Do Less to Be More Productive

Leo Babauta's Zen Habits

Note: This is a guest post by Leo Babauta, a fellow PBN member, who blogs at Zen Habits about setting goals, creating habits, productivity, GTD, motivation, exercise and more. If you enjoy this post, I recommend you head to his site for more inspirational writing.

Many articles on productivity will teach you how to do more and more in less time. Greater output = greater productivity, right?

I’m here to argue the opposite: by focusing on producing less, you can be much more productive.

Let’s take a simple example: Larry and Bob are both writers (or code-writers if you prefer) at a company, and both are very good. Larry spent all of March writing like crazy, producing the most number of articles (or programs if you wish) in the whole company. None of them were very important articles, but he did a ton of them.

Bob on the other hand only wrote one article. But it was extremely well researched, and it was a major hit. In fact, it’s a candidate for the Pulitzer prize (or whatever award works for you) and is getting the company some major attention. It got a lot of readers and a lot of advertising for the company. Although Bob only produced a small fraction of the output of Larry, his output was of a higher quality and was much more profitable. Bob was more productive.

And get this: he was less stressed out too.

The key is not in trying to do more, but in focusing on what will bring you the most return, and focusing on doing that well. In order to do that well, you must simplify. Cut back on the number of goals and tasks you have on your plate, so that you can focus on the most important ones.

Simplifying isn’t an easy process. It requires us to step back and take a larger perspective on our lives, and it requires us to let go of things or say no to many requests when we’re not used to doing that. But the payoff is great: you’ll be able to actually complete things, to actually concentrate on doing them well, and to see a huge return on your time investment instead of just exhausting yourself by spinning your wheels.

How can you simplify and focus yourself to become more productive? Here are some suggestions:

  • Take an hour to step back. It’s hard to know what’s important, what you should focus on, when you’re in the middle of the rush of your daily life. I suggest you make an appointment with yourself, right now, giving yourself an hour in which you look at what’s on your plate right now, and what you really want to accomplish, at work and in your personal life. You may need more than an hour, but it’s a good start.
  • Make a list of your top goals. You can break them down into the different roles in your life, such as employee (or boss), father, husband, coach, etc. Try to list only the ones that will really give you the most benefit. For you, in a given role, that may not mean the most profit — it can mean the most happiness or satisfaction. For example, as a father, I want to do a ton of things with my kids. But as my time is limited, I focus on only a few things that will bring us closest together.
  • Make a list of the rest of your goals and tasks. This is everything not on your top goals list.
  • See how much you can simplify. Are there ways for you to drop or cut back on some of your less important goals and tasks on your second list? If you can delete them from your list, or get out of the commitment, you will be freeing your time up for you to concentrate on your top goals list. Be brutal — if it’s not going to do much for you, it’s not worth your precious time. Cut it out!
  • Place the big rocks first. Now plan out your week, focusing on your top goals. What big tasks (not necessarily longer in terms of time, but bigger in terms of importance) do you want to get done this week? Place those in your schedule first, and stick to that schedule! Leave space for doing the necessary little things, but be sure that your important tasks have their blocks of time in your schedule, and that you give them top priority.
  • Really focus on those Big Rocks. When you’re working on those important, worthy tasks, really focus. Turn off all distractions (yes, this means email and your feed reader and your internet connection if possible!), and do that one task in front of you only. Don’t let yourself multi-task, switching from task to task. Stick with this one task for as long as possible.
  • Do it in bursts if necessary. If you have trouble sticking with the task before you for very long, set a timer for 30 minutes, and tell yourself you can’t check your email (or whatever distraction you have) until the timer goes off. Then set the timer for 10 minutes and take a break. At the end of the 10 minutes, set the timer for another 3- minute burst of focused work. Repeat as necessary.
  • Break it into smaller tasks. If the task is too big, too daunting, break it into easier, less intimidating steps. Then just focus on the first step. When that’s done, focus on the next one.
  • Focus on completion. If possible, try to complete the task before you. You’ll feel good when you do. Celebrate when you’re done!

Read more posts by Leo Babauta at Zen Habits, including popular ones on keeping your inbox empty, clearing your desk, becoming an early riser, and the Top 20 Motivation Hacks.