How To Get More Done – Do Less

I aim to be 50% productive and usually manage it, (15% being the norm). What I mean by that is I aim to spend 50% of my time on high-payoff activities – the activities which, if neglected, will lead to goal failure. Most people are around 15% productive. Strange but true.

I spent all of last Friday doing one particular high-payoff activity. A single task. I scheduled a full day for it in my diary. It involved me teaching myself something I needed to learn. I had no distractions – no email, no phone calls…nothing. I completed the task – I learned what I had to learn. I switched the phone and email back on at 430pm, dealt with what could not wait and then switched everything off again, all before 530pm.

I felt wonderful. In control, purposeful, satisfied. It was a good day in the office.

It reminded me of the critical importance of focus to productivity. Focusing on one task for an extended period of time. At least half a day. It feels like a luxury, but it isn’t. A whole day is even better. With the phone and the email turned off. Check them every two hours if you must. But don’t get sucked in – just check them and only deal with what is truly urgent. And that means urgent to you, not the other person.

In any working week, it is much better to give each of ten high-payoff activities a half day than to spend each of the five days doing all ten high-payoff activities for 45 minutes each. That’s the road to madness.

This is because our brains work at their best when we allow ourselves to focus. Multi-tasking only works at a trivial level – I can drink beer, eat pizza and watch the football at the same time but these are not high-payoff activities. You cannot do two high-payoff activities at the same time. I’ve said this before but it’s critically important that we reserve substantial chunks of time for the important stuff. Our world has a huge and increasing ability to fragment our attention to the point where we are so distracted we cannot function properly.

So when you catch yourself doing a dozen different things in a day and rushing around like a mad thing, it’s time to ask if you’re really focused on the important stuff, or have you slipped into “I must get through my to-do list” mode. You cannot get through a to-do list. It’s against the laws of physics.

As I keep saying to my clients, chief execs don’t stand up at the annual general meeting and say “we had 98% to-do list completion last year”. No. They talk about metrics that represent goal achievement…sales, profit etc.

Here’s another wee prompt – when you hear yourself say “I’m busy” remember that “busy” is usually a euphemism for “I don’t really feel in control”. And you cannot achieve when you’re not in control.

You can achieve when you identify your high-payoff activities and give them the time and space they deserve. And you will become calmer, clearer-headed and you will get what you want.

Strange as it may seem, you can get more done by doing less.

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2 Responses to How To Get More Done – Do Less

  1. Lily Newman February 15, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    Hi Mark

    How this made me laugh today. I’m in the middle of a ‘high pay off activity’ when I decided I should check through and read emails that I hadn’t replied to. Some of us (with little preference for introversion or the completer finisher attitude) need distractions and interruptions to enable us to re-focus and re-energise and be able to complete the task. So, the five minutes I have taken to read and enjoy your blog have enabled me to do just that. Now back to that High Pay Off Activity! Thanks again.


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