How Self-Imposed Limitations Are The Key To High Productivity & Laserlike Focus
Do you recognize the feeling that, in any given day, there’s so much on your plate and so little time to accomplish it all? Well, you’re not alone. Nowadays, we’re busier and more stressed than ever, yet many of us don’t feel truly productive. In fact, the feeling of ‘not doing enough’ continually lingers in the background as we go about our days.
So what do we do?
We take on more tasks and projects (often at the same time), we put in more hours and we set more goals for ourselves because we feel the need to be more and achieve more.
Yet, paradoxically, in our pursuit for more, we often end up accomplishing less.
In reality, our focus, time and energy are spread too thin among too many different tasks, goals and projects — and none of them gets the full attention it deserves and requires for maximum results.
The Power of Self-Imposed Limitations
To prevent this from happening, and to actually achieve better results, we should make use of self-imposed limitations.
By setting limitations on your work and forcing yourself to do less, you need to focus on the essentials and you’re forced to drop the non-important. This is probably the biggest shift you can ever make in your productivity levels.
Personally, I use self-imposed limitations for three main areas:
- The number of goals I set for myself
- The number of tasks I’m working on each day
- The amount of time I spend on tasks and projects (deadlines)
By doing so, I’ve seen the biggest improvements in my focus, productivity and success since a long while.
Setting Limitations On Your Number of Goals
Chasing only one goal will help you get so focused that you can direct all of your ideas, time and energy towards this goal. This tilts the odds of success in your favour.
Yet, most people (my past self included), enthusiastically set anywhere from 3 to 10 goals for themselves.
And let’s face it, how many of these goals do you actually achieve? If you’re like me, you would only achieve about 30% of these goals, and they were almost always the easiest and least impactful ones.
Although it may seem and feel good to work on these goals, in reality, they’re just a distraction from your most important goal.
The goal that, if achieved, would by far have the biggest impact on your life.
“If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”
— Russian Proverb
Yet, there’s this psychological pull towards setting many goals. By setting anywhere from 3–10 goals we already feel successful as we imagine our future self achieving all of these amazing things. It simply makes us feel good, and that’s why we love doing it.
Unfortunately, for the majority of us, this life will remain a mere visualization.
The truth is, when you set too many goals, you’ll quickly get overwhelmed as your time, energy and attention are spread too thin. The first few weeks might go well because you’re riding a high of motivation and enthusiasm, but that starts to wear off after a while.
Inevitably, there comes a day in which you skip a habit, procrastinate on your work or fall back into old behavioural patterns — and you completely drop the ball on one of your goals. As you start to fall behind, you’ll experience more stress, guilt and low self-esteem. A chain reaction has been set in motion that slowly but surely destroys your motivation — and thereby your goals.
Rather, focus on just one goal.
When you limit yourself to just one goal (for example, one goal that you want to achieve within the next 12 months), you can focus all of your time, energy and attention onto this one endeavour. Thus, your chances of actually achieving this goal are much higher compared to having 4–5 more goals next to this one.
You can then break this goal down into checkpoint goals to make it more achievable. For example, you set one goal each quarter that’s in line with your one yearly goal. Then, you set one goal each month that helps you achieve your one quarterly goal. Every week you set one goal that helps you get closer to your one monthly goal — and every day you set one goal that helps you achieve your one weekly goal. This way, you make sure you make consistent progress towards you one, most important, goal.
Ask yourself, ‘what one thing, if achieved this week/month/quarter/year, would lead me to consider this week/month/quarter/year to be a total success?’
Another benefit of setting just one goal is that it forces you to pick the most important and impactful goal, whether setting multiple goals allows for lesser important goals to be included.
“We are kept from our goal, not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.”
— Robert Brault
If a goal is merely ‘nice’ to achieve, it shouldn’t be on your list. In that case, it would only take resources away from your most important goal and it would only be a distraction that tricks you into feeling good when you achieve it or work on it. While in reality, achieving the goal doesn’t have that big of an impact on your life.
Having too many goals is one of the biggest reasons why people fail to achieve them. But if we focus on just one goal, we can actually complete it and make an even bigger impact.
Setting Limitations On Your Number of Tasks
Nowadays, many knowledge workers have an insane amount of to-do’s every single day. And that leads to a lot of stress, overwhelm and loss of focus. There’s too much to do and too little time to accomplish it.
However, there’s a big fallacy when it comes to working on many different tasks. The thing is, not every task is created equal.
Crossing off seven tasks of your to-do list doesn’t automatically mean that you’re more productive than when you cross off only one task. When it comes to working on your tasks, it’s not about the quantity that matters. It’s about the quality (aka, the value) of your tasks.
In reality, only just a few tasks truly matter. In any business, project or goal, there are merely a handful of tasks that significantly move the needle. All the other tasks are just ‘nice’ to do and are actually distractions for your most important tasks. ‘Nice’ isn’t worth your valuable time and energy. Only the most important tasks are worthy of that.
“The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
— Alexander Graham Bell
The phenomenon that there are merely a handful of mission-critical tasks comes from the 80/20 Rule. In short, the 80/20 rule states that 20% of inputs are responsible for roughly 80% of outcomes. In other words, about 20% of your tasks and activities are actually responsible for 80% of your desired outcomes.
This means that just a few tasks truly matter.
Real productivity is not about doing more, working harder or doing any task more efficiently. Rather, real productivity is about ruthlessly identifying what’s important, protecting your valuable time for those tasks and doing them as efficiently as possible.
Therefore, I encourage you to identify your 1–5 most important tasks that significantly contribute towards the achievement of your one goal.
By choosing the essentials, you make the greatest impact with just the minimal amount of resources spent.
If you want to succeed, you need to focus the biggest majority (75% — 90%) of your time and energy on these 1–5 essential tasks. The time and energy spend on the other tasks should be brought to a minimum (or they should be delegated, outsourced or eliminated entirely).
To help you identify these tasks, I suggest you ask yourself a few key questions such as:
- If I could do only three things today, what would it be?
- What tasks have an impact that lasts beyond this week or this month?
- What tasks significantly contribute to the progress of achieving my goals?
- Does this task have a higher return (in terms of value) on my time investment compared to other tasks?
- If I were forced to take Mondays and Fridays off, what tasks would be my priorities and which tasks would I delegate or eliminate?
By doing this exercise myself I came to the conclusion that I should focus primarily on three key tasks:
- Creating high-quality, valuable content that impacts people’s lives
- Create strong, highly valuable email marketing sequences through which people can see more of my content and products
- Create products (courses and e-books) that blow people away in terms of value
I make sure that on any given day, I spend the majority of my time, energy and attention on these tasks.
Remember, it doesn’t really matter how many hours you work or how many things you get done. The only thing that matters is the value you create. That should become your measurement of productivity.
Setting Limitations On Your Deadlines
Besides working on lesser important goals or tasks, one of the biggest reasons why many people struggle with being productive is because they don’t limit their amount of time spend on certain tasks and projects.
In fact, most people give themselves way too much time to accomplish certain tasks or projects and are therefore procrastinating more than they should. Or, even worse, they set no time limit for completion. In that case, the inner procrastinator will take over by wasting a lot of time watching funny cat videos on YouTube.
For some people, the inner perfectionist will actually appear when they set no time limit for their tasks. A lot of time is then wasted on readjusting and nit-picking about insignificant details. Although this is often performed under the motto of improving the quality, in reality, it’s just a subtle form of procrastination and insecurity.
To prevent this from happening, I set artificial deadlines and time limits for my tasks and projects so that I can be highly effective and don’t waste my valuable time.
For example, I aim to write my Medium blogposts within two hours. Whenever I don’t set this time limit, I waste much more time on non-important details and re-write most sentences much more than is necessary. In fact, those articles that I write under time pressure often get more views and claps than those articles that took me an entire day to write.
This phenomenon is known as Parkinson’s Law — and it’s one of the most powerful laws of productivity.
Essentially, Parkinson’s Law states that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’ which means that if you give yourself a day to complete a two-hour task, then (psychologically speaking) the task will increase in complexity and become more daunting. We will, in fact, take the entire day to accomplish this relatively minor task.
The extra time might not even be filled with more work to actually improve the quality of the output. Often, the extra time is just filled with more stress, tension and worrying about how to get it done. Often, we fill a lot of the time procrastinating and wasting hours away.
By assigning the right amount of time to a task, we gain back more time and the task will reduce in complexity. In other words, we need to create artificial deadlines that are way shorter than we normally set them. I recommend you set your deadline at 50% — 70% of the time that it normally takes you to complete a task.
Almost always do we find ways to get the task done within the deadline we set for ourselves. When under (the right kind of) pressure, we’re capable of amazing things. All of a sudden we turn into a creative, problem-solving, productivity machine.
Because of the added pressure, you force yourself to focus on those elements of the task that are actually most important, instead of nit-picking about the details and thereby wasting valuable time.
My girlfriend can be used as a perfect example of the power of Parkinson’s Law. She’s a videographer who runs her own business, and she’s working on her latest documentary at the moment.
Right now, she’s busy with the editing process and she is using Parkinson’s Law to her advantage by setting a self-imposed time limit. Each day, she edits for a maximum of three hours. And because of this self-imposed time limit, she forces herself to make the most out of those three hours. In fact, she’s probably doing just as much in three hours what would normally take her an entire day.
In her own words, she claims to ‘work much more effectively and efficiently as she’s no longer wasting time away on non-important stuff’.
So all in all, for each task or project that you’re working on, set a tight time-limit for its completion. It’ll help you stop procrastinating, work with more intense focus and become highly productive.
Now Do It
I highly recommend you use self-imposed limitations in your own work in order to improve your focus and productivity. When you set limits for yourself, you’ll automatically be forced to focus on that what’s truly important and valuable — and actually get it done.
No longer do you have to feel stressed and overwhelmed or be spread too thin among a hundred different tasks and projects. When you set limitations on the number of goals you set for yourself, the number of tasks you work on and the amount of time you spend on tasks and projects, you’ll become much more effective and efficient — and skyrocket your odds of success.
To Your Personal Growth,
Founder Personal Growth Lab
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