“One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.” -Bruce Lee

For well over 20 years I have been obsessed with the idea of how to get more done in a day. If only I could just be faster and more efficient, then I could be more productive and my life would be filled with enviable success. I bought every book and system on time management, getting things done, efficiency and prioritizing.  I’ve owned Franklin Covey planners, digital To-Do applications and created a hundred file folders in my email system to organize it all. I was a firm believer in the results-by-volume approach.

I’ve realized in modeling Geniuses that I had it all wrong. I’ve learned from the world’s best and brightest is that it’s not about doing more, it’s actually all about doing less. It’s not about optimizing a large workload, it’s all about eliminating the workload in the first place.  What can’t get eliminated can get done more effectively by employing a few tricks.

I have a friend who is a high level Executive VP at a Fortune 100 company.  He controls a budget of $700M.  He's a busy guy.  For every 5 emails I send him, he MIGHT respond to one.  And his response will always be one word.  Maybe two. Things like:  “Yes.”  “Interesting.” “Busy.”  Or “On it.”  He never offers to DO anything in email.  In all the years I have known him, he has never initiated an email to me.  And he has trained even his closest friends and colleagues to not expect a response to any email they might send.  Until I realized the brilliance of his strategy, I would tease him that he has the Steve Jobs approach to email.  And then I realized that this was a perfect example of simply doing less. He starts by eliminating.  Then if he decides to engage, it's so short and sweet and to the point that there isn't a wasted word. There is a reason he is at the top. He isn't being rude or dismissive.  He makes lots of time for people in person. He is just prioritizing his output, making sure that he is producing real results, and not getting caught in the email vortex which claims so many lives. Smart. So I started modeling his strategy. It's taken a month or so, but my email volume is way down. I seriously have more hours in my day. If I offend a few people with short responses, I hope they'll forgive me and know that I am now a lot happier because I am spending less time at my computer and more time getting important things done. My fantasy is that more people adopt this strategy.

I was recently asked to share with a large women’s magazine some strategies on how to go from “Being Busy” to “Getting Things Done.”  Below are a few points I shared with the magazine that I have gleaned from spectacularly effective people.  Some of these examples apply to mom’s and women.  Swap out the examples for things in the workplace and you’ll have a winning formula.

1. Be Effective, Not Busy - There is a universal truth that most of us keep ourselves busy to avoid doing the uncomfortable, yet critically important, things in life. We use being busy as an excuse for why we can't get other things done.  For example, many people say "I'm too busy to get to the gym" or "I'm too busy to makes that cold call."  We pride ourselves on getting a lot done, but we never stop to ask ourselves if we are getting the IMPORTANT things done.  Do you really need to find a new job that makes you happy?  Make an uncomfortable sales call?  Find some quiet time to write that book you've always wanted to?  Nearly all of us use the the excuse of 'being busy' to avoid what really matters.  To dramatically change your life, try this exercise:  for 3 full weeks, put an alert on your computer or phone that goes off at 10am, 1pm and 4pm that asks a simple question when you read it "Am I being productive or just active?"  What you are really asking yourself is: are you being busy or are you being effective?  What are the top-three activities that you use to fill time to feel as though you are being productive?  If you want to get control of your time, figure out what really matters and cut out the busy work that you use as a way to avoid the important.  Stop trying to be more efficient.  Focus instead on being more effective.  What is important to get done? Do that and forget the rest.

2. Create "Not To-Do Lists". Just because you've thrown a Fourth of July Party every year, doesn't mean you need to do it again this year. Or just because you attend monthly networking or PTA meetings doesn't mean you need to keep doing it.  The fastest way to get through your work is simply to eliminate some of it. Spend an hour really looking at how you spend your time in a month, whether it's on social commitments, roles you've taken on at work, tasks you consistently do at home, etc., and decide what you aren't going to do. For example, many people have significantly cut back on their Christmas gift giving list. Or have outsourced their lawn care to a local kid in the neighborhood.  Take a really hard look at your list and make some tough decisions.  Although you might feel obligated to volunteer at your child's school event, give yourself permission to take a year off. Decide HOW you want to spend your time and then eliminate activities that take up a lot of time but don't serve your or your families goals.  It's OK to not respond to every email these days. And it’s ok to ask your boss to help you prioritize your work and eliminate the low value tasks. The best question to ask to figure out what's important and what's not is: If you had a gun to your head and HAD to stop doing 4/5 of different time-consuming activities (e.g., email, phone calls, conversations, paperwork, meetings, driving, services, etc.), what would you remove that would keep the negative effect on income to a minimum? Train people not to expect email responses, or that you'll show up to every meeting.  Get clear about your Not To-Do list and then share that list with people.  They'll respect you for it.

3. Make Tight Deadlines Your Friend - Do you ever wonder how you are able to get about three weeks of work done in the day before you leave for vacation? Where without such a deadline that same work would take you, well, three weeks? This phenomenon has actually been extensively studied and has a name: Parkinson's Law.  Parkinson's Law states that a task will swell is (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for it's completion.  It's is the magic of the imminent deadline.  The shorter the deadline, the greater the focus. The longer the deadline, the bigger monster in your mind you create.  So if you have a large to-do list, take the related tasks, batch them up and then give yourself a tight deadline in which to complete them. Tight deadline require focus so be sure an eliminate distractions like email, text messages, Facebook, etc. when you work on them. Physically remove the distractions from your space.  If you need to focus on something, lock your phone in the car outside and disable the internet on your computer. Put yourself in a place to focus and set a timer with a goal for what you want to complete in that amount of time.

4. Use a Magical Motivation Strategy - It's pretty hard to get motivated when you read through your To-Do list and see items like "Clean the Garage," "Weed the Garden," "Research Summer Camps," and "Write the Report for my Boss."  The problem with To-Do lists is that when we read them, we put ourselves in the mental act of doing the work that often, in and of itself, is not all that fun. Highly effective people make "Goal Lists" instead of To-Do lists. This focus their attention on result instead of the work involved.  Change your list to read, "Sparkly Clean Garage," "Healthy, Beautiful and Weed Free Garden ," "Summer Camp Registration Complete," and "Boss is Raving about my Completed Report."  By focusing on the goal and mentally stepping into the good feelings you get from achieving the goal, you are naturally more motivated to complete the work.  And it feels more fun.

5. Batch Your Activities - This might sound obvious, but it's amazing how many people don't think about batching up activities to save time.  If it takes 10 minutes to drive to the store, the post office, the mall, a meeting or whatever, you can figure it's 20+ minutes roundtrip for one errand.  It's actually more because you have to spend time getting ready to leave the house/office and then more time getting back into the groove.  So really a trip to the store is more like 30-40 minutes in transit, plus the time it takes you at the store.  The same goes for meetings.  One of the fastest ways to increase productivity is to batch up activities.   Batching up errands and meetings is the simplest.  Run a whole bunch of errands at once. You can also batch up things like calling friends and family.  Allocate 2 hours once a week to calling everyone.  Or batch up 3 coffee dates with friends or colleagues all in one afternoon.  Batch up bill paying, home maintenance, laundry, etc. into chunks of time where you can get a lot of it done at once.  If you have a ton of laundry to do, it's probably faster to get it all done at once at the laundromat rather than interrupting your work every 30 minutes at home to get it done.  Think of how you could batch your meetings or calls at work.  Doing things one at a time is a huge waste because of the set-up and transition time between activities.  Batching will give you back countless lost, unproductive hours in your week.

One of the best books I ever read on being more effective is The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss .  If you're interested in more strategies on being effective, read Chapter 5: “The End of Time Management” pages 67-85.   And Chapter 7: “Interrupting Interruption and Art of Refusal”, pages 94-118.  (And there is another strategy of genius.  Don’t read a whole “How To” book from cover to cover.  Find the salient bits and just read those parts.  See now, I just saved you 10 hours.)

 

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