an insane amount of hours working. I was just keeping myself busy.
Busy work is the most vicious form of procrastination. Unlike pure lazy and honest, procrastination, you can do it for your entire life without ever realizing you’re procrastinating.
But if you were to monitor and measure the amount of real work that I was producing, I’d say it would’ve probably added up to one hour or two on my best days. 12 hours of input time for a 2 hour output, not a really good ratio. That’s where effectiveness comes into play. Or, for myself at that time, a lack thereof.
You probably heard this dozens of times, you gotta be effective. But this advice is as simple as it’s powerful and deceiving. What is being effective ?
It’s about being effective
Productivity consists of two things: being effective and efficient. Effective first, efficient then. Besides, being efficient should be a very far second, to the point where it can almost be negligible.
The plague that affects almost all of us knowledge worker is that we tend to naturally favor efficiency above effectiveness. For two main reasons: first, because it’s more quickly measurable that effectiveness (“Look, I’ve come up with a script to rename and sort my spreadsheets ten times faster ! Why didn’t I called the client yet ? Hey, I was doing my script you know.”). Secondly, because being efficient is actually a lot more easier and quicker to attain than effectiveness. Our brains are wired to seek immediate rewards and easiness. But being effective means 9 times out of 10 tackling the hard or uncomfortable tasks. On the other hand, being efficient can be achieved quickly and gives us a—false—sense of accomplishment. Why else would we be so pressed to clean our inboxes ?
This is a fallacy that I’ve been victim of for a very long time. Besides, the worst with favoring efficiency above effectiveness is that it leads to burning out. When you put up 70+ hours a week at work trying to optimize everything and be the most efficient, you inevitably end up feeling exhausted because efficiency alone doesn’t produce results, and it’s the absence of results that makes us feel like we’re on a hamster wheel.
This is how I managed to turn a full day of “work” into two hours: by being effective. I realized that working long hours and only aiming at being efficient not only doesn’t accomplish anything, but leads to burning out. Then I started to focus on being effective instead. In the first sentence of this paragraph, I quoted the word work because, as I said earlier, the number of hours I would put up per day wouldn’t equal the same amount of hours doing things that matter, merely a fraction.
Timing is THE ONE thing that made me effective
To be more concrete, what did I do ? Being effective might not very helpful, I agree. It’s like you would ask “How do you become rich” and I’d reply “Build a successful business”.
So let met tell you what’s the one simple thing I did that literally changed the way I work every day: time my activities.
Parkinson’s Law in all its magnificence. In case you didn’t know this law, here’s what it says:
Work will expand to fill up the amount of time it’s been given.
Put more simply, the more you give yourself time to achieve a task, the longer it will take. So I’ve set myself to use this law to my advantage.
Whatever I do, I decide how much I’m going to spend on it, based on a rough estimate of how long I think i’t’s going to take me. And then I start the timer and get to work. Now the key to this is to be ruthless about sticking to the timer. Once the timer is over, you’re not allowed to continue the task you’re doing, no matter what, even if you’re not done with the task, even if you’re right in the middle of something. Else, it completely defeats the purpose.
When you don’t time yourself, you are not aware of how long you take to do something. You’re not aware of how long you take to complete a task, how long you get interrupted or give in to distraction. This is simply using the Parkinson’s law to our advantage. By timing our activities, there’s two benefits:
- First, we can stick to a precise schedule, and know in details how we’re going to spend our time when working. No more figuring out randomly what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it.
- Second, we put a stop to the never-ending, ever-expanding tasks that could take us a lot less time than when we don’t time ourselves.
And this is what will enable you to achieve what you usually do in a day in 2 hours. Having a strictly limited time for doing your tasks forces you to be 100% focused, and give your all to the task at hand. You’re forced to ignore all distractions and cut out the fluff in all the things you do, unless you don’t want to accomplish anything. This is the meat of being productive.
If you think it’s unrealistic, reconsider how you work when you’re not tied to strict deadlines.
When we don’t have deadlines, things take a lot of time to get done because we allow things to distract us from accomplishing what needs to be done. We allow ourselves to be diverted from the bare essentials of what needs to be done, in favor of presentation and optimization.
Let’s say you have to put up a landing page for a client or for your business. If you don’t impose a strict deadline yourself, then of course, it’s going to take the whole day. You’re going to rewrite the headline fifteen times. You’re going to try out every possible color for the background. You’re going to optimize the placement of the button, its shape and the call-to-action in order to maximize conversions. Sure, all those things are nice, but not mandatory. What’s mandatory is to have the landing page ready. And when you have given yourself only one hour or even 30 minutes to do so, then you cut the fat and go straight to the point. Value proposition, call-to-action, features, done.
Same for sales call. Let’s say you know you have calls to make. If you give yourself even half a day to do so, you’ll take some time to figure out the best way to do it, then select the best leads, carefully craft your argumentation, prepare answers to interjections you think might come. Then suddenly, four hours are gone and you’re happy if you made 3 calls. On the other hand, if you had timed yourself and allowed no more than an hour, chances are you’d have either made 10 calls—because you didn’t waste time for preparation—or you’d have still made only 3 calls, but hey, you’ve spent an hour instead of four, so quadruple the ouput.
Timing yourself cuts the fat. It’s all the superficial, unnecessary preparation and premature optimization that we turn to by default when we’re not under the pressure of a deadline that make us ineffective. Having a strict amount of time to go by with our tasks prevents too much thinking and pondering over things of no real importance. It forces us to be more focused and ruthless about our priorities. This is why it’s necessary to enforce the limits you put on yourself. You have to create this sense of urgency and act as if you had no other options—because in the end, you don’t.
It’s on, Parkinson !
Remember that professional assignment you were given and had no choice but to deliver by a certain deadline. Or maybe it was in college, were you had to complete that thesis, finish a paper or whatever before a fixed date. Remember how productive you were. You had no options, no other choice than get stuff done. The problem with everyday work is that there are far fewer times where you actually have to do things by a fixed date. This is even more true for self-employed people and entrepreneurs. Thus, following Parkinson’s law, everything we do can extend infinitely and this is why we seem to never get things done.
It’s even more ubiquitous for people working for themselves, or simply having their own business. They don’t necessarily have this sense of urgency to deliver needed to make things happen.
So next time you’re tackling a task, whatever it may be, do us a favor: pick a timer app, a stopwatch, heck, you can even use Google for that, and start timing yourself to finally get your stuff done.