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Stop Wasting Time on the Details and Commit to the Fundamentals

Stop Wasting Time on the Details and Commit to the Fundamentals

I was in the gym one day, training like usual, when my coach made an important observation. It didn’t take me long to see how this discovery applied to other areas of my life as well.

Here’s what happened.

We looked across the gym and saw someone performing lateral raises with dumbbells while standing on a Bosu ball. (This is an exercise that focuses on smaller muscles in the shoulder and doesn’t do much for the rest of the body.)

My coach watched for a moment and then said, “Imagine how good you have to be for that exercise to be the thing that gets you to the next level.”

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His point was that this person was focusing on an exercise that improved a few, tiny muscles in their body while ignoring the more important foundational movements. Even an Olympic athlete who had mastered the basic movements (squats, bench press, etc.) could not honestly look in the mirror and say, “You know what’s holding me back? I’m not doing enough lateral raises.”

In other words, the problem is that too many people waste time on the details before mastering the fundamentals. And I’d say the same is true outside of the gym as well.

The Courage to Master the Fundamentals

Everybody has the same basic body and needs, and we have to have the courage to train the fundamentals, the basics, at least 80% of the time. Sure, add some spice in there now and again, but focus on the basics.
—Dan John

Committing to the basics and mastering the fundamentals can be hard. And I get it. I’ve struggled to fall in love with boredom and focus on the basics many times.

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For example, as an entrepreneur it is very easy for me to spend my days working on the details. Should I make a small tweak to my website design? Should I answer these 50 emails? Should I switch my payment processor so that I can save an extra 2 percent on fees?

All of these things have a place, but that place should not be at the top of my to-do list. Instead, my time would be better spent focusing on the fundamentals. For example, writing two really good articles each week.

Avoid the “Edge Cases”

In the words of my friend, Corbett Barr, people waste too much time debating edge cases. Edge cases are the what-ifs, the could-bes, the minor details — the things that might make a 2 percent difference, but mostly distract you from the real work that would make 80 percent of the difference.

  • If you’re considering a new diet, but you’re worried that you might not be able to stick with it when you go out with your friends on Thursday nights, then you’re worrying about an edge case. Thursday night isn’t going to make or break you. It’s the work you put in during the other 20 meals of the week that matters.
  • If you’re starting a business and you’re debating over business cards or shipping methods or a thousand other things that could delay you from finding your first paying customer, then you’re stuck on the edge cases. You can optimize later. Meanwhile, delaying this decision is bringing in exactly zero dollars.
  • If you’re trying to “get all of your ducks in a row” or figure out “the right way to do this” then you’re probably giving yourself an excuse to avoid the hard decisions. Research is only useful until it becomes a form of procrastination. In most cases, you’ll discover better answers by doing than by researching.

The greatest skill in any endeavor is doing the work. And for that reason, most people don’t need more time, more money, or better strategies. They just need to do the real work and master the basics.

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Don’t Fear the Fundamentals

Most people avoid the fundamentals because they don’t have the guts to become great at them. When you eliminate everything that is unnecessary, there are no details to hide behind. You’re left with just the basics and whether or not you have mastered them.

It’s easier to tell people that you’re “working on a new strategy” or you’re “doing more research.” It’s hard to say, “I’m focusing on the basics, but I haven’t made much progress yet.”

Do you have the courage to simplify and become the best at the basics? Stop wasting time on the details that make the last 10% of difference.

What good is a lateral raise if you can’t do a proper press? What good is a fancy business logo if you haven’t found your first paying customer? What good is a better guitar if you haven’t built the habit of practicing each day?

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Without the fundamentals, the details are useless.

Featured photo credit: Brenderous via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on April 6, 2020

The Ultimate Guide to Prioritizing Your Work And Life

The Ultimate Guide to Prioritizing Your Work And Life

Do you ever find yourself telling a friend or colleague that you’re “so busy” whenever they ask how you’re doing? Or, that you “have a lot on your plate and hardly have any time for yourself”?

These are common answers to the question: “ how are you doing?”. Perhaps you see it as an easy response that doesn’t need much explanation.  Or, it could be that you’re in disbelief at the end of the week, wondering where all that time went.

The reality is that time is precious and waits for no man. Yet, many of us unconsciously squander time away; but when  that realization kicks in, it’s often too late, or you have little time left to spare. And, the end result of what you were going to accomplish either gets short changed or fails altogether.

Think about the time when you had to be up early for an important meeting at work; yet, the night before you were up late binge watching a TV series. You ended up waking up late the next morning and had to rush to work, leaving you flustered and not well prepared for the meeting. Did you really have to watch those TV series late into the night? Or could you have used that time for an early rest?

Or, what about  that time you had a deadline to meet, and you spent every night that week working late to complete the project. Did you really have to spend every night working late at the office? Or could you have prioritized your time better and gotten the project done during your typical work hours?

I’m sure we’re all guilty of not spending our time wisely at some point in our lives.

But let’s not focus on the time that has already been spent; instead, let’s look at how we can prioritize and leverage the time that we still have!

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How to Leverage Your Time

Going back to the age-old battle of Quantity versus Quality, which do you think matters more? What if I told you that you need not worry about how much time you have left–instead, focus on how you’re making use of the time that you do have so that it’s worth many more valuable moments in the future?

That’s right. You can easily multiply or invest in the time that you have now. This way, you’ll reap many more returns in the future, instead of merely spending time at present. And, one simple way of investing in time now–so that it becomes quality time– is to Prioritize.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. It isn’t new. Yet, how many of us actually intentionally sit down to prioritize daily tasks and responsibilities? Even less likely, how many of us know a method that can help us effortlessly decide what is important enough to take up an hour of time, and what can be skipped?

Here’s an important skill I want to introduce to you:

Determine Value in Any Task or Action

Before you can decide on what to prioritize, you need to know just how important that action is.

Value is what you gain from an action that you take. It’s the benefit you’re getting in return for spending your time. Sometimes, the Value is immediate or short term; other times, it‘s only realized in the long term.

So when you invest in time, you’re actually creating future value for the time you put in now. Usually, the benefits are not immediate and will take time to manifest. But once they are realized, they are enjoyed over a long period of time.

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Reduce Time Expenditures

Time expenditure on the other hand, creates short term benefits at the cost of your current time. Usually, the benefits are quickly enjoyed, but are one-off. So once it’s done, it’s gone.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your tasks are automatically prioritized by your brain. Some tasks can get you closer toward your goals, while others don’t really get you anywhere at all. Outside of work, most people seldom plan out their tasks deliberately, which allows  them be driven automatically.

This is where you end up feeling ‘busy’ all the time because some of the actions that you’re doing don’t necessarily align with what you want in the future. The consequence is that we spend a lot of our precious time on wasteful time expenditures, and far too little on time investments.

This causes a lot of people to be stuck in the same loop, day after day, month after month, year after year.

By simply determining the value of your daily actions or tasks, you’ll already be intentionally prioritizing at a much more efficient rate. This will not only reduce time expenditure, but increase time investments that you’ll be able to use in the near future for much more important areas in your life.

Let me paint you a scenario. Say you’re going on a week long vacation to Australia. It’s your first time travelling to Australia and there are so many activities you want to do, sights you want to see, and restaurants and eateries you’d like to visit .

All this research can get pretty overwhelming and you may not know where to even start! Do I book a hotel first? Or get my flights? But what if I decide on a specific  hotel and realize it’s far away from all the major attractions? Should I then look up what attractions I want to visit first? This list can go on!

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In order to not get overwhelmed or over plan your trip itinerary, here’s where Determining the Value of each action or task can help you Prioritize effortlessly.

Start with Your Intention

What is the purpose of this vacation? Once you know the purpose of this vacation, you’ll be able to list down a bunch of tasks or actions–such as booking a hotel, booking flights and land transport, booking tickets to certain attractions, making reservations for restaurants, etc.

Once you’ve compiled your list, the next step is simply to categorize them into 3 criteria:  

Must haves, Should haves, and Good to haves.

Must haves are tasks that are absolutely critical to achieve the objective, and should take top priority for resources and time.  

The Should haves are important but not critical; leaving them out may lessen the impact of your outcome.

And, the Good to haves are just optional. Not having them  won’t affect the outcome of your goal.

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Once you’re able to sort out your list according to these 3 criteria, you’re already one step closer to prioritizing effectively and spending quality time on those Must have tasks. And, this will be a game changer. You’ll be able to easily communicate what you are spending time on, and you’ll find that you have more time to spare because it’s crystal clear what’s worth skipping out on!

This can be applied to any aspect of your life, whether you’re a full-time working professional, stay at home parent, or working parent. If you’ve ever used the expression “I’ve been so busy” when talking to someone, then I’ll recommend you give this a shot.

Quantify Your Tasks

Now that you know how to determine the Value of your actions spent, the next step up to effective Prioritizing would be to quantify your tasks so that you can objectively decide which is more important. This is especially useful when you have multiple items within each Must have, Should have and Good to have criteria.

Quantifying your tasks by assigning a value will allow you to objectively see the importance, making it easy for you to know which task to work on first. This way, you can be assured that the time and effort that you’ve put into is quality.

Final Thoughts

Time management is only one piece of a bigger puzzle of change that you can go through, to turn your life around and find more fulfilment. Often, when you find yourself going through an obstacle or limitation in life, it’s not just because of one flaw or a one off decision you made.

It’s often a process and a result of many actions that resulted to where you are now, and so you should go deeper to reflect and see how things can be done differently.

Learn more time management tips:

Featured photo credit: Marten Bjork via unsplash.com

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