Having a lot to do isn’t the same as actually getting a lot done. Most of the time, people who have a lot to do end up doing a lot of unimportant, unnecessary things.”
-Leo Babauta, “The Power of Less“
Why are we so rushed these days? One reason is certainly technology. Now that we’re always connected and available, requests and information are being thrown at us constantly, giving the feeling we need to respond and decide ever quicker.
Another is habit and example; as everyone around us responds and decides faster, we naturally feel inclined to do the same. “Taking your time” is also counterintuitive to many productivity methods, which claim you should deal with everything immediately if you can.
In reality there are many cases where taking another day, two, or even three to come to a decision is not such a big deal at all. Everyone else is moving so fast on a million different things anyway, they might not even realise you’re taking your time.
But why should you?
In the past months I’ve gone from a busy management job to working freelance and on my own startup. Since I’m putting in less hours than before, the days naturally seem more relaxed and less exhausting. But when I review my progress by the end of each week, I’m actually accomplishing much more than when I was working my ass off in an office.
There are some obvious factors contributing to this, such as currently not having management responsibilities and not being disturbed by colleague’s at all. But there are other take-aways as well, which anyone can apply, even when you’re facing such inconveniences as bosses and other office-distractions.
1. Working in 90 minute blocks
Office life usually hovers between two different states for most people. One is rushing from one task to to the next, without a break for hours on end, usually when faced with a deadline. The other is a highly distracted mode, often when the pressure is off, switching every 5 mins between a task and checking your email, Facebook and/or Twitter stream.
Both these states are sub-optimal at best. Constantly being distracted obviously doesn’t rhyme with doing great work, but never taking a break is equally bad. Instead I now work blocks of 90 highly focused minutes, usually around four of them per day. During those blocks I don’t allow any distractions, but another key element is the break after each block.
Research shows body and mind can only maintain peak performance for a maximum of 90 minutes*. After that a sizeable break is necessary to replenish your energy reserves. Go for a walk, drink some water, read a book, play a game, whatever helps your mind to relax. Two of those 90 minute blocks with a 15–20 minute break will give you much more bang for your buck, than 200 minutes of non-stop work, guaranteed.
2. Spend time figuring out what is the most important thing you could be doing right now.
Next time you face deadlines, screaming customers and a tyrant of a boss, take a deep breath and five minutes before diving headfirst into your next todo list item or inbox. There are always a few actions which move the needle a lot more than all the others (the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80–20 rule**). It always pays off figuring out which those are, instead of just getting started immediately with whatever is in front of you***.
In project management there is a phenomenon called the “planning fallacy”. It means people always underestimate the amount of time required to complete something. There’s one catch though: when asked anonymously, people usually get the estimate right. This means we adjust our estimates (not necessarily consciously) based on social pressure, making a good impression and other outside expectations (peers, bosses, clients, etc.).
A similar process seems to be at work when prioritizing our todo lists. If we would take a bit of time and choose autonomously, we would know exactly what should be the most important next task to work on. But due to lack of time and external pressures, we end up working on tasks which barely make any difference, but at first sight seem important because they’ve “always been done like that”, or based on agendas and expectations of those around us.
Being more aware of this “prioritization fallacy” and taking a bit of time can help you determine which tasks are truly important. It can also serve as a discussion-starter with those around you how to get rid of unimportant tasks and routines.
4. Decision journal
When faced with a difficult decision, writing it down can be a great way to help bring clarity to a choice. By creating a clear pros and cons overview and the expected outcome of your decision, a sudden clearness seems to arise from within the depths of your mind. There is something magical about getting the decision process out of your head and instead putting it in front of you on paper.
Don’t use this for choices which are instantly obvious. But when you’re going back and forth between a yes or a no, this can be a great way to find the right path.
More details on how to setup and use a decision journal in the excellent Farnam Street article “How Using a Decision Journal can Help you Make Better Decisions” by Shane Parrish.
5. Learn the quick “no” and the slow “yes”
Most of us feel obliged to say “yes” to all kinds of incoming requests and opportunities. This leaves us with a volume of commitments we simply can’t fulfill. Warren Buffett said it best:
The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
By saying “no” to almost everything, you can focus on those few things which are truly important. But saying “no” is hard, so practice to make it your default answer. With a few exceptions, you can usually switch from a ’no’ to a ‘yes’ on second thought. Going from a yes to a no is near impossible in most situations.
What does that have to do with taking your time? When under pressure, we more easily fall back to our default behavior. For most of us, this means saying yes. By taking your time (at least one night’s sleep) to answer any requests for “extended” commitments (lunches, meetings, sitting on a board, writing a regular column, etc.) you will avoid obligations you later regret. If “no” comes hard to you, at least say “need to check my schedule and will get back to you”****.
6. Don’t immediately send out important, yet not urgent emails
It can be tempting to immediately send out exciting / important / once-in-a-life-time emails (or responses to those type of mails). Unfortunately you can’t really pull back an email once it’s been sent and a good night’s sleep might bring a different perspective.
These days instead I draft a response in an Evernote notebook, but then let it sit there for another day, sometimes even two. If there is no life-or-death situation, there is no reason why you should immediately send out your reply. Giving it a bit of time usually leads to some new insights, or at least a better way of phrasing your mail.
Reading all this, you might feel I’m suggesting you to delay your work and put off difficult decisions. But there’s a difference between taking your time to work towards the right decision / action, or simply putting off and delaying. You should actively be working on shaping your thoughts and actions, you just don’t need to immediately act upon your first urges.
As you apply these practices, you’ll make less bad decisions, create fewer commitments you wish you didn’t make, have less emails to answer, and so on. In the end you will come to the same paradoxical conclusion as I did:
Taking your time leads to having more time!
** Read more about the Pareto Principle on Wikipedia.
*** I’ve had the luxury in the past two months of always being able to contemplate what really is the most important thing I could be doing next. I believe it’s one of the key reasons why I feel I haven’t worked extremely hard, but have actually accomplished a lot. I’ve constantly worked only on those 20% percent of things which wield 80% of the results.
**** This principle is beautifully explained (as many other things) in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. The article “Eight Ways to Say No With Grace and Style” gives a nice overview of how you can say no.