Why you're not getting anything done – Trajan King

Why you’re not getting anything done

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For 40 years he did the same thing every day. He woke up and wrote for 3 hours, then he lectured at the same university for 3 hours, then lunch at the same restaurant, usually with the same friend. Followed by a long walk around the same park, taking the same route, leaving, and returning at the same time every day. His neighbors joked that they could set their watches by when he left his house. He did this day in and day out for 40 years. He was the epitome of scheduling. His name was Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers of all time, influencing everyone who followed him, including even Albert Einstein.

He was a profound and prolific thinker. One who knew how to stick to a schedule.

A well-respected author and blogger was asked how he got his inspiration to write so many great articles. His response was that he sat down at his computer every morning at 8 am no matter what and wrote. He didn’t wait for inspiration, he just got to work. If he were to wait for inspiration then nothing would get done.

It’s a backward belief projected by Hollywood that great minds get a sudden burst of inspiration that sets off their work. Like Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” falling and hitting his head on the toilet that inspired the Flux Capacitor. The reality is much more pedestrian.

It’s that inspiration and productivity come from putting in the work, day after day.  Writing or filming or accounting or whatever it is you do. It’s likely that most of it won’t be that great, but by putting in the work, you’ll get great stuff. The hours spent thinking and toiling will help refine thoughts and processes.

So why is it that when we have a lot of time on our hands, we find it difficult to get things done? The converse is true as well. When we’re busy, we tend to get on a roll and can’t stop being productive. It’s where the management phrase, “if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person,” comes from.

Parkinson’s Law

In 1955 in an “Economist” article Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote about how bureaucracies form and expand in companies mostly due to the fact that managers make work for each other. He wondered why the labor required in the British Civil Service was increasing while the British Empire was falling apart. It seemed counterintuitive.

In other management studies, I’ve read that the complexity in any organization rises by the square of the number of people. Maybe you’ve seen this at work. When 2 people are on a project, things get done pretty quickly. Turn that into a committee and the deadline extends to months.

Or as my grandpa used to say on the farm, “1 working boy is a whole boy, 2 boys a half a boy and 3 boys is no boy at all.”

Parkinson is famous for another adage, which is the first line of his article, that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for it.” The article wasn’t really about time management, but that line stuck because it was so memorable and relatable.

Consider any time you’ve studied for a test. College and high school students are infamous for cramming. Studying the night before or writing an entire paper the day before it’s due, no matter how long the paper is. Is this procrastination or something more?

According to Parkinson’s Law, it’s human nature to spread out the time it takes to complete a task to fill the time allotted.

In the same article, there’s a cautionary phrase for any organization:

Well-established work cultures can harbor irrational behavior. Beware!

This holds true for companies, but also those students pulling all-nighters. The expectation and often praise of those all-nighters is useless behavior. It’s not necessary and often counterproductive (see the article on the necessity of sleep for top performance). A company’s culture of long work hours will likely lead to less productivity and great job dissatisfaction.

I’ve shared my experience working on Wall Street and how insane I found the culture that extolled long work hours rather than a focus on the actual output of those hours. Around the world, companies are realizing that shorter hours and weeks lead to higher productivity and why there’s a trend toward shorter work days.

It’s not the time that counts, it’s what gets done.

The dam manager

It reminds me of a story my dad told me when I first started my job as a tech consultant out of college:

A dam manager realizes there’s a crack in the foundation of the dam. If the dam breaks it would flood the town and cause untold damage. He calls in an engineer, who specializes in this sort of thing, to look at it ASAP. The engineer declares that he knows how to fix it and goes to work. After 30 minutes the engineer reports back to the manager that the dam is fixed. The manager is grateful the day has been saved.

Until, the following week, the dam manager gets a bill for $30,000. Outraged, he asks the engineer for an itemized invoice. This is what the engineer send him:

$2.95 for screws and a hammer
$29,997.95 for knowing where to put the screws

The moral of the story? Results are what matters, no matter how fast or how slow it takes to complete the task.

How to get things done

How do we counteract the effects of Parkinson’s Law? I say that like it’s the Law of Gravity. It’s not nearly so set in stone, but it can have a similar effect in dragging us down. Here’s what the scientific research says are some of the best ways to be productive.

Plan your time

Plan your week on Sunday night and plan the next day the night before. When you start working each morning review your plan, which should include the prioritized 3 tasks to complete by the end of the day and time allotted to complete those tasks. Keep it to just 3 so you can focus and make sure they get done. If you get some other things done as well, that’s great, but don’t stop working until you complete those 3.

Start with the most difficult

Do the most difficult things first thing in the morning. The one item that takes the most brainpower should be done first thing in the morning when you have the most energy to spare. Leave the less important and easy things for the afternoon when you’re already spent or digesting that oversized burrito after lunch.

No email until noon

Being able to focus is one of the best things you can do for productivity. Email is a huge distraction. Leaving your email open all day is an invitation to continual distractions. Emails are other people’s priorities so if you start your day with your email you’re placing more energy into what other people want and not on your most important 3 tasks.

Turn off all distractions

Related to email is to turn off all distractions. This includes email, but also your phone, notifications, the TV, your dog, Facebook, and whatever else is not related to the task at hand. Multitasking is a myth and trying to do several things at once just means you’re doing a bunch of things half-assed. So go full-assed on just one task at a time and work on it distraction-free until completion. You’ll find that you accomplish much more in a shorter period of time.

Get a good night’s sleep

It’s not true that manic all-nighters make you more productive and are recommended to be a high performer. It turns out that maybe your grandma, who goes to sleep at 7:30 pm, is on to something. I explored the necessity of sleep in Why sleep is so important for high performance.

Related:

Always hustle and lose your mind
Trending toward shorter workdays
Incrementalism – consistency beats mania every time

Trajan King

Hey hey. I'm Trajan. I'm a minimalist entrepreneur who loves exploring the world (42 countries), learning new things (7 languages) and trying to get better every day (working on my backsquat).

I write about entrepreneurship and building an optimized and happy life through systems, good habits and scientific research.

Join me and we'll discover how we can build businesses we can be proud of.

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