Author : Christian Lan Pin Wing
Is it possible to work less, get more done and don't burn out? Short answer is yes. Let's look at how we can achieve that.
The key is to work on activities that when completed will deliver the most results and also to adjust the time and energy spent according to the importance of the activities.
There are a number of strategies that can help you in this process and we are going to look into 3 of them as well as some practical techniques and methods to use with these strategies.
1) Identify the activities that have the most impact and focus your energy on them
"Focus on being productive instead of being busy." - Tim Ferriss
Not all tasks have the same importance or need the same amount of effort to be completed. Some of the tasks could even be eliminated. Less is often more.
Here are 3 methods that will help you define your important activities and where you should focus your time and energy.
1.1) 20/80 Analysis
The Pareto principle or 20/80 rule, named after italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, states that roughly 20 % of the inputs or activities for a given event will account for about 80% of the results or outcomes. This principle applies to many areas in life. Pareto noticed for example that about 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas or 20% percent of people in Italy at the time owned about 80% of the riches.
How do you apply this principle to be more productive?
Start first with a 20/80 analysis.
Let's say you have 100 customers. Find the 20 that are the most profitable, focus on growing them and try to find new customers that have a similar profile. On the other side, customers that are not very profitable often end up being the most time consuming and difficult to deal with. So if some of your difficult clients are willing to leave you for a competitor, let them go gracefully. It will probably be a blessing in disguise in the long run.
If you have 10 items on your to do list for the week. Identify the 2 actions that would have the most impact or that would help more than the other actions in achieving your goal.
Tackle these activities in priority. Focus your energy on actions that bring the most results or have the most impact. But that doesn't mean you don't have to do all the rest. Some of the remaining tasks could be done with minimal effort, delegated, planned for later and some eliminated.
1.2) The One Thing
In the book, The One Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, the main concept is to continually ask the focusing question : what's the one thing you can do so that everything else is easier or unnecessary?
In other words, what's the action that your are completing today that is bringing you closer to your big goal? Basically, you are narrowing your actions to what is essential to achieving your goal, not getting distracted and spreading out thin.
This applies to both short term goals and long term goals.
If you are working on a big project, what's the one thing you can complete today that is going to bring you closer to your goals. What's the first Domino you can knock that will knock the other dominos? The beauty of the Domino principle is that the first domino you've knocked down can knock down another domino that's 50 % bigger and so on. So with a 2 inch domino, you could later knock an object as tall as a building or a mountain due to this chain reaction. You can achieve big things by starting small. Start with the ONE thing.
If you have a big goal that you want to achieve, say in the next 3 years, you would break your big goals into subgoals and would ask yourself what is this year's milestone or one thing you want to achieve, then what is this month one thing that you need to achieve, break it down to this week one thing and then to today's one thing or now one thing.
Let's take for example the goal of getting a driving licence in the next 6 months. You can easily see the sequence of the different sub actions to be completed within this timeframe. First look for a driving school in your town, sign up with selected school, get your provisional learner's licence, schedule your weekly lessons, take theory test, do the required number of hours of practice, take practical driving test.
1.3) Eisenhower decision making matrix
The main concept of the Eisenhower decision matrix is to organize your tasks by importance and urgency. This was how President Dwight Eisenhower used to manage his tasks and how the method was named after.
Looking at your To-Do list for the next week for example, you can sort them into 4 categories or in a quadrant and apply different work strategies to each :
Your main short term focus. Schedule and do these activities in priority. This is where most of efforts and energy should go
Schedule these activities for a time in the future. No need to clutter your brain with these activities at the moment.
Delegate if you can. Otherwise, spend less time and effort on these activities than doing the most important and urgent activities. If for example, you just need to send some info to one of your contacts, a simple bullet points email will do. No need to do infographics powerpoint document.
Not Important/Not Urgent
Activities that fall in this category should be ignored. Productivity is also about eliminating and not doing certain things.
Evaluate every day and reorganize your activities. Usually it's easier to do that at the end of the day to prepare for tomorrow's game plan. Just take 10-15 minutes as you wind down the day to think about the activities you have to do and organize your upcoming day.
And don't forget that one of the key takeaways in prioritizing is also to stop doing or eliminating activities that do not have an impact. They are often time consuming and drain you of your energy.
2) Break your big project or activity in small parts and take regular breaks
"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time" - African proverb
"If you set out to do big things every week, you do nothing. Set out to do baby steps to get the big things eventually" - Nely Galan, Adelante Movement
We usually overestimate what we can do in a day or a week and underestimate what we can do in a month or a year. And we set out to do big things every day we often end up not doing a lot.
In software development a popular and effective methodology for delivering a product with many features is through iterative development. A product backlog comprising of all required features is done and is then broken down into sprint backlogs, which are subsets of the product backlog. And each 2-3 weeks a sprint backlog is delivered until finally all the product is delivered.
Here are 2 time management techniques to work on specific tasks and stay focused and fresh.
2.1) Pomodoro technique
Created by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro technique is an easy time management method for doing more in less time. It's designed to provide you maximum focus when tackling your tasks and remain fresh without burning out.
Francesco Cirillo used a tomato kitchen timer for this technique. Pomodoro is the italian word for tomato. That's where the name of this technique comes from.
How does it work?
1 - Choose a task you'd like to get done. What matters is that it's something that deserves your full undivided attention. Like writing for example.
2 - Set the pomodoro timer or any other timer (your phone's timer for instance) for 25 minutes. Make a small oath to yourself : I will spend 25 minutes on this task and i will not interrupt myself.
3 - Work on the task until the timer rings.
4 - When the pomodoro rings, put a checkmark on a paper
5 - Take a short 5 minutes break
6 - Every 4 pomodoros, take a longer break. 20 or 30 minutes. Go for a walk and have some fresh air.
If you find 25 minutes too short, you can try a 40 minutes Pomodoro
2.2) Another variant is the 50 minutes Focus
You work on only one task for 50 min and then take a 20 minutes break and then work another 50 minutes. You define a task or a specific part of the task that you can complete in this 50 min slot. If you're writing a blog post for example, you could use a first 50 minute slot to create the outline of your blog post and list the key points you want to write about. Then a second 50 minute slot to write a part of the blog post and so on till you complete your blog post.
Ed Dale, an online entrepreneur and coach, uses and teaches this technique which he calls CFT, critical focus time, for a 50 min unit slot. He believes that you can make really good progress with only 5 CFT every week if you're starting your business while still having your day job.
Here again working on the right tasks is key. You should be working on tasks that will grow your business, like contacting potential clients, business partners, writing a blog post.
However, with both techniques, be aware that you will not be able to maintain the focus and be in the flow state for the whole day. It is more realistic to do two or three really productive CFT in a day rather than five great CFTs in a row.
Experiment with the different techniques and find out what is most relevant and what works best for you.
3) Schedule your priorities and work on them when you're at peak state during the day in the best possible environment
"The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities." - Stephen Covey
3.1) Schedule your top priority tasks to be done at specific times
As the new year begins we often take resolutions to be more healthy by doing more sports this coming year. We go to the gym or start running. We often start off strong with the first sessions. However life takes on and we soon find ourselves failing our resolutions and no longer going to the gym.
However, if you schedule a defined time in your calendar you will increase the probability of doing this activity. Your brain will say that it is important as it's scheduled on your calendar. You will organize yourself to do it. That's why we rarely miss the scheduled doctor's appointment or a client's meeting.
So in the same way, block a defined time when you're not going to be disturbed to work on your most important activities. Protect your important tasks with time blocking.
3.2) Schedule them when you have the most energy/ flow state
If you need to write an important article or report, this would be done easier at a time when you're at your peak energy and most creative. If you decide to work on it right after lunch, you'd probably be a little sleepy while digestion occurs and not make good progress on writing your article. If you're a morning person, then schedule a time in the morning when you're focused. Same applies if you're an evening person. Find what works best for you.
3.3) And in a favourable environment
Try to be in an environment that stimulates or facilitate the activity you have to do. Trying to write an article when you're in a busy cafe, with the kids around or in an open space where you're going to be disturbed every 10 mins might not be the easiest thing to do.
In a nutshell, to become more productive while working less you should :
Analyze what you're doing and focus on the activities that will produce the greatest results. Eliminate tasks that don't really matter. That alone could be a real game changer.
Break the big tasks or projects in smaller tasks. And use time management techniques like Pomodoro with regular breaks to stay fresh.
Schedule specific times to work on your most important tasks. Take advantage of your best moments during the day to get the most important things done. And spend the less optimal times to do less demanding tasks.
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