“Focus on being productive, not being busy” – Tim Ferriss
In the Four-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss says that, for most of us, being “busy” instead of actually productive is our default. I have considered myself a productivity nut for a long time, but, Tim’s idea still came as a revelation for me. Tim is 100% correct.
We who pride ourselves on being “productive” are usually focused on crossing off as many tasks on our todo list as possible. It feels good to cross each task off. Sometimes, we add an already completed item to the list just so that we can cross it off. At the end of the day, we can say “wow, I knocked out 12 items today” as we contort to pat ourselves on the back.
But, this method of productivity is a trick we play on ourselves.
Here’s the root problem: once all our todos are on a list together, it’s easy to fall into thinking that they are all at least somewhat equivalent in importance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The most important thing you could do today is probably 100X to 1,000X times more impactful than the least-important task that you could do.
You should ask yourself, “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will be I happy?” – Tim Ferriss
What really matters is not “how many boxes did I check today?”, but, “what impact did I have today?”
You could do just one important task today and accomplish something very impactful. By the same token, you can check off 10+ low-impact tasks today and not make a bit of real difference.
The group that is doing just 1 truly important task per day will outperform the group doing 10+ low-impact tasks per day by thousands of miles over a lifetime.
This sounds obvious, but if it is, why do so many of us waste so much time on obviously unimportant and trivial things?
How do we separate the important from the unimportant? Tim suggests asking yourself about each of your tasks, “What will happen if I don’t do this?”
I think that’s a great place to start… if nothing will happen if you don’t do something, there is no reason to do it all. If nothing will happen for a while, then there is, at least, no reason to do the task right now. Not when there are better ways to spend today’s hours.
An important question for today is “What could I do today that would create some meaningful impact on my life? Or the life of my loved ones?”
If you ask these questions of your todo list items, you will find that some tasks are highly impactful while others should probably not even be on your list. Some items represent a possible 8, 9, or 10 positive impact. Others represent a 1, 2, or even a zero.
“If you don’t identify the critical tasks and set aggressive deadlines, the unimportant becomes the important.” – Tim Ferriss
Often, the most important thing you can do is the task that you are most uncomfortable with. If in doubt of what is most important on your list, start by focusing there.
This is the task that you have told yourself is too time-consuming, too hard. Or the one you don’t want to even think about. It’s the one that you have put off for weeks while you are ticking off all those low-impact, easy tasks and putting out unimportant fires. Even if the uncomfortable task is not the absolute most important, getting it done will give you some great mental and emotional momentum to carry forward.
Past that, you should look for a task that has high upside. Look for a task that can be a “lead domino” that, by achieving this one task, you make your other tasks easier or less important.
For example, instead of focusing on that paperwork in front of you, ask what you work on that would make you enough money that you can hire someone to do the paperwork for you in the future? Or could you hire someone today and focus your efforts on something more rewarding immediately?
Are you just keeping the trains running on time? Or are you making an impact and moving forward?
Do you ever feel like you are doing lots of things, but, nothing is changing? No progress is being made? This is happening because the actual most important thing that you could be doing isn’t on your list at all. “Missed opportunities” quietly slip by instead of being loud squeaky wheels that demand your attention.
I can’t stress this enough – many lives have been wasted toiling away in a reactive cycle of dealing with unimportant tasks.
Get proactive. Make things happen. Come up with new tasks that will make tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year better than today. Open your mind up to what is possible and stop just reacting.
What could you do or what do you want to do? What is possible for you to achieve if you devote and energy to it? There is some path out there that can offer you enormous impact & upside… what is it? Put that thing on your list. You are the only person in existence who can do this for yourself. Everyone else will gladly add their priorities to your todo list, only you will add yours.
Give that important thing the kind of attention and energy that you gave all those less important tasks that you put on a todo list. Stop letting your todo list be a list of other people’s priorities and unimportant fires that you are putting out.
Get some clarity on what is important, remove the clutter, and free up some mental cycles to get on offense.
“A task will swell in perceived importance & complexity in relation to the time allotted to it” – Parkinson’s Law
Once you’ve made sure that your most important tasks are actually on your todo list, now you can get to work.
Remove the low-to-no impact items from your list entirely. Yes, that’s right, get rid of of them. Find a way to eliminate/automate those low-priority tasks, delegate them, or just let them go undone (if the impact of doing so is low or nonexistent) and remove from them from your list. These items are clutter that distracts from what is important.
That leaves only the high-impact, important items. You should now ruthlessly focus your time and energy on executing these high-impact items. You will check off less boxes on your todo list each day, but, more things will happen.
If you want to have a fulfilling life you need to work on developing a proactive mindset about your life. Then, focus your limited time & energy on executing on what is important and achieving high-impact goals.
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I highly recommend Tim Ferriss’ Four-Hour Workweek (click here to check it out on Amazon), it’s on my list of 8 Books with the Highest ROI (click here to read the list).
Why is that we all have only 24 hours in a day, yet some can achieve so much more than others?
Understanding this phenomenon starts by realizing one important fact – our time and energy are very limited resources. They are also our most valuable resources.
Every time that we choose to spend time or energy on one thing, we are left with less to spend on other things. I, personally, feel that most of us develop bad habits when we are young… young people have a surplus of both time and energy. There is a tendency to “carry forward” the attitude of being overly free with both into adulthood.
So, here’s the trick: focus 100% of your time and energy on the things that you can control. Spend 0% of your time & energy on the things that you can’t control.
The default behavior for the average person is to spend the majority of their time and energy worrying over things they can’t control. News, sports, gossip, decisions that are for others to make. Yes, even mindlessly scrolling Facebook on your phone for 15 minutes is burning precious time and brain cycles.
In addition to lost time & energy, these things we can’t control (politics, sports, etc.) can cause us stress. Stress further damages our ability to be productive and makes us unhappy.
When we focus on things we can control, we feel empowered. When we focus on things we can’t control, we feel powerless.
The lesson that high performers teach us is that those who tune out the distractions and get focused can achieve amazing results. When you dig into high performers and their habits, laser-like focus (and the accompanying ignorance of trivial matters) is the most commonly shared behavior among all different types of high performers.
Why do high performers achieve more in 24 hours than the average person?
Ferriss encourages avoidance of media which has no impact on your goals. To have good ideas and to be productive, we must “turn down the noise”, Ferriss warns us. Ferriss was warning us of this way back in 2008, the noise has only cranked up in recent years.
At the other end of the spectrum from author/entrepreneur Ferriss, we have University of Alabama Football Coach Nick Saban. Focusing only on what you can control is the cornerstone of the system that Saban calls “The Process”. The Process has netted Saban multiple national championships and the most dominant college football dynasty in decades.
The only media consumed by Saban is 10 minutes of the Weather Channel each morning while having coffee with this wife. When asked about the 2016 Presidential Election the day after the election, Saban answered that he “didn’t even know that yesterday was Election Day”. He didn’t appear to be joking. It’s not a coincidence that this was in the middle of football season.
Saban is also the same man who, in 2006, famously skipped dinner with President George W. Bush because his Dolphins team had practice (not a game) that night.
Saban continually coaches his players to think only about the current play, the present moment. He tells them not to think about what the score is or what the outcome of the game is. For Saban, it is all about complete and total focus only on what you can control at this very moment.
In Ryan Holiday’s words in The Obstacle is the Way:
Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power. But, every ounce of energy directed at things we can’t actually influence is wasted… So much power – ours and other people’s – is frittered away in this manner.
What are the things you can can control? “Our emotions, our judgments, our creativity, our attitude, our perspective, our desires, our decisions, our determination” according to Holiday.
The things you can’t control? Who is President, who won the Broncos game, what Kim Kardashian did today. Quit opening the news app. Unfollow those noisy folks on Facebook that are going on and on about these things. Turn off notifications for non-essential apps.
There are less obvious things we can’t control that can sap our time & energy. You can’t control if the customer accepts your proposal. You can only control giving the best proposal possible. If you are part of a team pursuing a goal, you can’t always control if your team achieves the goal or not. But, you can control whether or not you gave your best effort.
Even in your own life, you can only control your end of the deal. Focus your time and energy on that. Focus in on the things that you can control. Leave the rest. Simple, but, by no means easy.
Your career, your family, your friends, your dreams, your happiness and fulfillment are the things that deserve your time and energy.
The events that our society watches from afar and talks endlessly about will only waste your time and energy away. The same goes for burning time and energy worrying over the choices that are up to others to make.
If you tune these things out and focus 100% on what you can control, you will seem unusual to many people. But, those who are the most successful always seem unusual to everyone else.
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This post summarizes some concepts from The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Check out the full book, The Obstacle is the Way on Amazon by clicking here.
We used the above images in accordance with the Wikimedia Commons license.
This is the simplest way that I have found to track todos sent to you in email. This tweak to how you use your email inbox will ensure that an important task in an email never slips through the cracks again and will boost your peace of mind and productivity.
I’ve been told by a number of friends & clients that this is my best productivity tip because it’s so simple to enact and a very high return on investment.
It’s really pretty simple. Just like it says in the title, just use your email inbox as a todo list. Don’t leave a message in your email inbox unless an action needs to be taken with the email. This is the key.
Everything that needs no further action taken is archived or moved to a different folder. At any given time, only a handful of emails should be in your inbox and you should be able to scroll just a little bit and see your entire inbox contents and get a feel for actions you need to take.
Now let’s look at how it works from a very tactical level.
Use Archive to remove email messages instead of Delete. If you are using Gmail, you probably doing this already. If you are using something else, you may not.
You will be much more confident in clearing & managing your inbox if you know that a message moved out of the inbox is not gone forever, it’s moved to your Archive. You can use your email’s Archive function (Gmail moves messages to ‘All Mail’) or you can just move messages to a folder of your choosing. But, use Archive to get rid of messages instead of deleting them. Worst case, you can always search and find the message again one day.
Make sure to set your smartphone 0r tablet to Archive as well as your desktop client (again, default for most Gmail clients).
Create 3 email folders in addition to your Inbox:
We will cover the use of these below.
Now we are ready to get started. There are really only 6 statuses of messages that can occur. The processing guidelines for all 6 of them are below.
Hold a review of your Inbox, To Do, and Follow Up folders weekly. You will often fall off in managing your Inbox during the craziness of the week. This is normal and expected. You don’t need to stress about managing your inbox every single day. This review is your chance to catch everything up.
Go through your Inbox during your Review and look at every message that remains. Then take the appropriate actions described above.
If you want to finish your Review with a completely empty Inbox, you can move “action to be taken” emails to your To Do folder rather than leaving in your Inbox.
I like to do Reviews on Friday afternoons. This sends me into the weekend with the feeling that I have reviewed everything on my plate. Ever get all caught up before vacation and leave with peace of mind? Doing this gives you that feeling every weekend.
However, you can do this any time of week that you like. Use a calendar event or reminder to so that you don’t forget, especially while you develop the habit.
Declare Inbox Bankruptcy. Go back 2 weeks, 2 months, or any time period you are comfortable with and Archive every email before that point. You can use some kind of “Select All” function to get this done quickly.
This gives you a manageable collection of emails to work through from the past few weeks. Most of those old emails are either long since dealt with or it’s too late to act on them anyway.
If you really want to make sure nothing slips through, also send an email to your contact saying:
My email inbox has become unmanageable due to a high volume of email and I have archived many of my old emails. If you are waiting on something from me and haven’t heard back, please send me another email. I’ve adopted a new email management system and I will make 100% sure that your request is processed this time.
All the best,
This method of managing email has been tremendously helpful to me in reducing email-related information & tasks overwhelm. Let me know what you think in the comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonus Tip – consider turning off notifications for new emails, as detailed in this post about how Notifications are probably silently killing your productivity.
Book: Inspired by The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Do you ever pick up your smartphone for a specific purpose and get distracted by notifications?
The unread app notification that is staring you in the face can be impossible to resist. Next thing you know, you open the app. Then, you’re scrolling through the News Feed. 15 minutes, 10 cat videos, and 20 political posts later, you realize you never did what you intended to. That is, if you are lucky enough to remember that you set out to do something at all.
This repeating process costs minutes or even hours of possible productive time per day every day. If it happens often enough enough, you may never get enough momentum to hit peak performance at all in a given day.
Turn off notifications for Facebook, other social media like Twitter and Snapchat, and other non time-sensitive “time spenders” like News and Reddit. Check these apps on a schedule. Aim to only check them 2 to 3 times per day. Lunchtime and after dinner are good times for this.
For an app to be able to notify you, its notifications should meet all 3 of the below criteria:
Important information that is neither actionable nor time-sensitive can be reviewed at any time so check it on its own schedule.
Non-important information can always wait. Your productivity and focus are your most important assets and shouldn’t be sacrificed for matters that are not truly important.
Save your notifications for activities that meet all 3 criteria above – Actionable, Time-Sensitive, and Important.
“What if I don’t see Notification XYZ for several hours? Won’t that cause me problems?”
There is very little on social media or news apps that can’t wait for a few hours. “Breaking” news almost never requires action by you. You can wait a few hours and get the complete story at your leisure. There is no need to be interrupted from the task at hand to learn about the nonessential happening elsewhere.
“You didn’t include email as a “must” in your app list”
Email is a non-priority method of communication for most of us. It’s sometimes important, but, it’s usually not that time-sensitive. I can pretty much always deal with an email tomorrow and it’s fine. A large portion of email isn’t really actionable. Email is also, by far, the most “spammy” application that most of us have. So, I turned email notifications off. I check email a handful of times per day, but, I don’t let it interrupt what I’m doing.
Related: You might also enjoy my post on how to use your email as a todo list and save a lot of time and stress.
In my opinion, as a general rule, you should leave smartphone notifications on only for:
Depending on your specific career, other apps may also qualify as time-sensitive, actionable, and important apps, but, probably not many.
Don’t let the nonessential distract you. Build momentum and focus and get things done in the best way possible without distractions.
Enjoyed this post? Consider checking out the full Four-Hour Workweek on Amazon by clicking here. This post is inspired by concepts from the Four-Hour Workweek… the 4HW was released in 2008 and focused on email and Blackberry notifications. In the modern world, I felt that focusing on Facebook and other social media notifications was a more modern take on the issue.
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