You probably work too hard. You probably work too hard and you also think you are not working hard enough.
We have been fed the same idea forever – “practice, practice, practice” – when we want to improve or get things done. More time spent working is the biggest factor affecting our improvement or performance in anything, right?
Practice is important. Hard work is important. There is no doubt about that. Performing actions over and over makes them habitual and allows for improvement. What we should be ultimately shooting for, however, is deliberate practice.
That is, a concentrated practice involving the repetitive performance of intended cognitive or psychomotor skills, focused on the end in mind, with rigorous skills assessment and specific information feedback. All of this, followed by legitimate relaxation. This system allows for the most reassessment and time for new knowledge to synthesize.
But I can assure you that more “work” = necessarily more success is bunk. Working harder actually has the potential to create far-reaching collateral damage in your life, physically, mentally, and maybe even spiritually (at the risk of sounding like some kind of person who lives in a yurt). At the very least, your productivity tanks as you work long hours. This is very inefficient.
Instead, we need to be more efficient and keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Become more selective of which tasks you tackle and engage in deliberate practice. Do this by working intensely for short periods, seeking flow in your work. At the end of your work session, assess areas of improvement. Refine your technique for the next hyper-productive session.
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We should instead seek to maximize the amount of progress we produce in the little amount of time we have and spend our less productive hours (when we hit diminishing returns on our time investments) doing other activities that free our mind up for creativity.
To do this we need to learn to use the 80/20 rule to our advantage by selectively taking on tasks, carefully planning our time, managing our energy, and keeping our end goals in mind.
The 80/20 rule says that the most focused 20% of our time (I call this “super-productive” time) produces 80% of the results, and the other 80% of our time only produces 20% of our results.
According to productivity experts like David Allen, we should spend a substantial chunk our less-productive time (the 80%) in “important, but not urgent” activities (Eisenhower matrix) to make our 20% the most effective. I call this 20% super- or hyper-productive time.
Failure to lose sight of the 80/20 rule and misusing hyper-productive time, perhaps by instead choosing to work “harder” (be it more hours studying, working out, etc.) tends to have diminishing returns and can cause a lot of collateral damage.
What do I mean by collateral damage?
I mean neglect of your mental and physical upkeep at the price of more time in the office, client seen per day, pages written, hours practiced, or whatever else you do with your time to meet your goals.
Examples of collateral damage to our mental and physical health when we do not make time to plan and reenergize are many, especially in knowledge work. Though what work is not “knowledge work” these days? The athlete needs mental as well as physical rest like a mathematician.
A recent example is found in an influential and well-respected piece recently published in the New York Times about a Silicon Valley lawyer whose lifestyle of overworking led to drug abuse and ultimately, overdose and death. It is but one example of the potential damage our go-go-go society can have on people.
The problem is worldwide
Japan is struggling with its own overworking epidemic. By one estimate, thousands of Japanese people are overworked to death each year, with 80-hour work weeks not being uncommon. In fact, the author of the above-linked piece claimed to routinely work over 100 hours per week at a Japanese media conglomerate.
What if you continuously worked 70-hour, 80-hour, 90-hour weeks, shirking nutritional, sleep, and other health requirements to get more done? If you ultimately got sick because of your weakened immune system, you would need time to rest and recover. (I think that many people will refuse to rest and recover in this circumstance is illuminating. As a kicker, this decision to work will not only prolong your sickness, but you’ll be less effective while you work, and if you work around others, your presence is potentially infecting them as well! The collateral damage of your actions is now spreading to others.)
What if you spent all of your time working and no time with your family or friends? Would there be a divide between you and your family/friends if you constantly had to turn down social engagements for extra hours in the office churning out what might just be a document at the bottom of an obscure file that no one but you will ever read?
I am willing to bet there would. Will it have been worth it?
I’m not the first to recognize this problem, and I won’t be the last. In fact, books like Tim Ferris’ “The Four-Hour Work Week” and Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” prove my point – people are starting to see the negative effects of endless busy work on their lives, and they a change by seeking more value for their time (in the form of increased efficiency and output).
The reality, however, is that we can’t all just quit our day jobs and start a drop-shipping business as but one example Tim Ferris offers in the Four-Hour Work Week..
Instead, we need to get more done with the same or less time so we can use our free time to rejuvenate, plan, and even get out with other people.
How do we do this?
Become more selective.
The big secret to efficiency and productivity is becoming more selective about your time and reducing the amount of “moving parts” in your plans.
In a five-year survey of over 5,000 managers and employees, including sales reps, lawyers, actuaries, brokers, medical doctors, software programmers, engineers, store managers, plant foremen, and nurses, the common practice among the highest-ranked performers was the ability to carefully select priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake, and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort (i.e., deliberate practice, with the goal of reaching flow states) on those few priorities to succeed.
In fact, the survey found that work practices related to such selectivity accounted for 2/3 of the variation in performance among the subjects.
In short, talent, effort, and luck accounted for less than 1/3 of the difference between these performers.
Top performers are far more selective of their tasks and focus their energy on a couple important things, seeking to maximize flow in their work. They understand the importance of choosing what to focus on.
While engaging in deliberate practice, our goal is to reach a state of flow: where we lose ourselves in the activity and let our experience, knowledge, and reflexes come together to produce results. Our knowledge changes our experiences which changes our reflexes.
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After we’ve had our experiences, we need to give time for new information to encode and be churned over while we focus on other things in the meantime. The “work” is done at this point, until the next session. But while we are not working, our brains are subconsciously at work thinking about how to go about the activity the next time without your awareness of such encoding and thinking.)
Apply the 80/20 rule and TAKE A BREAK
I think everyone can probably remember a time when they had a great idea about something they’ve been working on while they weren’t even thinking about that project in the moment, like when they were in the shower or about to fall asleep.
The 80/20 rule is useful as a general rule of thumb to keep you focused and your priorities in order. It says that for any activity, you’ll likely see 80% of the results from 20% of the time spent on that activity:
A business gets 80% of its revenue from its top 20% of customers.
A restaurant makes 80% of its profit from the 20% of the year around the holidays.
You get 80% of your dishes done in the 20% of the time it takes to load the dishwasher, but you need to spend the other 80% of total “dishwashing time” cleaning the fine china or getting the gunk out of the blender, which is 20% (or less) of all your dishware.
This is not a rule but a general guideline and estimate.
In fact, research shows that you get more accomplished by working intensely for short periods and then refueling than you do by working continuously over a long period.
It’s because none of us can continuously work at peak levels for very long. We get tired. We lose focus.
Here’s an example: while top violinists do indeed practice many hours to reach their level, research shows that the top violinists choose to use their energy in short but intense 90-minute bursts in the morning when they have the most energy and the fewest distractions. In the afternoons, the best violinists regularly took an average of a 20-30 minute nap. Further, the top violinists reported that naps and sleep were among the most important things they did as violinists for top performance.
We must seek the simplest solutions–the fewest steps in a process–for most results and productivity.
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, French writer.
Author: Ryan Ullman
Ryan Ullman is an attorney at the boutique law firm Spence | Brierley in Baltimore, Maryland. He is particularly interested in technology, productivity, peak flow states, music, and the outdoors.