To Do More, Do Less

At any given moment I have several projects going at once. While I’m less productive than I used to be, for voluntary and involuntary health reasons, I still manage to get a lot done in a day. Being organized helps, but it takes more than using your time efficiently. The key is to focus on the right things. Activity is not automatically productivity. “To do more, do less” sounds counter-intuitive.

Some of the “busy work good, down time bad” mindset come from the paradigm of the 8-hour day and the 40-hour work week. We’re used to being paid for time served, not the results we get. All you need to do is look busy, or at least busy enough to justify your wages. When you’re self-employed and only make money from your useful output, it changes your perspective. Every moment has to count.

Do Less: Abandon Multitasking

No sane person is still claiming that this is a good idea. Note that I didn’t say that people aren’t still pushing this idea. Employers want to squeeze every ounce of value from labor, and a lot of them still think that humans can not only do several things at once, but that they’re able to do them well. Your brain doesn’t work like that. It may look like you’re doing two things at the same time, but you’re rapidly switching back and forth from one to another. That’s inefficient and burns energy. It also prevents you from getting into the zone, into a flow state where creativity and deep work can happen.

Whatever you’re doing, give it your full attention. Even if you don’t buy that you’ll do better work, there are other reasons to abandon multitasking. It’s less tiring. It’s more respectful to people you’re working with. The work goes faster, so the odious tasks are over more quickly and you make more progress on the passion projects. People will be impressed with the quality of your work, rather than the dubious achievement of quantity.

Focus on Goals

Once again, you need to stop behaving like an hourly worker. The goal for most job I’ve held has been to survive and not get yelled at. Stop chatting with your coworkers and clean something. Look busy. Justify your paycheck. When you’re self-employed, working in a creative field, or engaged in a passion project, you need to make the time you’ve got count. To do that, you have to understand your goal.

If you know what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s easier to align your tasks with that goal. Does this get me closer to the goal? No? Don’t do that. Yes? Spend time there. It seems easy, but it isn’t always obvious. Cleaning off my desk is something that has to be done, but is it a greater priority than making my daily word count? If it interferes with comfortably sitting at my laptop pounding the keys, then yes. If it can wait, then no.

Think in terms of the larger goal, not the tasks. I invoked making word count, but that’s a task. The goal is to pay my rent. To do that, I need to publish a book. For that to happen, I need to make my daily word count every day until the deadline. Maybe I need to clean my desk for that to happen, maybe not.
For certain, checking email and Twitter aren’t advancing the goal. Certain coffee breaks do, while others are procrastination. Be honest with yourself and know that difference. This takes us to the next point.

Separate Needs from Wants

Not everything that you have to do aligns with your goals. I could say that sleeping and eating contribute to my making word count on a writing project, but that’s a stretch. I need to do those things for independent reasons. A want is an extra hour of sleep when you’ve blocked out that first hour of the day to write. That extra coffee break when you don’t feel like writing is a want, although the mid-afternoon cup to clear away brain fog is, for me, an essential need.

Make time for your wants. Build it into your schedule. All work, no play, and all that. I take planned breaks to check Twitter and play Mahjong. Just don’t confuse your wants with with your needs. You can adjust the resources allocated between the two based on circumstances. When I have a tight deadline, obviously things are needs-driven. If I managed to stay on top of things, and can work at a more leisurely pace, I can schedule a more wants-driven day.

To Do More, Do Less

Focus on what has the greatest impact. It can be a big thing, a couple of medium-sized things, or a lot of little things that add up. This seems like a fancy way of saying “don’t waste time”, but it’s not always clear when a task is just filled. We deceive ourselves into believing that any activity is productive. We rationalize that we did a thing that needed to be done, even if it didn’t need to be done now. If you can tighten things up, you’ll spend more time on the tasks the get results. That, for me, has turned out to be net fewer things overall. It feels like less work, because I’m less rushed. I get to spend more time on the handful of things that matter.

one response for To Do More, Do Less

  1. Very much the sort of things I tell final year undergraduates to do when working on their projects!

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