You may be leaking precious time and energy without even realizing if you don’t ask few important productivity questions. Here they are:
1. Do I even need to do this task?
You had to take Exit 198 on highway I-40 to reach Flagstaff, AZ. You took 188. After driving some distance, you start optimizing for the shortest path to your destination in the town.
That’s optimizing a wrong path. Useless, right? And by the time you realize your folly (198 vs. 188), you would have wasted lot of time.
What should you’ve done instead?
You should have been more careful, may be stopped, when you came to that Exit.
So, for example, before spending hours writing down the difficult problems and their solutions (for later reference) you come across when studying math, think if there is an alternative. Could you have got the same benefit in much, much less time by highlighting the question in the material itself?
In short, before doing something that requires lot of time and/ or money, pause, and ask yourself, “Do I even need to do this?” On some occasions – but not always – you’ll find far more efficient alternative solutions.
2. Am I really working 12+ hours?
To give a real situation, here is how it unfolds:
You start at 7 AM to complete a task by afternoon – more of your commitment than any externally-enforced deadline.
Right at the beginning, you pull off two hours of solid work with just a small break in between. And then you stop for breakfast.
“I’m on track,” you think.
After the breakfast, you decide to take a peek at the newspaper, your regular morning routine, after all the progress has been satisfactory so far. When you put down the newspaper, the break had extended by 30 minutes.
You curse the newspaper editors for carrying too many juicy news that day, and return to work. By now, an hour has passed since the last work session.
You’re barely 20 minutes into the work, when you receive call from a friend. “Should I take it now?” you think hard considering the importance of the work you’re on, but then you take it, vowing to keep the call under 5 minutes.
When you hang up, another 20 minutes are gone.
At that point, you decide to make use of the unintended break – the phone call – by making online payments for your pending phone, internet, and utility bills. (After all, you’ve recently learnt that one should bunch all distractions together and finish them off in one short time-slot.)
After making the payments, you resume work. Put in an hour, and take a short break.
In the break, you check emails, surf your favorite websites, follow links from there to visit few other websites, and, in the end, also organize your room. The break, naturally, stretches somewhat.
Eventually, by 2 PM, you put in just around four hours of work, completing just 60 percent of the work.
An overwhelming majority thinks they’re working hard, sticking to their plans, putting in 12+ hours of work every day. But… in reality, not so much. They drift, and get back on track several times in the day. Some waste as much as 50 percent of their time. Significant.
And we don’t even realize we’re wasting so much time, because most distractions are either pleasurable or low-effort activities wherein time just flies. (Time passes quickly when you’re watching TV, right? And… when you’re working on something serious? Hmm…)
In his book Extreme Productivity, Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and former vice chairman of Fidelity Investments, emphasizes that we’re usually a poor judge of how much time we devote to different tasks:
Suppose you won $100,000 on a game show and I asked you after one year what you had done with that money. You would probably be able to tell me how much you had spent on what and how much you had saved. But unless you bill your time by the hour, you probably have only a vague sense of how much time you’ve devoted to various tasks and functions over the last year [emphasis mine].
As Dr. Pozen points out, unless you monitor where you’re spending your hours in the day, you may not even realize you’re wasting hours together. (And unless you realize, you won’t take corrective steps to plug the leak.)
Therefore, the key to know if you’re wasting time or not is to honestly review and write down where you’re spending every hour of your day, 2-3 times a week in the beginning and then once a week. And if you find that bad, time-wasting habits are eating into your time, then shed them ruthlessly. This is critical, and will save you lot of time. There is no point in fooling yourself that you’re putting in 8+ or 12+ hours.
An effective way to monitor your productive hours is to fix the duration of your work sessions (ideally, an hour), block all distractions, and set a countdown running. The countdown serves two purposes: one, it has a psychological effect of making us more focused; two, by counting the number of sessions in a day, you get a sense of your productive time in the day.
3. Am I doing enough to replace time-wasting, addictive habits?
I learnt this in the process of giving up an addictive TV program.
I did a simple maneuver in my schedule. I took to a low-effort (that’s important!), but productive, task 10-15 minutes before the program started. It’s even better if you enjoy the task. I took to reading my favorite blogs or a book – something I enjoy, and these are also productive for me – few minutes before the program started.
Because reading was a low-effort and productive task (productive also meant a bit of push to my motivation), the temptation to quit it in favor of TV wasn’t strong. Therefore, I could do it. And in few weeks, I just lost the urge to watch it.
A new, better habit formed.
Reading may not be a replacement for everyone, though. You may find your own replacement keeping in mind that, first, it’s easy and, second, it’s productive (otherwise, why not just watch TV). For instance, you may study the subject you find easy or do some mechanical stuff that doesn’t tax you much during this time.
4. Am I matching my energy level with the difficulty of the task?
Let me explain.
Have you tried accomplishing a difficult task in the evening after a busy day?
You’ll struggle to focus and shore up your willpower required for the challenging task. Isn’t it? This is because you’re not at your peak, mentally and physically, after expending energy through the day. In this particular case, you’re grossly mismatching your energy level with the difficulty of task at hand. In other words, you’re trying to shoot down an elephant with a shotgun.
But if you take up the same task in the morning (or whenever you feel you’re at peak energy level), you’ll do better. Here, you’re matching your energy level with the difficulty of the task. In other words, you’re trying to shoot down an elephant with a canon, the right match.
Got the point!
Match your energy level with the difficulty of the task. Plan your day. Take up difficult tasks when you’re well rested, easier ones, when not.
But what do procrastinators do?
Just the opposite.
They start the day with easy-to-accomplish items – trying to shoot down a mouse with a canon – to get false sense of gratification and push the difficult tasks back.
This fundamental productivity principle, though, is one of the most neglected. Most go through their day without consciously matching their energy level with the difficulty of the task, and, as a result, get less accomplished each day.