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Do you REALLY need to get yet more things done?

Do you REALLY need to get yet more things done?

Maybe today’s fashion for increasing personal productivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

    Increasing your personal productivity is the subject matter of a slew of books, magazine articles, and more than a few successful blogs. It’s fashionable, popular, and, most of all, highly profitable for the authors and writers of software. But does that make it right?

    I believe that more cookery books are published each year that any other genre, followed closely by diet books — surely one of the great symbiotic relationships of all time. You stuff yourself, then diet, then fall off the diet and stuff yourself because you feel guilty. Oh hell . . . back to the diet.

    Maybe it’s the same with recipes for getting yet more things done: you overload your time and brain with impossible expectations, hype yourself up on the latest fad for coping with the overload, then crash and burn — swearing that, next time, you really will to find a way to crack the whole, messy problem of doing more in your waking hours than those hours were ever designed to hold.

    From where I stand, this looks to be almost the ultimate in self-inflicted madness: people stuck in a have-it-all, instant-gratification society demanding techniques for organizing the lives they are systematically filling with the effort to have yet more, every minute of every day.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against helping others to be more organized or better able to juggle life’s necessary demands. But I am starting to wonder how many of those demands are really necessary; and whether the cure isn’t in danger of becoming more onerous that the disease.

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    Our gas-guzzling lives

    Our addiction to getting things done is not unlike that other addiction: the one to huge SUVs and trucks. Both the trucks and the productivity software and ideas are undeniably flashy and pack a lot of horsepower under the hood, but neither are good for us in the long run, nor strictly necessary.

    Using an SUV, or a truck the size of a semi, to go to the mall, as many people seem to do where I live, must empty your pocket-book even more quickly than it sucks up gasoline. Filling your every moment with constant activity, however carefully and expensively organized, is going to suck you dry of energy just as quickly, then leave you as exhausted as a worked-out oilfield.

    And if huge, gas-guzzling autos threaten to destroy our physical environment through global warming, what are people’s huge, energy-guzzling lives doing to the mental and social fabric of our world? What are they doing to our organizations, where it’s become commonplace to expect highly-trained professionals to work harder, for longer hours, than we would judge humane for laboratory rats?

    Whatever happened to “working smart?”

    Why are we now so devoted to getting more and more things done in less and less time? Not so long ago, we were all urged to “work smarter, not harder.” Whatever happened to that idea?

    As a natural skeptic, I suspect part of the emphasis on constant busyness is simple: it makes some people a good deal of money. It’s just that those people aren’t often the ones doing all the extra work. They’re being smarter while you’re working harder.

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    I also suspect it’s far easier to write a book about how to aspire to a four-hour week than it is to do what the book recommends — once you’ve had the book idea, of course. That’s really smart. The rest is the age-old business of selling snake-oil.

    In America at least, my long-time bugbear, the Puritan Work Ethic, is a major contributor to today’s fashion for finding still better ways to work more.

    According to the work ethic mythology, work is a GOOD THING IN ITSELF. Hard work is what makes you into some kind of hero (most often an exhausted, burned-out one), so more of it is bound to be better than less. There’s a nasty suspicion in the Puritan mind that people who appear to do things easily are probably up to something immoral, because they AREN’T TRYING HARD ENOUGH; and their achievements, however impressive, are really NOT WORTH MUCH.

    If effort is what gives work its value, then whatever is gained with most effort will be most valuable.

    A sideways look at personal productivity

    This Calvinistic belief that effort is what gives value is, of course, total nonsense. If it were true, a crook who spent months of hard effort organizing a complex robbery would be commended; and a doctor who had a moment of insight that cured a sick child would be given a stiff dressing-down for laziness.

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    What gives value to anything, work or play, is the importance and worth of the outcome, not how much effort and organization went into it. In a world that was truly progressing towards a better state, there would only be one kind of productivity that was valued: the productivity that comes from finding ways to get worthwhile results with less effort than before.

    That, of course, is what productivity actually is. Doing more by working longer hours and focusing your efforts more closely isn’t increasing your productivity; it’s only the result of working harder. To be more productive means to do more with less effort, not more with more effort. And if the only way you get more done is by wasting less time in a muddle about what to do, that’s a trick you can only play a single time.

    NOT getting some things done is what we truly need

    What’s wrong with today’s fashion for a thousand ways to up your personal productivity? Too much of it is about filling every moment with activity. It’s about doing when you would be better employed thinking. It’s about focusing on getting results when you should be focused on whether you need those particular results at all.

    We’re creating a world of hard-driving ants, not a civilization where people find ways to increase their time enjoying life through becoming cleverer at doing only what has to be done — then doing it with the minimum effort.

    What rational being would devote one minute more to work than is essential — let alone find ways to pack more and more into every waking moment?

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    Look around you at the world of nature. Which animals spend most time at the “work” of finding food? The answer, of course, is those that eat the least nutritious things in terms of their bulk. Cows and other herbivores must spend hours grazing because they need prodigious amounts of grass, which has little energy value. Lions and tigers, in contrast, spend most of their time sleeping and lazing about, because their meat-based diet is extremely high in energy per pound of dead gazelle.

    Here’s the choice then: do you want to emulate a cow or a tiger?

    Is your life based on gathering lots of low-energy, readily available input of the kind that never runs away? If so, any help you can get with packing more activity into 24 hours is well worth it. Or are you aiming for the kind of life that feeds on highly energy-rich inputs — even if you have to devote a good deal of intelligence, skill, and speed to catch them — so you can spend the rest of the time enjoying yourself in the sun?

    The day that someone comes up with a good technique for getting much less done, with much less effort, while still meeting life’s needs, you can bet I’ll be there at the front of the line to get my copy.

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    Last Updated on July 10, 2020

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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