Doing less

 Photography: Ben White

Photography: Ben White

The struggle with productivity

I have struggled with productivity for a long time. If there is one area in my life that I have consistently attempted to improve, it has been this one. How do I manage the time that is available to me, in order to get the most important work done, without letting smaller and less significant activities distract me and lead me astray?

In my experience, it is easier to say what I will do than it is to actually do it. Every day I wake up with the intention to accomplish my most important tasks. Each day I feel I have failed in some way.

I used to think productivity was a matter of discipline, of pure will-power. I don't think so now. (I will be writing more about this in a separate post.) We are all prone to procrastination. Take, for example, my 16-year-old stepdaughter. We ask her to do something (say, clean her room) and the response is an emphatic: “I will!” Two days later we check in on the progress and she hasn’t done anything.

I don’t feel right about criticizing her because I’ve procrastinated more times than I can count. If there’s a project to complete that requires some heavy lifting, but I am busy doing other things, I might put it off until I’ve checked off the other, smaller and easier things on my to-do list. If there’s someone who is waiting on the project, what can I tell them but, “I just didn’t get to it,” pulling out the usual list of excuses.

What happens when you’re not focussed

By choosing smaller wins over larger ones, and easier tasks over heavier or more complex projects, you get to feel like you’re doing something. But the truth is that when you look back, you may be disappointed that you didn’t do your best work. You just did what was easiest. Your excuses sound lame, even to yourself. You know you could have done better.

The biggest excuse for not doing something you said you would do is: “I’m too busy.” What are you busy doing? Are they activities that will lead you closer to success? Will doing those other things allow you to do the one important thing that has the biggest impact on your life, career or business, or is your busyness preventing it?

Don’t confuse busyness with productivity, because actually the opposite is true. By saying yes to many things, you’re saying no to your most important things. Your stress goes up. The quality of your work goes down.

The same occurs when multi-tasking. It’s now proven with lab experiments that humans are incapable of multi-tasking. You can have multiple tasks. But you can not focus your attention on more than one at a time. Rather than switch between many tasks, you do a better job when you can focus longer periods of attention on just one task. It takes your brain about 20 minutes to refocus your full attention on a new one.

Constantly checking email, text messages or being interrupted in other ways does not let your brain focus on the task you set out to finish. So you touch on many tasks, but do none of them very well and you make yourself harried because you aren’t giving your full attention to one thing.

Do less to contribute more

As a coach, one of the things I do is to ask a client, “What will you do to move closer to the life that you say you want?” The important part of that question is not just “what will you do?” but “when will you do it?” 

This last piece is important. As my coach says: “You can’t prioritize your schedule until you schedule your priorities.” A coach holds the client accountable by letting her verbalize what she wants to achieve and then asking clarification for how and when she will accomplish it.

For someone new to coaching, it might feel as if you are being asked by your coach to do more than what you have already been doing. But if you’re stressed and find your days already packed with activities, the most important thing to do is to step back and reassess. The next question I would ask an overwhelmed client is, “what can you let go of?”

I have been reading up on productivity, and all the books I have read have made it a point that your success doesn’t depend on doing even more with your time. It’s doing less, more efficiently. It’s wrong to equate long hours and “working through lunch” with productivity. In fact, that is not how you will increase performance. 

You can do your best work and be more successful if you choose to focus your attention on the most important thing, removing all other things from your to-do list. 

What I want in my life — and what I think we all want — is not to accomplish more, but to do less (or have less) so that I feel happier and less stressed.

Doing less requires a mindfulness that people don’t often employ. 

essentialism.jpg

Greg McKeown, who wrote “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” says: 

It’s about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference — learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential. Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less, either. It’s about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

My own solution

The past few years I’ve been reading several books on this topic. Aside from “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” by Greg McKeown, I bought and read the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” by Marie Kondo and “The One Thing,” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Seeing a common thread? All 3 books are based on the idea that you feel better and do better work when you aren’t being pulled in many directions or choices. 

I decided to follow their advice. Also with the help of Michael Hyatt’s book “Living Forward,” and Christine Carter’s work, who wrote “The Sweet Spot” (and has a course with the same title), I was able to identify my life’s priorities. I even gave myself a weekend retreat, and stayed at an AirBnB, just for the purpose of becoming clear on what is most important to me.

I identified these as the top five categories: 

  1. Career
  2. Health
  3. My Identity, My Quality
  4. Personal Development
  5. Finances

Career is absolutely number one at this point in my life. It’s The One Thing. Everything below it supports that One Thing. With the top 5 identified, I then selected activities that fit into each of those categories. For Career, for example, I have these tasks:

  • Coaching sessions with my coach
  • Coaching sessions with my clients
  • Maintaining my website and social media
  • Marketing and working on brand
  • Networking

Within this list, “coaching sessions with my clients” is the most important one, since that is how a coach earns her income and becomes successful.

With this choice made, I now know that I must devote most of my attention to that activity throughout the work day. If I do that, then I’m on task with reaching my career goals. If I’m doing tasks that are not in the top 5 categories or in my list for Career, then I need to stop and reassess. 

I need to ask myself: Is this the best use of my time right now? When looking back a year from now, which activities will I be glad I did and which ones will I regret?

Maybe it’s time to stop and review

I truly believe that it might be time to stop what you’re doing and review your life’s goals, especially if you’re experiencing that: 

  • you’re busy but not productive
  • you say yes just to please
  • your inbox is fuller and your to do lists longer at the end of the day
  • there is external pressure (and perhaps your own inner dialog) telling you that more is better.

Stop and create internal clarity. This is about creating a strategy for your life. 

McKeown calls Essentialism the antidote for the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” It isn’t about saying no as much as it’s about negotiating with others and yourself so that you can continue to do the work that you value most and that provides the most value to others. You have to be very selective. 

You also have to see the truth. Accept these facts: “I can do anything, but not everything.” “I choose to do this (I don’t have to do this).” And “only a few things really matter.”

There is much more to Essentialism than removing tasks in order to focus on the most important ones. I will be reviewing the book in a separate blog post soon.

Please let me know if doing less and focussing on less has helped you with your level of success and happiness. I’d love to hear your experience.