Have you ever looked at your watch and realized that you have barely stopped all day – and yet, nothing important has been accomplished? This phenomenon, of being so incredibly busy that you can’t get to the really important stuff is at epidemic levels for many of us. In the Mad Men era and before, those who worked in leadership roles had assistance with the mundane tasks – the marginalia of life. Executives had secretaries who corresponded, scheduled appointments, made phone calls, typed letters, and brought coffee. On the home-front, wives ran households, attending full-time to personal items like laundry, house-keeping, grocery shopping, child-care and meal-planning. Today, most of us are responsible for 100% of our non-important but required tasks. In fact, I often think to myself, that what I really need is a 1950s “wife” in order to make any real progress on my major goals!
For many of us, this seems perfectly to explain our lack of meaningful productivity. Instead of working on important goals, we are running around and handling unavoidable tasks, responding to emails and answering text messages. But when we look a little deeper, it may not be quite that way. In reality, all of the tasks of daily life can be completed without sacrificing work on what matters. Recent psychological work and research into how people accomplish great things has shown that in many cases, we are being victimized by something other than our modern world. We are being victimized by our own avoidance of deliberate and mindful work , and our addiction to what’s called “cognitive closure”.
Many people are familiar with the “10,000 hour rule” as created by Anders Ericsson and mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers”. This is the notion that to be truly great at something requires at least 10,000 hours in concentrated, deliberate practice. One of the things that occurred to me when I read both Gladwell and Ericsson was how much would have to go undone in order to spend 10,000 highly focused hours on practice of anything. Clearly, those violin virtuosos did not do their own laundry. Performing dedicated work or practice means that less important, trivial tasks can’t get much attention. In order to accomplish great things, you need to focus on whatever dedicated work is needed to the exclusion of other, more mundane things. That may mean out-sourcing less important activities like laundry, grocery shopping or correspondence. And in the age of Fiverr and Task Rabbit it is possible to do that without exorbitant expense. So if you really want to find the time to spend concentrating and accomplishing your important milestones, you can do so by creating a structure to remove the annoying little chores that take up your precious time.
But, it may not really be about what you have to do. It may be about what you choose to do. Maybe you are using your chore-list as a way to avoid the challenge of deliberate practice (Ericsson’s term). Why? Because deliberate practice is hard. It’s uncomfortable. And it doesn’t deliver the immediate dopamine surge that we get from completing a bunch of small, relatively trivial tasks. There is a psychological term for the drive to check items off your to-do list. It’s called a “need for cognitive closure”. We all have this drive, and in the right balance it’s a powerful goad to complete things. But like many things that cause our neurotransmitters to make us feel good – for example, sex, alcohol or sugar — it can become addictive. For example, often, when I am leading workshops on time and productivity management, participants will use an exercise in making a to-do list to list items they already completed – just for the satisfaction of crossing them off the list!! That has nothing to do with the pursuit of productivity. It is a pure quest for dopamine!
The more important point here is that allowing your time to be dominated by activities that are not high value is a big cost to your own success. And whether you are doing that because of a quest for cognitive closure or because you have no idea how not to do so, one thing is certain: You are not working nearly enough on the right things! Well, there are some ways you can begin to stop spending your time on unimportant activities and focus on the most critical tasks for your goals. If you haven’t got big goals that require some kind of focused concentration, watch for a post later this summer on goal-setting. But assuming you know what you should be working on, here are some tips for getting down to it:
- Take a few days and do a time log. This is like a food log. Simply use a calendar and note what you are doing every 15 minutes during the day. That includes tracking time spent on Facebook or Twitter, time spent chatting on the phone or any other activities you do.
- Audit your time log. How much time do you spend on activities that are directly serving your significant professional or personal goals? How much time do you spend on non-important activities? If you are honest you may find that you are spending an outsize amount of time on social media or other “filler” activities.
- Go on a social media fast for a few days. Tell your Facebook , Snapchat and Twitter friends that you are going on vacation for week. Then uninstall all of those apps from your phone. Enjoy having your time back.
- Group chores and to-dos. Use your calendar to schedule finite blocks of time at the periphery of your day (after the working day) for chores, errands and tasks. Stick to your calendar.
- Get help. If you have more than 5 hours of personal chores a week, invest in some help through Task Rabbit or Fiverr.
- Use big blocks of time. Structure your days so as to have no less that 4 hour blocks of time (2 of them if possible) for focused work. What you do with that focused work will depend on your goals. Should you be writing, thinking, making cold calls? Whatever it is, use the scheduled time to do it. No Internet, no email and no social media. Allow yourself a 10 minute coffee or walking break every 90 minutes.
- Do another time log. Have you increased the balance of your time expenditure? If you followed all the steps, you should notice that you are now weighting your time toward focused and deliberate work. That re-balancing portends enormous gains in results! Congratulations. If not, start over and try again!
Performance coaching can help you distinguish how you are stopping yourself from achieving your full potential. Contact me for a complimentary, initial consultation.