We all want to get things done, and we all want them done yesterday. We want action, we want to kick ass and take names. But very few of us do, or at least not on a consistent basis, and the ones that do get things done seem superhuman to us – how can they possibly accomplish so much? We write it off that they are special, supremely talented, have a team of people working behind the scenes while they sit pretty in their palace chair. And yes, some truly have other-worldly talent. But the rest are just like us – normal people, who are just incredibly effective with their time.
It is often easy to get caught up in the buzz of efficiency and productivity, of always focusing on doing things faster. But it is entirely possible to be extremely efficient at doing a task, but doing the complete wrong task. You have to be shrewd with your time, not just fast.
“Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.”
– Peter Drucker
This is time effectiveness. Focusing on what is most important and getting that done in an expedited fashion, versus just getting the next thing on your to-do list crossed off (unless, of course, your to-do list is already prioritized, in which case congratulations, you can go ahead to the second half of this piece. No $200). It is a blend of planning and execution, speed and precision. It’s doing the right thing, doing it the right way, and being urgent in its completion.
This is something that plagued me for the longest time. I would head on to campus or my local library with four hours of time in front of me – four hours of deliciously free time. Imagine all I could get done in half a day’s work! And then I would leave with my head down, mind scrambling, wondering how the only thing I accomplished was writing a 2-page report. What the hell just happened?
Over time, and after much exasperation, I’ve learned to curb this outcome to a certain degree. While I’m no Musk or Branson, there are four key sub-components which I have found make up the larger whole of time effectiveness:
- Goal Setting
- Time management
None of these are new concepts, and can all be used to great effect in their own right. But when applied in chorus, they amplify each other, and can help turn you into a productivity machine.
This is a topic I have already written on, so I won’t repeat myself in great detail. But it all comes down to a bit of proper self-reflection: first figuring out what you most what to do in your life, and from there deducing what the right task is. This requires planning ahead and taking time to think; you can’t just be full steam ahead all the time, or you’ll miss out on the big picture and run the risk of steaming down the wrong path. You have to strategize.
But in the end, you must eventually act, and time management is about prioritizing those actions. Take the tasks you want to complete in a day (your to-do list), and lay them out in as organized a manner as possible. Your time needs to be split between actions in such a manner that minimizes mental switching costs (see more on this here). Batch items when possible, such as email or research, or try to plan an entire day around a theme, such as a particular class or client.
The key is to create a focus for the day. What do you most have to get done that will put you closer to your goals you’ve created? How do I mold the lesser, mundane tasks (such as email) around this to make sure I complete it? You have to put your entire effort and focus into getting what you just determined as most important accomplished. At that point, you can put aside the high level strategic thinking and put your head down and get to work – no need to worry that something isn’t going to get done, which can be extremely draining mentally. Just put everything into getting the day’s tasks done.
Urgency is keeping yourself ‘mentally tight’ – always being on point and focused on the task at hand. This is compared to working on a task that is important, but working at a comfortable, leisurely pace; letting your mind wander every once in a while, to eventually return to the task at hand where it has to refocus. This costs you precious time. Keep your mind bent to what’s in front of you, and eliminate the extraneous.
Yes, to a degree urgency is efficiency. But it is also so much more. It is having an extra spring in your step, not stopping to talk shop at the cooler, using the internet for only the essentials and not trolling for 10 minutes afterwards. It’s that extra gear that we all know we have, but seldom use.
“Many of us have had the following experience: we find ourselves in an urgent, difficult situation…. What usually happens is that our minds snap to attention. We find the necessary energy because we have to. We pay attention to details that normally elude us, because they might spell the difference between success and failure, life and death. We are surprised at how inventive we become. It is at such moments that we get a glimpse of that potential mental power within us that generally lies untapped. If only we could have such a spirit and attitude in everyday life”
– Robert Greene, 50th Law
This is where the typical disconnect occurs. In times of stress we have no problem tapping into this need for urgency, and the intensity and focus that comes with it. But as soon as the stimulus is removed, so is our energy. Being effective with your time requires a certain amount of this urgency in all that you do. And good way to create this need for urgency is the utilization of Parkinson’s Law.
The time it takes to complete a task will expand to fill the time allotted to it
So if you have three hours to write that report, the odds are good that you will turn it in just before the three hours have passed, no matter if it only should have taken two hours to actually write. When you know you have more time to complete something, it is human nature to mentally relax. You let up on the gas, let your mind wander, surf the web a bit, etc. You are not effective with that time.
You need to recreate that sense of urgency and twinge of panic, the necessity of action created by impending deadlines and negative consequences. Utilizing Parkinson’s Law, this is done by creating strict artificial deadlines for yourself, and then holding yourself to them. If a report should take you two hours, set a deadline for an hour and a half. Then let your natural abilities take over, and let the mental energy and focus come to you as you work urgently to fulfil it.
Don’t let your lethargy or hesitation hold you back from accomplishing what you ultimately know needs to get done. At the end of the day, you are only hurting yourself by breaking these deadlines, letting precious time slip through your fingers. We have no time for fear. And that is what the issue is – we hesitate and delay because we are fearful. Neither are qualities that will propel you to the top.
Hustle is applying to jobs instead of reading your favorite blogs (except this one). It’s working through lunch at your desk, or working on your side job when you get home from work instead of watching TV. It’s doing whatever you have to do to get something done that is important to you.
Now I’m not saying you should start running everywhere, and that you can’t slow down and enjoy life. You can, and you should, just not when you have this task in front of you.
“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you will be successful”
– Eric Thomas
If you’re watching TV shows, posting on Facebook, going out, taking on extra side-projects – anything that detracts you from the task at hand, you don’t want it bad enough. As long as you have this goal before you, hustle.
But hustle can be mentally draining; you’re using every spare moment to pursue an end, a dream. Over an extended period of time this will exhaust you mentally, so you have to be prepared to take breaks and recharge (my suggestion: make them productive breaks. Spend time with family/friends, read a good book, or hit the gym to get some blood pumping). Everyone recharges differently, but however you do it, pick a method that doesn’t cause you to lose this focus, this intensity and urgency, that you have created for yourself.
And just remember, this isn’t permanent; you aren’t superhuman. Urgency differs from hustle in time scale. Urgency is a thought process that should stick with you and shape your day-to-day activities. Hustle is a momentary mind-set, to get you through the obstacle in front of you until it is completed. It is a sort of last-resort option. This is what the first two principles are for; proper goal setting and time management, combined with a constant sense of urgency, should propel you through most of life. But when shit hits the fan, it’s time to hustle.
The cliché is true: if it was easy, everyone would do it. Being effective with your time is a labor, a skill you have to hone until it can be mastered. Yes it will be hard, and you will miss out on some fun. This is worth repeating. You will miss out on fun. But those are fleeting pleasures, and whatever you are striving to accomplish will be much farther reaching and longer lasting than hitting the same club or watching your friend’s cat video.
You have to focus on being as effective as possible with your time, the same 24 hours everyone in the world receives. Efficiency is only half of the story. Make sure you are doing the right thing, do it well, and do it now.