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Doing more by doing less

An article today from Jeff Atwood bemoans the plethora of todo apps and presents an argument against todo lists:

Here's my challenge. If you can't wake up every day and, using your 100% original equipment God-given organic brain, come up with the three most important things you need to do that day – then you should seriously work on fixing that. I don't mean install another app, or read more productivity blogs and books. You have to figure out what's important to you and what motivates you; ask yourself why that stuff isn't gnawing at you enough to make you get it done. Fix that.

I'm a big fan of that idea, and in fact have been toying with it practically for a while now.

It started with the decision to implement a limited size todo list, using my iPad and the Bamboo app to write tasks manually (and manually copy them over onto future days if they don't get done). I started with 10 tasks per day at most, with the idea that if I have to add another task to a day that already has 10 tasks, I have to move one undone task to a future day.

It worked relatively well, but I still felt swamped. So I reduced my task count to 5. And, strangely enough, I felt more productive.

See, the reason why we're not productive most of the time isn't that we're not doing stuff. I spend my whole day doing stuff, but that doesn't make me productive. The reason why we're not productive is that we spend most of our time doing the wrong things.

The pareto rule applies to the task selection as well as to the work itself. In fact, it applies even more harshly: you're an incredibly productive person if 20% of all the tasks you do actually are the right things. But most of the tasks we do are "busywork" - whether that's answering emails, chasing people for unpaid invoices, or, irony of ironies, keeping track of the status of things.

I'm not saying these tasks (e.g. chasing invoices) are not important in some fashion. They need to happen, certainly. But chasing invoices is unlikely to be the most important thing you could do today to achieve your life's goals. And that's assuming you even have life goals. If you don't, then 100% of what you do is aimless busywork.

Jeff's article prompted me to write out my thoughts on this topic, and so I'll finish with this thought that I've been ruminating for a while:

If you can, every week, figure out and do the one most important thing that you can do to achieve your life's goals, you will be one of the most successful people on this planet.

And yes, that's true even if you forget to do some menial tasks like chasing invoices or renewing your driving licence.


More from the library:
Startup cooking: don't eat pizza and ramen
Avoid over-design
Use your competitors' marketing budget for your campaigns
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