Being Productive by Doing Less

Recently, I read an article about the 80–20 rule applied to learning. Last semester, I learned about the 80–20 rule, or Pareto Principle, from my engineering leader interview for ENGI 140. The theory behind it is that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, and with this knowledge, you can focus on the 20% most important causes to get more done. This is all good and well in theory, but it was hard for me to see a real-world example of it.

Another article I read recently discussed how being less busy could be more productive than working all the time. In this era with the proliferation of startups, more and more I hear people working 50–60+ hours a week compared to the normal 40. The engineering leader who I interviewed, the CEO of a construction software company, claimed to be working 120 hours a week! To put that in perspective, that is 17 hours a day including weekends. Busyness is portrayed as success. I had begun to believe that work/life balance was just going to be a lofty dream if I wanted to be really successful.

Both of these articles essentially target the same subject, improving the productive quality of the hours you put in instead of increasing the quantity. The first article states that the three essential activities are: “Improving your skills, doing what you want to do, and having a sense of purpose.” Following these three guidelines, you can eliminate wasting time trying to learn things that aren’t important to you.

“It’s that simple — the trick is to do it every day.”

If you do these activities everyday, you build a habit, and it becomes instinctual. Improve on what you like, what you are passionate about and know your reasoning behind wanting to do so. “Don’t learn something you can’t understand the value of and which is not directly useful.” If you can’t understand why you want to learn it, then you have no real motivation to actually stick to it. That is the road to burnout and stagnation. As the article points out, “Studies prove that the more knowledge you have, the faster you acquire it.” This fact represents the compounding effect. It means that the faster you start making it a daily habit, the more you will learn in the same amount of time each day. Take an example from investing that I happened upon recently: How much would you guess you end up with if you started with a penny at the beginning of a month and doubled it every day for the 30 days? $100? $1,000? $10,000? Actually, the answer is $10.7 million. Even one day can make a difference.

The second focuses on doing less but getting more out of less. The argument stems from the paradox, “When you have less time available for work, you have to make better choices about what to work on (and what not not to).” By necessity, you can learn to be more productive. However, there’s another way to make yourself more productive in the time that you have: by being in control of your time and prioritizing accordingly.

“Not being busy requires saying no a lot.”

I can relate to the difficulty of this statement all too much. Last semester when I first entered college, I wanted to be very proactive, unlike in high school, pursuing every opportunity I saw. Now, I am involved in so many organizations and roles that it’s becoming difficult to distinguish the ones most important to me from the ones I took on just for the sake of proactivity. Luckily, I was able to manage everything relatively fine, but I can see that if I continued at the current pace, I will soon be drowning in all my responsibilities. I realized that I need to understand what is important to me, and focus all my energy on those things because if they really are that important, they deserve my full attention. And that means sometimes turning down other opportunities to focus on what really matters.

“The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

I just happened to come across this quote today because of a fire alarm drill, and I think it is pretty relevant to being less busy. We have to take breaks and enjoy activities that we find fun to be fully productive during the times that we work. This includes the very important but often trivialized task of getting enough sleep. I know from personal experience how we take sleep for granted, sacrificing my sleep to get some more work done or hang out with friends, even while knowing all the benefits of getting enough sleep I was missing out on. It always seems worth it in the moment, but as the previously linked article points out, “After several nights of losing sleep — even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night — your ability to function suffers as if you haven’t slept at all for a day or two.” So do your best to get enough sleep and engage in the activities that you enjoy. However, we also have to be careful about justifying spending excess time on these recreational activities. Once it crosses over into overindulgence, it starts to become time wasted.

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