Are you being truly productive or are you just being busy? Asking myself this question could have saved me a lot of problems in the past. For a long period of time I used to be the kind of guy who would get obsessed with trying to be efficient all the time, someone who would constantly watch motivational videos on YouTube to get himself fired up and build the will to work hard.
I designed my lifestyle around the idea of being the most productive version of myself.
However on the occasional day that I couldn’t fully complete my to do list I would get really anxious and annoyed. Every single day I needed to be 100% sure that I was making the most of every hour, otherwise I would consider that day, and myself, a failure.
I live like that for some time, but eventually my body started feeling the repercussions of long days of work and constant stress. I started having strong headaches as a part of my day to day experience, and on top of that I was also often feeling depressed for not achieving the standards that I have set for myself. I would also be accompanied by a voice inside my head that told me that I wasn’t doing enough, that I could have done better.
For a few more months I continued ignoring the signals that my body was sending me, until one day I decided to take a self-assessment of my progress and find out how much more time I needed to keep working and living in that way in order to achieve my goals.
After the self-assessment I came to the realisation that somehow I wasn’t even close to making the progress that I was expecting.
Turns out I worked really hard for so long that I had forgotten why I was working so hard in the first place.
I realised that I stretched myself very thin, that I didn’t even notice all the projects and tasks that I got myself into. I was saying yes to almost every shiny “object” (project) that crossed my way. Only because I didn’t want to let any potential opportunity pass me by.
Most people say that hard work is the key to be successful, but for me that was not the case.
After living under all that pressure, eventually I took the decision to start looking after my health. That’s how I ended up doing something that international students never do (unless they are really feeling like sh*t). I went to visit a doctor, only to find out that the cause of those headaches was too much stress (surprise, surprise). His prescription was basically for me to chill out for a few weeks if what I wanted was to feel better. A few weeks after, I took the advice that the doctor gave me and I went on a vacation leaving my routine behind.
Taking a vacation definitely helped me to reduce the intensity of my headaches for a while. But as soon as I got back to work I started feeling worried and stressed out all over again. I have given my body and mind a temporarily break but the source of the problem was still there. I kept believing that I needed to work hard all the time, otherwise I will fall behind everyone else.
But then, just when I was close to entering the same loop of stress again and needed to take another vacation, I came across an article from Tim Ferris that change the way I approach hard work.
In this post he described how he deals with similar kinds of problems (obviously for him the workload and responsibilities are way bigger). He offers what Tim calls “an antidote for burn out and get the right things done.”
Here he mentions how most of the time we take a lot of responsibilities and crazy amounts of work load only because we want to avoid what is making us uncomfortable. He offers a solution to be more productive by doing the things that are really important and let the rest (non important responsibilities) fall behind.
“Most “superheroes” are nothing of the sort. They’re weird, neurotic creatures who do big things DESPITE lots of self-defeating habits and self-talk.
Personally, I suck at efficiency (doing things quickly). Here’s my coping mechanism and 8-step process for maximizing efficacy (doing the right things):
- Wake up at least 1 hour before you have to be at a computer screen. E-mail is the mind killer.
- Make a cup of tea (I like pu-erh) and sit down with a pen/pencil and paper.
- Write down the 3-5 things — and no more — that are making you most anxious or uncomfortable. They’re often things that have been punted from one day’s to-do list to the next, to the next, to the next, and so on. Most important usually = most uncomfortable, with some chance of rejection or conflict.
- For each item, ask yourself: “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?” – “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”
- Look only at the items you’ve answered “yes” to for at least one of these questions.
- Block out at 2-3 hours to focus on ONE of them for today. Let the rest of the urgent but less important stuff slide. It will still be there tomorrow.
- TO BE CLEAR: Block out at 2-3 HOURS to focus on ONE of them for today. This is ONE BLOCK OF TIME. Cobbling together 10 minutes here and there to add up to 120 minutes does not work.
- If you get distracted or start procrastinating, don’t freak out and downward spiral; just gently come back to your ONE to-do.
Congratulations! That’s it.
This is the only way I can create big outcomes despite my never-ending impulse to procrastinate, nap, and otherwise fritter away my days with bullshit. If I have 10 important things to do in a day, it’s 100% certain nothing important will get done that day. On the other hand, I can usually handle 1 must-do item and block out my lesser behaviors for 2-3 hours a day.
It doesn’t take much to seem superhuman and appear “successful” to nearly everyone around you. In fact, you just need one rule: What you do is more important than how you do everything else, and doing something well does not make it important.
If you consistently feel the counterproductive need for volume and doing lots of stuff, put these on a Post-it note:
- Being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.
- Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.
And when — despite your best efforts — you feel like you’re losing at the game of life, remember: Even the best of the best feel this way sometimes. When I’m in the pit of despair, I recall what iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut said about his process: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
Don’t overestimate the world and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.
And you are not alone.”
This simple exercise was huge to change the way I work and the amount of stuff I say yes to. Now I have much more free time than ever before and I can explore other areas of interest, plus I haven’t had any headaches since then.
I hope this is as useful for you as it was for me.
Please email me and tell me if this was (or wasn’t) helpful to you.
Reference and other resources:
Tim Kreider – Lazy: A manifiesto
Luis Patiño Del Toro
Luis defines himself as a generalist. He Always curious about learning new things, he also freelances tennis coach, engineer, business student, content creator, mindfulness meditation enthusiastic and a terrible small talker.