How do you handle activities that don’t seem to add any value, but still need to get done? Replying to e-mails, filing your taxes or cutting the grass aren’t the most glamorous moments. They don’t seem as valuable as the to-do items for your big projects and goals. At the same time they don’t offer much enjoyment or relaxation.
How you handle these tasks is important because life is full of them. In fact, I’d argue that unless you are an outsourcing genius, they make up most your life. Worse, I believe that most people mismanage these tasks.
Redefine What is Valuable
The best way to figure out the value of a task is to ask yourself, “What happens if I stop?” Breathing, eating and sleeping would then be in the top ten for valuable activities. Just because an activity is routine doesn’t mean it is less valuable.
The reason most people mismanage chores is because they don’t assign them a value. They simply build up a big to-do list without figuring out how much the things on the list are worth. If you don’t assign value, you can’t prioritize. If you can’t prioritize, you’re throwing away your time.
It is usually obvious to prioritize non-routine activities. The decision for me to write this article rather than going for a walk was a conscious one. But routine activities become habits and the decision becomes automatic.
“What Would Happen If…”
Pick a routine activity. Now ask yourself what would happen if you immediately spent half as much time doing it. If you watch two hours of television every day, what would happen if you only watched an hour? If you answer your e-mails five times a day, what would happen if you only checked it twice?
Do little mental experiments to see what would happen if you suddenly reduced the amount of time you spend on a routine task. Ask yourself what would happen if you completely eliminated the task altogether.
There is nothing you must do, only priorities. These mental experiments can give you an idea of where those priorities are. If you cut your time cooking in half the consequence might be simpler or less healthy meals. If you cut down time answering e-mail you might have to ignore lengthy requests or leave some mail unread.
Figuring out how to optimize in a smaller frame of time comes later. For right now, just ask what the worst case scenario would be if you had to free up a large chunk of time.
Make a Decision
After you make an assessment, you can try a new thirty day trial to see if the new change is an improvement. Not all your thought experiments are going to be correct. I’ve eliminated activities, and found out I was missing on valuable experiences.
It’s okay to be wrong. If you cut out something like television for thirty days and realize it had a large impact on your entertainment, you can always revert to your old way of life. The benefit of doing this is that you will be able to see both sides. Instead of just continuing to do something you assume is wasting time you can see the real value in it.
However, most the time you’re right. I’ve often been surprised at how easy it is to drastically cut the amount of time spent on a task with almost no impact. Cutting three quarters of my net usage had only a small impact on my productivity.
It feels liberating to squeeze out extra time. Just remember to fill that freed time with something valuable or you are back where you started.
If you have decided that a routine task can’t be reduced, enjoy it. There is no point resisting a decision you have already made. Questioning why you are doing something is important, but only if it leads to a decision.
If you’ve decided to cut the grass, immerse yourself in cutting the grass. Make a game out of it, make it enjoyable and focus on it. This may sound tricky, but usually it is just because you aren’t trying. You resist enjoying the activity because you still haven’t decided whether you should be doing it.
There are many things you simply can’t cut out of your life. Compression has an upper limit. The next step requires you to shift your thinking. Instead of focusing on productivity, focus on engagement. Find ways to really enjoy how you have decided to spend your time. I’ll admit that this isn’t an easy step, but it is probably the most important one.