zen habits : breathe

The Really Simple Way to Get Work Done

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Scott Young of ScottHYoung.com

Imagine getting a full day’s work done by noon. Sounds impossible, right? But it really shouldn’t be. If you eliminated all the time you spend procrastinating, distracted or stalled, getting a full day of work done by noon could be realized.

But being so productive is easier said than done. Most productivity advice comes in one of two flavors. Either slogans like, “Do it now!” which rarely work long-term, or complex systems like GTD, which work well, but require dozens of lists and obsessive dedication to pull off.

I want to share with you a third alternative. An approach that uses the psychology of procrastination to keep you focused while being simple enough that it needs little effort to maintain.

The Psychology of Procrastination

Before I explain the cure, let’s look at the illness. Everybody procrastinates. But if you ask why, most people will shrug and say something about lacking self-discipline or motivation.

Maybe that’s true in some cases. But for most people, I wouldn’t blame laziness or apathy. Instead, I want to suggest some non-obvious causes of procrastination that I’ve found create the biggest problems.

Procrastination Cause #1: Not Knowing When to Stop

Procrastination isn’t mostly about knowing when to start. It’s about knowing when to stop.

At first, this doesn’t make much sense. You need to begin in order to finish, and if you began, you would no longer be procrastinating. But this logic is misleading.

A big cause of procrastination is fear of the infinite to-do list. This is the underlying stress that comes from feeling that there is too much work ahead, and so any effort won’t make much of a dent in the short term.

You can short-circuit this stress by having a clearly defined end-point for your work. With a finish line in sight, it is much easier to summon up the energy to sprint ahead and cross it.

Procrastination Cause #2: Measuring Work in Hours, Not Tasks

Measuring work by hours spent, not tasks accomplished, is an accounting simplification from the industrial age. If you work in a creative or knowledge-based field, work completed matters infinitely more than raw hours invested.

The saying, “what is measured, improves,” applies. When you measure your work by the hours spent, you don’t invest the same energy and focus that you would if you measured by tasks finished.

Even if your job forces you to work on the clock, you can use your personal productivity system to get more done. Switching to a task-based system allows you to focus on work finished, not hours wasted.

Procrastination Cause #3: Using Time-Management

One book changed my life. It was a relatively unheard-of title, The Power of Full Engagement. In it, the authors show why time management is a lousy way to get work done. Instead, they suggest an alternative: energy management.

The basic concept is that your energy, not time, is what matters when getting work done. It only takes a casual observation to realize this is true. With a lot of focus and enthusiasm you can often get done triple the work in the same period of time. Whereas, working a 16-hour day instead of an 8-hour one is just a recipe for burnout.

From this perspective, procrastination isn’t always a character defect; it often happens because you’re exhausted. If you manage your work in bursts of extreme productivity followed by energy recovery, you’ll perform better.

The Really Simple Productivity System

Taking these three principles: know when to stop; tasks, not time; and energy management, I’ve managed to build an extremely simple system for getting work done.

When I first started using this approach, my productivity doubled. Before I adjusted to my new level of productivity, I quite often finished a formerly full day’s work before noon. Now I’ve been using it for over three years without difficulties, and I’ll share it with you here.

The system breaks down to just three rules:

  1. At the end of each week, make a new to-do list entitled, “Weekly Goals”. Write everything you want to accomplish in the next seven days.
  2. Every night, make a new to-do list entitled, “Daily Goals”. Pull from your weekly list and routine every task you want to finish tomorrow.
  3. During your workday, focus only on completing the daily list. Pretend your other work doesn’t exist. When you’ve finished the daily list, you’re done for the day and you’re not allowed to add more work.

Three rules and two to-do lists is such a brainless system it’s easy to miss the psychological power of it.

First, by making your daily goals the entirety of work you can accomplish, you develop a laser focus to get everything done. Knowing you can relax guilt-free after finishing makes you far more motivated to work hard than traditional, infinite to-do list systems.

Second, the weekly goals avoid meta-procrastination, in making deliberately small daily goals lists which miss your important work. This also helps minimize the guilt for relaxing, by knowing you’re on track throughout the week, even if you finish early on one day.

Finally, it’s easy to maintain. Systems such as GTD work well for hyper-organized individuals, but I’m just too disorganized to keep it up. I wanted an approach where I spent time focusing on getting work done, not worrying about all the lists and action item folders I had created.

Can You Use This System in a 9-5 Job?

For students, freelancers, entrepreneurs or employees in a results-only work environment, this system will work as-is. But what if you can’t end your day at 2pm, just because you’ve finished all your daily goals?

First, your employers are paying for you to accomplish work, not just sit at a desk. In Tim Ferriss’ bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek, he discusses a lot of negotiation tactics to enable you to work less, provided your productivity increases. It may not work for everyone, but it’s worth considering.

Second, you can modify this approach to subdivide your work into hard and important tasks and easy, less important tasks. Similar to Leo’s own most-important-tasks idea, you can make your daily goals consist of the hard, difficult work you normally find yourself procrastinating on. Then, if you finish early you can do the easier work that typically fills your distractions.

Stress Less, Accomplish More

An unexpected side-effect from starting this system was my stress levels went way down. Because I was no longer feeling guilty about finishing my workday, and I was procrastinating less, a lot of stress vanished.

Simple tools are often the best. This one can be done with a single piece of paper, pencil and three rules. But it encapsulates a lot of the tricks to avoid procrastination that more complex systems possess, without the stress of maintaining them.

Scott Young writes a popular self-improvement blog. If you liked this article, you can join Scott’s free newsletter, Learn Faster, Achieve More, to get your free copy of his rapid learning ebook.



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