Henry David Thoreau
It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?
Are You Being Productive, Or Just Busy?
Many of us often complain about not having enough time for all the things that we need to get done. We are just too busy running errands, ticking off checklists, responding to emails, attending meetings, putting out fires, while trying to juggle numerous projects and tasks all at the same time.
Yes, no doubt we are very busy doing all sorts of stuff. But if we are so busy then why do we often feel as though there’s just never enough time throughout the day to get everything done?
We often feel this way because we are focusing on the wrong things. We incorrectly assume that being “busy” means that we are being “productive”. But that really couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many people spend a great deal of time throughout the day being “falsely” busy.
To be falsely busy means that you are focusing on irrelevant tasks, insignificant activities, unnecessary urgent matters that you really don’t need to give any attention to, and all the small things that don’t matter in the long-run. In short, you are spending time on time wasting activities that are not aligned with your greater goals and life’s purpose.
People who are falsely busy are often over-thinking and over-planning what they must do, instead of doing what needs to get done. They are constantly organizing and rearranging stuff to their heart’s content without ever realizing that what they are doing is often unnecessary and disruptive. They just don’t understand the impact that their current choices and decisions will have on their future outcomes.
Being busy gives people a false sense of purpose and significance. They feel as though they are being productive, but in reality they are simply stuck in very limiting patterns of behavior that often lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety, overwhelm, frustration and emotional fatigue. Life becomes an endless struggle — very much like trying to chase down a train that has long left the station.
The train in this analogy is the vehicle that will help them get to their desired destination. But because they utilize their time ineffectively, they are never quite able to board the train to take advantage of its accelerated speed and momentum. Eventually in the long-run all that chasing wears them down and the goals they set themselves become nothing more than fleeting memories of days gone by.
“There just simply wasn’t enough time to achieve what I wanted to achieve”, they often say to themselves.
The reality is that there wasn’t enough time because they focused on the wrong things that made the journey towards their goal much more difficult than it should have been. If only they realized that focusing on the right things in the right way could have solved their dilemma.
What it Means to be Genuinely Busy
To be genuinely busy means you are doing something that is important and valuable. It means you are focusing on making the most of your time by spending that time on the highest priority activities that will provide you with the highest long-term value and results based on your primary goals and life’s objectives.
However, in order to work smarter, you must first identify what those highest priority activities actually look like.
Making Decisions Based on Your Highest Priorities
Setting priorities means that you are working on the right things at the right time, for the right amount of time, and for the right reasons. Yes, this is all well and good, but how in the world do you go about measuring these variables?
First of all you need to recognize what is already working in your life within your current routine and schedule. To do this, ask yourself:
What is currently working for me?
What am I doing well that is getting me good results?
How could I spend more time on these things?
It’s also helpful to know the difference between what’s important, what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary. This distinction will help you to better organize your priorities.
The most important things are the things that MUST get done because they have the highest long-term payoffs. For this very reason it’s important to consistently ask yourself:
What must I absolutely get done today?
On the second tier there are things that may not be important but are somewhat necessary. These things have low long-term payoffs but high short-term payoffs. They are the things that you know should get done because they help keep things going in the short-term while you work on your highest priority activities. Ask yourself:
What should I get done today?
On the third tier you have all the unnecessary things that often tend to distract us. This is the “busy” work that most people tend to indulge in that has very low short and long-term payoffs. All these tasks and activities fall into the category of “stuff that you could get done”. However, it’s important to recognize that “could” means that it’s nice to do these things, but only when all the important and necessary stuff is out of the way. Ask yourself:
What could I get done today?
In other words you are asking:
What would it be nice to do today if I had ample time on my hands?
Often you will find that after working through all the important and necessary stuff that you will have very little time left over for the unnecessary stuff. However, if you focus on the unnecessary stuff first, you will often find very little time to complete all the important and necessary stuff. And yet this is a game that most people tend to play with themselves because the unnecessary stuff is often the “easy” stuff that just feels comfortable. In fact, we often use this unnecessary stuff to avoid doing the important and necessary stuff. Then at the end of the day we complain about not having enough time to do the things that give you the highest long-term payoffs.
For this very reason it’s important to focus first on the important and then the necessary stuff, and if time runs out and you can’t get all the unnecessary stuff completed, then it might be worthwhile delegating these tasks or alternatively eliminating them altogether. Maybe undertaking these tasks really doesn’t matter. Just maybe they are nothing more than excuses that lead to an endless indulgence in procrastination and perfectionism.
Analysis of Your Priorities
Now that we have laid out what’s most important, necessary and unnecessary, this hopefully provides you with a better idea of your priorities. However, you might still need a little more clarity to help you make better decisions moving forward.
To gain more clarity you must understand what your main goals and objectives are. Without understanding your goals, it’s very difficult to prioritize accordingly. Ask yourself:
How would I like to ideally live my life?
What goals would I like to achieve?
What’s most important for me in life?
What are my highest priorities and values?
Are these things aligned with the goals I would like to achieve?
Your goals and values must be very much aligned with your daily priorities and the activities you decide to focus on. If for any reason there is misalignment here, then you will often end up focusing on the wrong things.
Answering these questions will help you to begin focusing on the right things for the right reasons moving forward. However, your current habits and behaviors will most likely need to change. In other words, whatever you are doing now is probably not working for you, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
You must make an effort to change your current activities and patterns of behavior. To do this begin by analyzing your typical day using the following set of questions:
What do I tend to do throughout the day? How do I typically spend my time?
Which activities are of highest priority? Do they provide high long-term or short-term value or both?
How much time do I typically spend on these activities? Is it enough to help me accomplish my goals?
What activities drain me emotionally? Or in other words completely waste my time.
What activities provide no meaningful results?
Why do I consistently tend to engage in these activities? What excuses do I make to engage with them?
What choices must I make about how I use my time moving forward?
Why must I begin making better choices today?
What are the long-term benefits of making these better choices?
What are the possible consequences of not changing?
Once you understand what your typical day looks like and where things are breaking down, you will then be in a better position to make positive changes to your routine and schedule moving forward. In fact, working through all these questions will help you to understand how to prioritize your time more effectively by focusing on the right things, for the right amount of time, and for the right reasons. That is after all essentially what prioritization is all about.
This is of course all well and good, but making the right choice at the right time in the spur of the moment throughout the day is not always very clear-cut. As such, let’s take a look at a five step process to help you make better choices starting today.
How to Make Better Choices
Before taking you through the 5 step process, it’s important to acknowledge that we are all responsible for our own decisions. No matter what problems the world throws at us, we are always free to choose how to respond to these challenges. We are also free to choose how these problems affect us emotionally.
As such, it’s important you always take full responsibility for your life, actions and decisions without making excuses. Excuses are only distractions from the things that matter most. They will only hurt your productivity and will often lead to bouts of procrastination and perfectionism.
Okay, now that you are ready to take full responsibility for your decisions, let’s take a look at the five step process that will help you make better choices throughout the day to ensure that you are working on the right things, at the right time, and for the right reasons.
Step 1: Immediately Stop and Think
Based on the questions you asked yourself within the previous section, you should now have a pretty clear idea what kinds of tasks, activities and/or behaviors are a waste of time.
It’s therefore important now to take that knowledge and be mindful of your actions throughout the day. You must essentially train yourself to recognize the moment you begin indulging in these activities, and then immediately stop yourself and step back from the situation.
Step 2: Question the Activity
Having recognized an unproductive activity, it’s critical now that you begin questioning the long-term consequences of the choices you have made.
It’s important to understand that the behavior or activity you are partaking in is nothing more but a choice. And because it’s a choice you can just as easily choose something else. However, whether subconsciously or consciously, you made this choice for a reason. That reason could simply be that the activity feels comfortable and easy. And of course comfort and ease might feel good in the moment, but what about the long-term consequences of this choice? How will indulging in this activity today impact future choices? Specifically ask yourself:
What is the long-term impact of my indulgence in this activity?
What’s the opportunity cost?
What could I potentially miss out on as a result?
What limited future choices will I have as a result of making this choice today?
What dangerous path is this leading me down?
Only through contemplating the long-term consequences of each choice will you be able to put things into proper perspective. And subsequently this new perspective will give you the necessary insights and motivation you need to make better choices moving forward.
Step 3: Separate Yourself Physically and Emotionally
It’s absolutely critical now that you completely step away from this unproductive activity both physically and emotionally. Staying with this activity will only tempt you to keep indulging it.
You may for instance choose to go for a quick walk around the block or just to another room. This walk will provide you with greater clarity and perspective so that you can view yourself within the situation in an unattached way.
Step 4: Remind Yourself What’s Important
Take time now to remind yourself what’s most important and what truly matters when you take into consideration your long-term goals and objectives. Ask yourself:
What am I working towards? What are my goals?
What kind of person must I become to achieve these goals?
What activities will help me become this person?
What activities will help me achieve these goals?
Taking a little time to answer these questions will help you to find your bearings and allow you to refocus on what’s most important. In other words, it will help you to identify your highest priority activities that are aligned with your goals and ultimately the person you would like to become as a result of achieving those goals.
Step 5: Take Immediate Action
Having gained these insights, it’s important to now take immediate action on one of the above activities you mentioned.
Identify the activity with the highest long-term payoffs and benefits, and begin working on it today without further delay. In fact, set a timer for how long you will spend working on this activity, or commit yourself to working on it until the task has been completed.
And of course, throughout the day if you catch yourself losing focus and direction, then take time to go through this five step process all over again to get yourself back on track.
Guidelines for Working Smarter Not Harder
Within this final section let’s take a look at some quick guidelines that will help you work smarter rather than harder.
Avoid Doing Stuff Just to Stay Busy
It’s easy to keep yourself busy throughout the day by focusing all your efforts on the wrong things that will bring about very little long-term value. Although, it’s not always easy to let these things go because these tasks and activities are often enjoyable, simple and may involve a social component. However, if you’re vigilant and mindful of your daily actions you will be able to catch yourself in the act and make better choices on the fly.
Self-Discipline and Patience
Making better choices throughout the day will require self-discipline. You will no doubt be tempted to follow the path of least resistance. However, this is often not the most optimal path that will get you the long-term results you desire to create in your life.
Begin by disciplining yourself to work through the five step process for making better choices. Working through this process will help you to stay on track throughout the day. This of course will require some focus and concentration and a little patience on your part.
At times you may very well deviate from your path. Be patient with yourself. Developing new habits does take time, and patience will help you to work through the ups and downs of change more readily.
Continuously Challenge Yourself
To keep your motivation levels high, it’s worthwhile to continuously challenge yourself throughout the day. For instance, challenge yourself to work less and do more.
As an example you can set a timer for 30 minutes and challenge yourself to get a certain amount of work done within that time frame. Then the next day challenge yourself to do even more within that allotted time slot. In this way you will be continuously raising your standards of performance, and as a result your levels of productivity will improve over time.
It’s of course critical that you use these periods to focus on the most important tasks and activities that you need to get done that are aligned with your long-term goals and objectives. To do this, regularly ask yourself throughout the day the following questions:
What’s the most important use of my time right now?
What are the long-term benefits of undertaking this activity?
The first question helps you identify where you should be spending your time, while the second question provides you with the motivation you need to follow through with your actions.
Eliminate all the Unnecessary Stuff
Focusing on the most important stuff is significantly easier when you have less distractions to deal with. Remember all the unnecessary stuff we talked about earlier? Well this is the stuff that you must either eliminate, delegate or outsource. Ask yourself:
Is this really something that needs to get done?
If it needs to get done, then does it need to get done today?
Does it need to get done by me, or can I delegate or outsource it?
If I don’t get this done, will it matter? Will it negatively impact my long-term goals?
Eliminating all the unnecessary tasks and activities, or at least taking them off your hands will help you create room to focus on the most important stuff that needs your undivided effort and attention.
If this is something that seems somewhat difficult to implement, then start off by spending some time on simplifying your schedule and environment.
Streamlining your schedule will allow you to begin spending more time on the most important stuff, and organizing your work environment will help create the space you need to think more clearly about what needs to get done.
Create a Daily Action (Avoidance) Plan
Finally, at the start of each day or even the night beforehand create an action plan that outlines what must get done. List the two or three most important tasks or activities you will focus on. Then beside that list, jot down all the things that you must avoid doing.
Having a list of things to avoid doing might seem a little unorthodox at first. However, working with this list in front of you will help you to stay accountable for your actions. Distracting yourself with any of these activities will immediately raise a red flag and help you to regroup and refocus your efforts on the most important tasks.
Working through all these guidelines will of course take time. But with a little focus, dedication and effort over the long-haul, you will develop productive habits that will no doubt help you work smarter and more effectively on the things that matter most.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- 5 More Unexpected Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder @ Buffer
- 5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder @ Inc.
- 5 Tips to Work Smarter, Not Harder @ Mashable
- 5 Unexpected Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder @ Huffington Post
- 5 Unusual Ways to Start Working Smarter, Not Harder @ Buffer
- 5 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder @ Psychology Today
- 7 Superficial Ways to Work Smarter @ Inc.
- 8 Reasons Why You Need to Work Smarter But Not Harder @ Lifehack
- 10 Strategies for Working Much Smarter @ Entrepreneur
- 10 Tips for Working Smarter @ Forbes
- 16 of the Best Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder @ Zapier
- 16 TED Talks to Help You Work Smarter @ TED
- 23 Ingenious Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder @ BuzzFeed
- How to Work Smarter, Not Just Harder @ NBC
- Study: You Really Can Work Smarter, Not Harder @ The Atlantic
- The Benefits of Working Smarter Instead of Harder @ Elite Daily
- The Myths of Working Hard vs. Working Smart @ Entrepreneur
- Work Smarter Not Harder: 17 Great Tips @ Time
- Work Smarter Not Harder with these Four Simple Lifestyle Changes @ Forbes