Work Less To Get More Done

Writer Scott Young uses the two-list productivity method: one lists what you need to get done that day, the other focuses on the rest of the week. If you can't accomplish everything on the "today" list, you're probably taking on too much and need to adjust. Sounds simple, right? But for some of us, taking on less can be quite a challenge.

Image remixed from 89 Studio (Shutterstock).

For several years now I've used a productivity trick called weekly/daily goals. I've written about it many times before, but the gist is simple:

You keep two to-do lists, one for the day and one for the week. As the week goes by, move items from your weekly to daily list. When working, only focus on the daily list. When it's done, you're finished for the day. The power of this method is that it forces you to not work on certain things. You avoid the infinite to-do list syndrome of constantly procrastinating because it feels too hard to get started. Despite its simplicity, I get a lot of emails with a common implementation problem. A typical email exchange goes like this:

"Hey Scott, I really like the weekly/daily goals, but I have a problem. No matter how hard I try, I can never get everything done on my daily list! I can only get about half of it done before I give up. What should I do to finish my daily goals?"

To me the answer is obvious -- if you aren't ever finishing your daily goals, it probably means you're putting too much on your plate. Set fewer goals and actually finish them. Easy, right? Unfortunately, almost nobody takes my advice! They claim that they have to get that work done, so they can't possibly set a smaller to-do list. Instead, of setting smaller goals, they continue creating to-do lists they can't possibly finish.

You Work Less Than You Think

The template rebuttal to my "work less" argument is insane. If they can't possibly set a smaller to-do list, but only end up accomplishing half of it, then it doesn't really matter how big the list is. Nobody cares how much work you intended to accomplish, only how much you actually finished.

This tendency to grossly overestimate your ability to get work done in the short-term is a common one. Even productivity authors aren't immune. Cal Newport posted his dismay at his meager total of hours devoted to his most important research tasks.

I'm not immune to this either. I think a difference between people like Cal and myself and most isn't that we have a magical ability to get more done, but that we actually take the time to measure our input. I've done enough timelogs to know how much time I waste.

The average person, who has never meticulously tracked work for several days, more often reacts to failing at a particular to-do list, not by scaling down their ambitions, but, ironically, by adding more work to next day's list.

Why You Should Plan to Work Less

Goals only work if they motivate achievable action. Zig Ziglar used to say goals should be out of reach, not out of sight. If you're not succeeding your daily goals lists at least half the time, you're not stretching yourself, you're just wasting time.

In the spirit of this, I offer two propositions:

1. We should endeavour to know, honestly, how much time we spend working and how much we actually accomplish. Doing a timelog is easier than ever now that there are services which track it for you.

2. Once we know how we actually spend our working time, we should try to incrementally improve it and not pretend that we'll be superheroes tomorrow.

If you do a timelog and discover you're only working four hours a day (which is very common) the appropriate reaction isn't to immediately convince yourself you'll start working eight hours, but to make incremental shifts. Try five or six hours and log yourself again in a couple of weeks to see if you've made improvements.

Why Take Small Steps?

When your self-image, especially the idealised self-image that plans your work out, doesn't match who you actually are, you become less efficient. I can say, after having done a mix of both for years, that the days I set a small, but achievable list are my most productive.

Unfortunately if you're under the impression you're capable of working 8 hours straight, but your timelog reveals you're only working two, then planning becomes meaningless.

Of course, we also remember the one day we set a large to-do list and actually did finish it. This is misleading because you can always accomplish more by temporarily kicking yourself into overdrive. But this drains you, so it's rarely sustainable for more than a week or two. The goal should be to raise your baseline level of productivity.

How to Implement this Advice and Start Getting More Done

First, do a timelog. I've always used pencil and paper, but if you're more tech-savvy than me, there are plenty of apps for recording your time spent. Doing a timelog is a pain in the arse, but it's essential if you want to know what's a reasonable benchmark for how you should spend your time.

An alternative to a timelog is to record the tasks you actually accomplish on any given day. This is a less reliable metric because task-completion is more variable than time spent, but if you do it for a longer period of time, you can get a good idea of how much you can accomplish on a typical day.

Second, set your productivity standard to be only somewhat above your current average. If you're getting done four hours, try five or six. If you're completing eight tasks, try 10 or 12.

Third, keep this standard for a full month, before going back and seeing if your productivity improved during the time period. A month is a good amount of time because anything less tends to get distorted because of the motivation burst when setting a goal.

Finally, if you're still not meeting your goals, ratchet it up another 25-50 per cent. By doing this incrementally you can reach higher levels of productivity. Eventually this tapers off and it gets harder and harder to work more without sacrificing energy or efficiency, but a lot of the early gains come from simply reorganising your time and wasting it less, not by working longer.

If you're serious about getting more done, here's a summary:

  • Do a timelog for a few days, or a detailed record-keeping of your daily goals over a few weeks.
  • Set a goal to increase your work accomplished by 25 per cent.
  • Come back in a month and measure yourself, if you've improved, you can try again or simply aim to maintain your productivity levels.

Hopefully this approach can stop the nonsense of planning for a 10-hour day when you're only actually completing three hours. Getting things done doesn't require working more, but working smarter. How can you work smarter, if you don't even know how you're working right now?

Work Less to Get More Done [Scott H. Young]

Scott Young is a blogger currently trying to learn MIT's four-year computer science curriculum over 12 months, without taking classes. Sign up here to get a free rapid learning ebook.


    I have a written 'weekly' list in an A4 notebook, and my daily list pretty much comes from my Inbox/Follow Up folder, plus random post it notes from when people come to speak to me/phone calls/flashes of insight I have.

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