Self-motivation is the factor that separates the most successful from the mediocre. More than skill or talent, the ability to start a task and keep at it even when you’d rather not is often the key factor that determines those who reach the top of their field. However, knowing this fact is not enough. No one functions at 100% each day. We are all human and we all have limits on how much of an unpleasant task we can perform before our interest wanes. Unfortunately, important tasks tend to come with some degree of unpleasantness. They either take a long time, require careful application of skill, collaboration with others you’d rather avoid or a combination of all three. This can create conditions where a person would rather not start a task because they feel the effort required is not worth the initial reward.
What do you do when you find yourself showing up at work but not being able to push yourself to complete tasks? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Three years ago, I was managing a project to teach young people digital skills. One aspect that we invariably touched upon was healthy use of social media. Social media has evolved to become a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s useful for staying in touch with family and friends, receiving quick information and for advertising products. On the other hand, social networks can be huge time wasters, have contributed to decreasing attention spans and can give people a very warped sense of what life is like. Perhaps the most insidious harm social media can do is to create the illusion that other people are achieving great deeds within short periods of time and everyone else who isn’t is a failure.
Have you ever had to build a skyscraper or send a man to another planet? Ok. Most people will never do those projects in their lives and that’s fine. However, we all deal with some level of complexity on the projects we work on whether it’s designing a new software or setting up a supply chain halfway across the globe. No matter how complex the project you are trying to do is, it can be broken down into a number of simple tasks. Reducing complex processes to their simplest activities is how skyscrapers are built.
“Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”
We live in an era of fast food, instant meals, same-day delivery, information overload and pressure to always stay connected. As a result, we are slowly losing our ability to be patient. According to research, 5% of mobile internet users will leave a webpage if it does not load within 3 seconds. We have come to expect everything immediately that when we have to wait just a few seconds, we lose interest and move on to something else.
“More effort is wasted doing things that don’t matter than is wasted doing things inefficiently. Elimination is the highest form of optimization.”
James Clear 3-2-1 Newsletter
Some people suffer not from inaction but from too much action. They have so many tasks they are trying to do each thing that they can’t focus on a few important tasks. Unfortunately, simply doing more does not guarantee improved productivity.
The first week of February is here. By now, the majority of people who made New Years’ Resolutions have given up on them. If you are a regular at your local gym, you probably saw a lot more people having a go at the machines during the first week of the year only for the numbers to slowly dwindle down to the regulars by the end of the month.
The same water that softens the potato hardens the egg
A major challenge faced by people who work with a computer is how to work on a task while resisting the urge to open a browser window or watch a film. Companies have tried to address it by configuring office laptops such that social media, video streaming sites and games are inaccessible. That hasn’t really stopped the desperate. Unless you work in a customer-facing role in a bank, there is often no restriction on cellphone usage in most offices.
Everyone has heard the fable of the tortoise and the hare. It has been shared since time immemorial and has often been the subject of different interpretations, including some hilarious cartoons. Very briefly, the tale goes as follows. The tortoise and the hare agreed to take part in a race. The hare confident in his victory decided to take a nap under a tree. While he was sleeping, the tortoise slowly crept by and overtook his opponent. By the time the hare woke up and made a dash for the finish line, the tortoise had already won the race.
This fable is rich in productivity principles. Let’s pick them out.
How do you achieve great results on the Important but not urgent tasks? You create time for Deep focus. I first encountered the concept of Deep focus in the aptly named book Deep Focus: Rules for focused success in a distracted world by Cal Newport. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend adding it to your reading list.
The idea behind deep focus is an individual will get more done in a single hour of focus-driven work on a single task than they would in ten hours of shallow focus split across different tasks. If you want to get more done, you not only need to first create time for it, you also need to make sure that time is quiet and focused time.
We all have things we’d like to do. So many in fact that I always recommend writing them down in a to-do list. A well-designed to-do list not only lets you capture all the vague tasks you’d like to do at some point, it also lets you prioritise what to work on now and what can wait.
One of the most powerful productivity illustrations is called an Eisenhower matrix. I have talked about it in previous posts but I will provide a sample under here in case you aren’t familiar with the matrix.