Cutting Chaff and Adjusting Proportions

Ditch time management and focus on the 80/20 law of economics.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

“Are you being productive, or just active?”

“Are you inventing tasks in order to in order to avoid important actions?

These questions, written out in black ink on fluorescent sticky-notes, are now posted permanently on my computer screen.  I hope they serve as daily reminders to not spin my wheel for the sake of movement, to not distract myself with busy-work in order to maintain an illusion of productivity, and to distill and redistribute my weekly, daily and hourly activities.

It’s all part of Timothy Ferriss’s plan, as outline in the “elimination section” of The 4-Hour Workweek.

“Just a few words on time management: Forget all about it,” writes Ferris in his chapter “The End of Time Management.”

“In the strictest sense, you shouldn’t be trying to do more in each day, trying to fill every second with a work fidget of some type,” he writes, going on to explain that “being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important by uncomfortable actions.”

Halleluiah!  Preach it Mr. Ferriss!

This observation is not only spot on, but also specifically applicable to my daily routine – ridiculous amounts of time spent on “fidget work” and generating enough steam to run my procrastination engine at warp speeds.  If it’s an uncomfortable task – if it’s something outside my comfort zone – you had better believe I will distract myself with “to-do” lists and as much organizational dust-devils as I can muster.

I find the dusty fog of the perpetually distracted obscures life’s harsher realities quite nicely.

Of course, there’s a reason why they made a horror movie call The Fog, for all sorts of demons and ne’re-do-wells are lurking in the midst, just waiting to take a nice juicy bite out of your perfectly organized – and perfectly unproductive – life.

The trick, as Ferriss points out, is to worry less about being efficient and more about being effective.

“Effectiveness is doing things that get you closer to your goals,” explains Ferriss.  While efficiency is “performing a given task (whether important or not) in the most economical manner possible.”

“Being efficient without regard to effectiveness is the default mode of the universe,” warns Ferriss, before he outlines two truisms:

  1. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.
  2. Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.

We’ve all certainly been there: filling up our 9-5 workdays filing papers that would be better off shredding and slowly decomposing in a landfill (or, better yet, never printing out in the first place) or entering useless data into spreadsheets so that at the end of the week/month/year someone can make some pretty graphs to justify whatever project/expense/cutback they’ve decided to champion.

We can feel trapped like hamsters in a cage of our own making – spinning our wheels and going nowhere…all the while stressing out that we’re not ahead, not reaching our goals, not headed in the right direction.

This all might sound pretty cynical, but I still remember the time a wildfire knocked out the power and instead of sending everyone home to pack up and prepare for possible evacuation, the company owner declared that we should all just start filing any piece of stray paperwork lying around.  We needed to fill up that 8-hour workday, and he was going to make sure he got some “productivity out of us” – never mind that a few months later, all that filing was picked up by a bulk shredding company to make room for (you guessed it) more paperwork.

It was at that same job that I experienced what Ferriss describes as the expectation of constant motion, the employer’s belief that the only good employee is the employee that judiciously shuffles paperwork, answers every email, and fills the rest of the shift on the phone or in meetings. It’s not about end results, its about movement.  As Ferriss says, “The expectation in that environment is that you will be in constant motion from 9-5.”

I am an engineer’s daughter, and so I am always looking for the quickest, easiest way to get the best result.  My father coached me through geometry and algebra using methods and shortcuts that never endeared me to my high school math teacher (the very embodiment of someone who valued the going-through-the-motions aspect of mathematics rather than solving equations with the least amount of time investment). But he helped me complete my homework in minutes (often right before the start of class) and still earn an “A” at the end of the year, and for that I am forever grateful.

Years later, with high school math  a distant memory, I found myself typing away the hours in a cubicle as a “legal document specialist.” The goal was to put out ten documents a day on average, and I quickly discovered that “find and replace”, “Control-Alt” and Word Perfect macros were my new best friends.  So much legal language is boilerplate – why retype it every time when I could just cut and paste the same paragraph over and over again?

When combined, my tricks allowed me to complete a days work in about an hour and half, but that was a secret I kept to myself.  I knew, even then, that the scenario (which Ferriss describes in his book) would most certainly unfold if my bosses knew how quickly I could dispatch my daily document requirement.

“Even if you produce twice the results you had in the past, if you’re working a quarter of the hours of your colleagues, there is a good chance of receiving a pink slip,” explains Ferriss.  “Even if you work 10 hours a week and produce twice the results of people working 40, the collective request will be, ‘Work 40 hours and produce 8 times the results.’”

As writers, it can sometimes be hard to differentiate the busywork from the “work,” so once again I’ll make the case for Morning Pages.

Morning pages are the opposite of busywork. In fact, they are essential precisely because they allow you to be more effective.  These pages can help highlight what’s working and what isn’t.  You can’t complain about a job or a roommate or a boyfriend for weeks and weeks and weeks without finally doing something about it.

Similarly, I defy you to try and stop yourself from acting on your dreams after writing about them every morning. “I wish”…. “if only”…. “someday”… After a while, you’ll start to change out those phrases for something more concrete – “When I”… “Only after I”… “Tomorrow, I’ll.”

But the first staff is separating the chafe from the seed.  What are those things that take up a majority of resources (time, effort, money) but delivery minimal rewards? Are you surrounding yourself with people and environments that inspire and invigorate, or are you focusing 80% of your effort on jobs and clients and friends and family who will (let’s face it) never really be satisfied?

As my mom used to always say, “what are you, a masochist?”

Perhaps you just need to apply a little of Pareto’s Law to your life. Pareto’s Law goes something like this: the proportion of return versus investment is always somewhere around 80/20.  Eighty percent of wealth, 80% of consequences, 80% of profits or stock market gains – they all come from 20% of causes, effort or investors.  Put another way, 80 of your problems probably only flow from 20% of potential sources while probably only 20% of your friends and family probably supply 80% of your love and happiness.

Ferriss recommends applying this proportion to all aspects of your life.  It can be painful – if done correctly – but it can also help you understand why you’re always tired, always broke, or always daydreaming about checking out and disappearing from the world.

No one wants to put in 80% effort for 20% return – not in friendship, not in business, and not in your creative endeavors.  If you’re spending most of your day surfing the internet reading interesting articles written by other folks instead of writing yourself (guilty as charged on that one, by the way) then you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re stalled out and uninspired.

So make a promise to yourself, starting today, that you’ll strip it all down, you’ll stop the flood of minutiae and minor details and you’ll adjust your writing life so that the 80/20 proportion works in your favor.  Just don’t be surprised if you end up applying Pareto’s law to every aspect of your life.

And remember, as Ferriss clarifies, “Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.  Being selective – doing less – is the path of the productive.  Focus on the important and ignore the rest.”

All original content is the sole property of Elizabeth Cutright and The Daily Creative Writer. If you are reading this blog on another website, it has been reposted without the author’s permission in violation of the DMCA. © 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

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