How to be Productive in a Busy World

Life is a huge lottery, and it starts from birth, whether it is your height, financial inheritance, country of birth, or something else. Not many things are fair in life but one thing that is fair is time. Henry Ford said, "It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time others waste." 


Easy there, Henry, don't judge us.

As a species, we, humans use our time wisely. YouTuber, Mr. Beast posted a video where he said the name Logan Paul 100,000 times, and it received sixteen million views. I repeat sixteen million views! If that doesn't show that humans use our time wisely, I don't know what does.


You may feel uncomfortable or angry after reading this article. Instead of angering you I hope it motivates you. Grab a pen and paper and let's break down our daily activities into two categories: low value and high value. 


Let's start with low. What are some of the low value activities that many of us get sucked into day after day? Picture of activities.



Not so fast! What about the low-value activities we don't want to admit? 




On the other hand, what are the high-value activities that will move the needle on your company or your career? 


If you haven't written your list, I encourage you to write your low and high-value activities. High-value actives are often hard, take time, and we avoid them. If you are having trouble, show the list to your boss and ask, "what should be in the high-value bucket?" If they have your real interest at heart and do not want to keep you under their thumb, then your boss may provide some eye-opening suggestions. 



Step 2, during a typical week, what percentage of your time do you spend on low vs. high-value activities? (50-50, 70-30, 90-10). In comparison, when you are performing at your best? What percentage of your time do you spend on low vs. high? I typically see a change of 10-50% increase in high-value activities depending on the person. I don't expect you to write 100% or 90% in high value because there is crappy low-value work we all have to do. Therefore, write the number if you were performing at your best but still living in the realm of reality. This number is usually eye opening for a lot of people and it is likely a big reason why we are not achieving the results we would like to see in our lives. 



Step 3, why do we spend so much time on low-value activities? Because we love busy work. I hate to say it, but firstly, it's because we secretly like the low-value bucket. I can hear you screaming in your head, "come on, Steve, I don't enjoy TPS reports!"

I am not saying you love producing TPS reports. I am saying; we love the instant gratification we feel from finishing low-value activities. For example, if you keep your email inbox clean, you feel great after replying to 50 emails, the number feels good! We can quantify our productivity and show the work we have done. The number of emails or meetings proves how busy we are, and it measures our productivity. We enjoy low-value activities because this is the bucket of instant gratification.


The second reason we secretly enjoy low value is it interferes with us having to face high-value activities. If you attend six meetings in a day, you can say, "I couldn't get any real work done because I was in meetings all day."  Did you need to attend all those meetings? Could other people participate in your place? Was your involvement absolutely critical? The painful answer is no we didn't need to attend every single meeting. This is hard to admit because it may feel like what we are doing is not that critical or essential. However, if you can acknowledge this, it is the first step toward spending more time on high-value activities.


Step 4, why do we avoid high-value activities? Because they are hard and we aren't as good at them. For example, if you don't network often, you won't be as successful at networking, and you'll avoid it. If you do not present often, then you won't be as good at presenting and you'll avoid it. As a result, you'll keep avoiding high-value activities to focus on low-value activities because we are much better at those activities. It is easy to ignore high-value activities because the results come at a much later date.  For example, with networking, we might not see the results for months or years. Strategic planning results take forever. Coaching and mentoring takes time. WIth the gym there aren't many short term benefits. Unfortunately, you have to go consistently to see results because there are zero benefits from one trip to they gym a year. High-value is the bucket of delayed gratification. 


Let's go back to 1972, where Walter Mischel published the famous Marshmallow experiment. Stanford professor Mischel offered a kid a choice, one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes and you'll receive two marshmallows. The kids' reactions were priceless. This kid was circling with joy! 



Some kids smelled the single marshmallow. Other kids moved uncontrollably in their seat. Lastly, a few children spoke incessantly. Where the experiment gets interesting is 40 years later. The researchers tracked the children over 40 years, and the kids who were able to delay gratification and hold out for two marshmallows had higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, and more success across almost every other life measure. Delayed gratification appears to be a recipe for success.


However, there was an updated version of the marshmallow experiment that found the environment plays a significant role in delayed gratification. The research found if you are in an atmosphere of low trust, then delayed gratification is much more difficult. For example, if a child were born into a challenging environment where they could not trust anyone, then, of course, they would immediately eat the marshmallow. If you are in a terrible climate with no trust, then it will impact your ability to delay gratification. If you are in a tough situation, try your best to change your environment, department, boss, set of friends, or whatever else is destroying trust. 


The marshmallow experiment tells us delayed gratification is an essential ingredient to success, and it's logical. If someone has the choice between eating pizza or going to the gym, the easy option is pizza, and the difficult decision is the gym. Chances are the person who goes to the gym is going to be more successful. That is unless you are a ninja turtle. They love pizza, and they're successful.



However, if you can delay gratification, this will enable you to complete long-term projects such as writing a book, building a company, or running a marathon. With the proliferation of mobile phones, the ability to delay gratification is going to become harder and harder. Therefore, those who can delay gratification will be able to separate themselves from the pack. 


High-value activities are challenging because the pay off is long term. I always ask, "what do most people do, and what can I do differently?" If you are in a situation that is drowning you in low-value tasks, what will most people do? Almost everyone will complain and blame. To be fair, complaining might be justified, but it's not going to do anything for you aside from making you feel better in the short term. On the other hand, what is something I can do differently? Experiment, delegate, wake up early or do whatever's possible to find time for high-value activities.  People who think this way know high-value activities will get them promoted or make a difference in their life. As a result, they will do whatever they can to find time for these activities. This is NOT easy but it is possible. 


What is the moral of the story? High-value work is hard, and few people create time for this because it takes a strong ability to delay gratification. Yes, the environment has an impact, but fortunately, as we get older, we can choose our environment and who we spend time with. If you are afraid of a specific task, then it should be on your high-value list. There is a good chance that this is going to get you where you want to go. Go out there and face the proactive work you need to do, such as networking, coaching others, delegating, strategic planning, or creative problem-solving. Remember, the pay off will not be immediate. The real pay off is the confidence you gain from facing what you are afraid to do. Consider having two to-do lists, one for immediate gratification and another for delayed gratification.  


You might feel pain or sickness in your stomach after reflecting on where you are spending your time. That is ok! If you experience pain, you can always make a change and start choosing high-value activities. Now, go back to your list and select on one high-value activity to focus on. The temptation might be to do all of the high-value activities, but please don't do that because you'll end up doing nothing. Instead, pick one high value activity that you will commit to no matter. Once you master that one high value activity and turn it into a habit or an easy task, then go and select a second high value task to focus on. Alternatively, you can use Jerry Seinfeld's rule that he calls "not breaking the chain." He writes comedy every day because otherwise, he will be breaking the chain of discipline. If he breaks the chain of discipline then it's easier for him to avoid the work he needs to do, writing. As a result he does the high value activity everyday to keep the momentum going. Card magician Richard Turner says "discipline breeds discipline." Do not try to do high value activities, pick one and do that activity. 



Even though I teach this concept, it doesn't mean it is easy. I am writing a book, and there are a million things that get in the way. However, the book will enable me to elevate my career and get me to where I want to go. The problem is, with high value activities discomfort or fears can come up. What do I do when I am not at my best? Put it off, say I am busy and focus on other things. However, when I am at my best, I wake up early, find the time and face my fear of writing. I have good days and bad days, and low value/high value is something I keep in my mind to remind me to face the fear of high-value activities and to show me where I am spending my time. It is essential to remember high-value activities are going to get me to where I want to go in life. Go forth and prioritize the high value. 


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