Everyday we dream about our goals. We chase growth in line with our ambitions – a promotion or a 10% increase in clients per month. We readily take on more work but rarely think about the consequences of doing so, until circumstances such as, overwhelming workloads, force us to. The issue is, we are so focused on obtaining growth that we pay little attention to the scalability of our present behaviours and processes. Can we respond to 1000 emails as easily as 100? No. How long until a permanent back log of unanswered and unread emails becomes our norm? Very quickly we go from being on top of our workload to constantly fighting to keep our head above it. It doesn’t make for a happy work or productive work life, that’s for sure.
For Tim Ferriss, author of four hour work week, breaking point hit him four years after becoming founder and CEO of his highflying Silicon Valley firm. After four years of clocking 7am – 9pm hours, 7 days a week and responding to 1,500 emails per week he concluded that he could no longer fight his overwhelming workload in this way. His role was increasingly growing and his processes and routines were 100% unscalable, in fact they were barely making a dent in his work. His behaviours needed to change because he physically couldn’t log anymore hours. In light of the increase in his demand but hindered ability to supply Ferriss conducted an experiment. For the past four years Ferriss had chained himself to his desk, increased his hours but still felt he was drowning in work this time he decided to do the complete opposite.
Ferriss decided to leave his office and work remotely from 20 countries all over the world. His one golden rule was that he could only check e-mail once a week, for 15 months. What happened? In short by embracing what he calls the “low-information diet” Ferriss defied the logic of excessive working cultures. His business did not fail, it thrived. In the first month alone, Ferriss saw an increase in his profits by 30%.
During his time away, Ferriss identified the biggest, and most time consuming pitfalls of the modern worker;
The biggest downfall of individuals (and firms) is not clearly defining objectives. If you don’t define your goals clearly, everything seems important, and you attempt to assimilate all of the information thrown your way on a daily basis. Not only is this incredibly exhausting but it’s entirely inefficient, especially if a large portion of this information is irrelevant to your critical goals.
Trying to make everyone happy – besides being impossible – is the surest way to make yourself miserable. You should not be sacrificing your quality of work for the sake of quantity, especially if you want to obtain long-term clients. Turning away work may initially not be a popular decision but you will be far more unpopular, in the long run, if you produce low quality work – even just once!
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.
In a bid to stop wasting time on things that didn’t pertain to his overall goals Ferriss applied the following 3 steps to his work. In doing so he managed to increase his efficiency by 30%, increase his companies bottom line and achieve a healthy work-life-balance.
If you constantly feel overwhelmed by a mountain of increasing work, then arguably it’s time to change your processes too.
In 2005, King’s College, London conducted a study to explore the differentiation in IQ between one group of candidates high on marijuana and another group distracted by e-mail and ringing phones. By an average of 6 points the e-mailers did worse than the stoners.
Why? Interruptions cause a psychological uprooting to focus. Once interrupted it takes the brain up to 45 minutes to regain concentration and resume the original task. More than a quarter of each 9-5 period (28% or 134.4 minutes) is consumed by such interruptions, and 40% of people interrupted go on to a new task without finishing the task that was interrupted. This is how we end up with 20 windows open on our computers and nothing completed at 5pm.
Multi-tasking is a fool’s plan. It never worked and never will. It not only breeds inefficiency but also puts you at certain risk of cognitive impairments.
Excellent ways to decrease frequency are;
Batching is scheduling the completion of time-consuming but necessary tasks at set times, as infrequently as possible. This can be done with everything from e-mails – bills. For example, Ferriss recommends only checking your email twice per day. Once at 12 noon, and again at 4pm. Obviously, this is subject to your career and it’s demands but do remember that responding to emails throughout the working day is wasteful of your time. You become distracted, it takes you longer to complete tasks that you are distracted from (in some cases you leave them incomplete) and it is inevitable you will be interrupted by a significantly less important email than the present task you are attempting to action.
You do not need to respond to every e-mail. In line with the belief that we people please at our own expense Ferriss recommends the following strategic choices for a more efficient mailbox
Ferriss recommends adding an explanatory sentence to your auto responder that reads “if your email doesn’t contain a question that requires a response, please don’t be offended if I don’t reply with an e-mail. This is to keep back-and-forth a minimum for both of us! Please feel free to call my phone if you need a confirmation or anything else.
For example, “Dear John, have the presentation papers arrived? If so please give them to… if not please contact Sally on 555-555.” This maximises efficiency and eliminates most follow up questions. Get into the habit of considering what “if..then” can be used in any email where you ask a question.
With the use of science, you can increase your reading speed by at least 200%. Reading isn’t a linear process but a series of jumps (saccades) and independent snapshots (fixations). Reading speed increases, to the extent, that you reduce the number and duration of fixations, per line. That is the science of speed reading in once sentence. Below is a explanatory diagram from Ferriss.
We are subjected to an overwhelming and increasing amount of daily distractions. Learn to recognise and fight the information impulse. Most of the interruptions stop us from progressing more important tasks. Having a set of rules and routines to follow helps keep you away from distractions. This is what the low-information diet seeks to achieve. Focus on being productive rather than busy – your life will change for the better.
Whilst some of Ferriss’ suggestions may seem too wild for your workplace. It should be remembered that without change everything remains the same… if you’re suffering from increasing workloads and decreasing hours, than it’s certainly time to change your processes.
Check out more stuff from Tim Ferriss here
Leila is PCA’s Head Editor and Researcher. She holds a 1st class Law with Business degree and became a published author at 25. Former crime investigator turned business journalist. On a mission to show businesses that presenteeism is a thing of the past. Everything seems impossible until it’s done. Typically found working from a white beach in South-East Asia embracing rapidly changing technology.