Why Doing Less Can Increase Your Productivity

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It’s 8:22am and I’ve just finished my morning coffee. If I took a moment to write down a list of the things I’d like to be able to do today in addition to the things I need to do today, I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t be able to keep it to one A4 page. Naturally, work looms the largest. Sleep comes as the second-place essential (and only relegated to second place due to being regularly compromised by the stresses of work which often bleed into other entries on the list). Making time for family and maintaining an exercise regime would perhaps conclude the list of necessities.

Beyond these essentials, the list of activities I’d like to do is vast and ever-growing as year-in and year-out it is neglected. As I write this, my increasingly fortified backlog of book acquisitions are staring me down from my nightstand across the room, my cello is gradually mummifying atop my wardrobe with tuning pegs threatening to fuse in place the longer I forego practice and my Duolingo Mandarin course is heading for a further anniversary of dormancy. Cheers to you if you also struggle to manage your time.

Due to how time intensive the essentials can be, it is easy to neglect the “non-essentials” as unimportant. But if I am unable to erase these activities from the hypothetical would-like-to-do list, perhaps they are not non-essentials after all.

“There is no such thing as a work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”

– Alain De Botton

Pick Three

I have just finished reading Pick Three by Randi Zuckerberg. Randi explores the idea that, in order to make time for everything we want to do, we firstly need to be selective in our hypothetical to-do list and, crucially, we must strive to carry out no more than three of these tasks per day. By focusing on just three things, the idea is that you will be able to apply yourself fully to those activities (rather than ineffectively applying yourself to a greater number of tasks and spreading yourself too thin).

I think this makes a lot of sense. By attempting to get through too many different things in any one 24 hour period, we are bound not to produce anything like the quality or quantity of results that would be expected in limiting our remit to just three pre-chosen endeavours. For one, it takes a certain amount of time just to apply your mind to a new task and change into the appropriate gear. If you are intentionally and frequently interrupting yourself right at the moment when you are settling into the current task’s rhythm and transferring your attention to something else, your ultimate output is bound to suffer. This applies to your output as a hobbyist baker as equally as it applies to your effort at a family gathering (for example, by trying to simultaneously deal with work emails). In Randi’s eyes, the old adage “less is more” is apt. I would tend to agree.

I often find myself putting off things I want to do because they require active participation and are time-intensive. Take reading as a simple example. When you have just finished work, eaten dinner and are left with perhaps an hour and a half before you must begin your pre-bed routine, it is very easy to allow your list to overwhelm you leading to hesitation, procrastination and ultimately Netflix (as you conclude that the time which now remains is not sufficient to make a start on your new book). Although I am unsure where reading would sit in Randi’s five core activities (being Work, Sleep, Family, Fitness and Friends – there does not appear to be a “recreation” category), her idea that you should plan your schedule in advance and stick to it is spot on. Properly structuring your day will inevitably improve productivity as you avoid rinsing time away through indecision.

Randi’s hypothetical list of things she would want to achieve on a daily basis (time being no object) is perhaps a little more exotic than the average individual (involving planning her travel for her 40+ speaking arrangements each year, running her business, upholding her board of directors obligations and preparing and hosting her radio show), but her suggestion that we could all stand to improve our productivity by narrowing the number of tasks we tackle each day is universal no matter the specific entries on your list. I note that a number of Amazon reviews of this book are quick to be dismissive of her ideas due to her relatively comfortable life and upbringing, but this strikes me as unfair particularly as she acknowledges her advantages and that, inevitably, everyone’s circumstances are unique. It is to be expected that there will be a broad spectrum in each readers’ flexibility to “pick” how they use their time. However, even if we are only able to apply Randi’s suggestions to the degree we have control over our time, some great productivity gains can still be made.

We currently live in a time of infinite distractions and, correspondingly, infinite opportunity for procrastination. Individuals who may well have a degree of flexibility in their lives squander that free time through the infinite social media scroll of Facebook and Instagram and the relentless new content of Netflix. When working out in the gym, I often find myself checking email or social media while resting between exercises to pass the time, but in doing so, what should have been a two minute rest period somehow ends up a five minute rest period. Randi is therefore right on in promoting the importance of focus (which she describes as becoming “lopsided” in favour of your chosen activity).

The two things I find most effective in keeping myself focused and on task are (1) physically writing down my schedule for the day ahead on a piece of paper and tacking that schedule within eyesight; (2) setting timers on my iPhone (via the clock function) requiring that I work for fifty five minutes uninterrupted, followed by a five minute break (which I also time) and (3) for any tasks which have deadlines, setting my own shorter deadlines (as I have a habit of using all of the time allotted no matter the deadline). By maintaining these practices and being disciplined in not reacting to distractions (primarily being incoming emails), it is surprising how much more work I find myself getting through. Structuring your day is essential.

Guilt is another interesting emotion which Pick Three picks up on. In addition to narrowing your day to just three key pursuits, Randi underlines that it is equally as important to cast your other to-dos from your mind and not feel that you are neglecting them when you are settling down to the next Pick. You have chosen to perform the current activity in advance, so give it your undivided attention and do not get sidetracked. If the particular task you have chosen is not as exciting as the activity which you have planned to follow, focusing on the less desirable activity now without distraction is a guaranteed way that you will conclude that task sooner than had you succumbed to distractions. For the entrepreneurs and careerists among you, realise that it is not essential to monetise every waking moment of your life. Keep non-work-related activities non-work-related and give them the attention they deserve.

Overall, the Pick Three idea is a simple and effective way to make time for each of the activities and aspirations on your list, in theory. However, from Randi’s own experiences and the experiences of individuals she cites who are similarly career or entrepreneurially-orientated, it appears to be difficult to actually put “Pick Three” into practice consistently, if at all.

For the majority of individuals, work tends to be more of a permanent fixture of the tripartite rather than an option capable of being benched in favour of a lie-in. It also has a habit of taking the lion’s share of the three Picks’ pieces of time-pie. Granted, if you are working on the genesis of a tech start-up (as Randi was with Facebook), it is inevitable that you will need to make compromises in pursuing your other outlets. Similarly, if you are pursuing a top career, the book would be more appropriately titled “You Get One: Work”. This is a given and Randi acknowledges this. The point is that, if it is not your intention for work to be the be-all-and-end-all and if you place equal value on your hobbies, health, family and social life, you should ensure that your work life is not eating into the amount of time you have for the other things that are important to you.

If you are finding that your work life is so all-consuming that you would not even be able to try the Pick Three method, perhaps now is the time to consider becoming a “work renovator”, as Randi puts it. There may be a less time-intensive alternative career right around the corner which could finally free up the time for you to pursue your side project idea, start a family and/or achieve your fitness goals.

One of the matters I disagree with Randi on is her inclusion of sleep within the options for picking three. After reading Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep (the author of which Randi has interviewed and quotes within the book), it appears counterintuitive to suggest that sleep can be foregone on a regular basis if the aim of the book is to promote maximum productivity and performance in each area of your life. I appreciate that there are exceptions where sleep deprivation is unavoidable (new parents, medical staff etc.), but those who have the opportunity to obtain good sleep should not consider it optional and should try to prioritise it as non-negotiable. This sentiment appears to be shared by Arianna Huffington (founder of the Huffington Post) in Pick Three who in turn cites Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) and Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) as further advocates of obtaining a full eight hours’ sleep each night to “enhance your ability to do almost everything”. I note that Randi’s travel-intensive work schedule regularly requires her to forego sleep and disrupt her circadian rhythm regularly, but based on my reading of Why We Sleep, this is not a healthy or sustainable course of action to be following in the long run.

Update: I’ve now written an article setting out my top 5 tips for improving sleep quality and duration.

In summary, if you’re finding your work-life balance to be rather unbalanced at the moment and neglecting your to-do list (like me), I’d recommend picking up Pick Three for a no-nonsense and upbeat angle on how you can sort your life out. It’s a light read which you can likely polish off in a day or two from a modern author who understands the importance of prioritisation in a chaotic and distracting world. I’ve embedded links to the book on Amazon below.

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

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