Almost every morning, you will find me at my local dog park, where I walk an hour or more while listening to audiobooks. My book choices are various, including a regular rotation of business books and other nonfiction titles. Recently, I selected a title from earlier this Century, The 4-hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. This book has sparked much thinking about my own business and the clients that I support. Interestingly, much of what struck me aligns with my recent writing about the importance of valuing yourself and as an extension, where you spend your time. This blog is one of two I have planned so that I can share some of the insights that I gleaned from this book.
Insights from Chapter 5 of The 4-hour Workweek
As I have shared before, re-engineering was the practice du jour of my early career in manufacturing. Pareto's Law, also known as the 80/20 principle, was the call to arms in this work. The mathematical underpinnings of Pareto's work demonstrated a predictable distribution in which a mere 20% of the inputs create 80% of the results. He applied his mathematical equation to a variety of systems (economics, agriculture, etc.), and the results were consistent for all. Of course, the key to this equation is the ability to discern and differentiate the contributions to identify the prolific 20%. The search for this holy grail kept I/O practitioners like me, and many large consulting firms (Bain, McKinsey, Accenture, etc.) steadily employed throughout the early '90s.
Mr. Ferriss' writing reminded me that this exercise in seeking the most effective activities is equally valuable to individuals who wish to be more productive. Here are two of his points that I love.
"Doing something unimportant well does not make it important."
My husband once described the difference between being a salaried and an hourly employee as the requirement of salaried employees to figure out what work they needed to do to fill the workday. He has always subscribed to the notion that much of what people spend time doing at work is unnecessary, time-filler activities.
The appearance of being busy all the time is an unstated cultural norm that people adopted without complaint until the Millennials hit the scene. Millennials are stereotyped as the generation that fully inhabits the ideas above from Ferriss. They are not interested in busy work and see no issue with leaving the office after completing their critical tasks (which often require less than an 8-hour day).
Do your days pass in a blur of activity that leaves your exhausted and wondering what you've accomplished? If you cut your professional teeth in a corporation, it is highly likely that you have unconsciously adopted time-filler practices and propagated them in your own business. Challenging yourself to identify Pareto's Law in your work is a step in the right direction for business owners who want to focus their time more effectively and experience relief from the constant pressures of a lengthy to-do list.
CHALLENGE 1: Break free of the busy work trap
This chapter by Ferriss offered one more golden nugget. He compounds the idea of transforming your workday with the application of Parkinson's Law, which he describes as follows.
"a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion."
In other words, setting short, aggressive timelines for completing work creates focus and prevents analysis paralysis.
It is our nature and habit to allow an abundance of time to become detrimental to productive use of this limited resource. General Electric understood this issue clearly when they institutionalized their Work-Out and subsequent Change Acceleration Process (CAP). These tools for framing and executing change from any level of the organization start with simplicity and speed as core conditions — these processes timebound projects to 90-day completion deadlines. For many of us, our best work happens when we are "under the gun" and required to simplify.
Consider how you relate to this admission from Ferriss.
"Even if you know what's critical, without deadlines that create focus, the minor tasks forced upon you (or invented, in the case of the entrepreneur) will swell to consume time until another bit of minutiae jumps in to replace it, leaving you at the end of the day with nothing accomplished. How else could dropping off a package at UPS, setting a few appointments, and checking e-mail consume an entire 9-5 day? Don't feel bad. I spent months jumping from one interruption to the next, feeling run by my business instead of the other way around."
As a business owner, this strikes home for me, and I see this daily struggle for my clients.
CHALLENGE 2: Simplify and focus
Time is precious because it is finite. Having the time we desire for family, friends, and relaxation is an often named struggle for business owners and leaders. Like Ferriss, I believe that we have the power of choice and can utilize discernment to become wiser stewards of our time. I suspect that all of us can claim the life that we want through the application of Pareto's and Parkinson's Laws.
Next week I'll share another great tip from The 4-hour Workweek to increase your effectiveness and preserve your time as a leader. Until then, I invite you to contemplate the challenge questions above and share your insights with me and my followers.