What exactly is the point of all the productivity strategies, hacks, apps and to-do lists we’re all so obsessed with these days? The point, obviously, is to help us be more effective in how we use our time. But here’s the thing: None of it seems to be working.
Sure, a strategy or tool might be effective in helping us deal with a specific duty in a more efficient manner, but it never seems to result in a marked increase in overall free time.
The more we do, the more we have to do.
Why is this? According to self-discipline strategist and New York Times bestselling author Rory Vaden, the problem lies in our fundamental approach to productivity. According to Vaden, everything we think we know about productivity is wrong.
It’s about emotions
“Today, time management is no longer just logical. Today, time management is emotional,” says Vaden. “How we choose to spend our time is not just logical, it is also emotional. Our feelings of guilt, fear, anxiety and frustration dictate how we choose to spend our time as much as anything that’s in our calendar or on our to-do list.”
But the traditional ways of looking at time management do not take this emotional element into account. It treats humans like automatons that approach tasks in robotic fashion, with little concern for the emotions that drive our activities.
A lot of thinking around time management and efficiency is one-dimensional and overly simple. The thinking is: The quicker I manage to scratch items off my to-do list, the more time I’ll have. The frenetic pace of the modern world, however, has shown that this is not the case. Frantically ticking items off your to-do list by order of importance never seems to result in more free time.
However, a more evolved version of this paradigm exists, of which Dr Stephen Covey’s time management grid is a good example. It looks not only at what is important, but also at what is urgent.
The aim of this approach is to prioritise — to focus on that which is both urgent and important. But, while adding urgency to the equation can certainly help in setting the right priorities, it has a massive limitation when it comes to time management: It is incapable of adding free time. In no way does it clear your schedule and free up time — it simply reshuffles your to-do list.
“All prioritising does is take item number seven on your to-do list and bump it up to number one, but it doesn’t do anything inherently to create more time,” says Vaden. “All it does is allow you to take time away from one activity to accomplish another.”
This, according to Vaden, leaves us with only one strategy: To do more things, and to do them more quickly, which results in the kind of harried and rushed society we’re living in today.
Thankfully, there is a strategy to overcome this — what Vaden calls three-dimensional time management thinking — but it requires us to look at time management and productivity in a very different way.
According to this strategy, you don’t look only at the importance and urgency of any activity, but also its significance — in other words, how long will any given priority truly matter? You need to ask yourself: What can I do today that will make tomorrow better?
“You multiply your time by giving yourself the emotional permission to spend time on things today that will give you more time tomorrow,” says Vaden.
Okay, so what exactly does this mean in real terms? According to Vaden, you need to ask the following questions when any task arrives on your desk:
- Is this task really necessary? Is it even worth doing, or can I eliminate it right from the outset?
- If I can’t eliminate it, can I perhaps automate it? Can I create a process for this?
- If it can’t be automated, can it be delegated? Can I teach someone to do this?
- If it can’t be delegated, should I do this now, or can it wait?
The Focus Funnel
Vaden tells us to imagine this process as a funnel, with any task going through the stages of elimination, automation and delegation, until it drops out of the bottom of the funnel, becoming your problem. If you decide that a task can wait, Vaden says you are ‘procrastinating on purpose’.
The task goes back into the funnel, cycling through until you can either automate or delegate it, or you find that it has become a task that you need to do immediately. If none of this ever happens, well, you’ll realise that this is a task that simply isn’t all that important, and can be eliminated altogether.
“There’s a difference in waiting to do something that we know we should be doing, but don’t feel like doing, and waiting to do something because we realise that now is not the right time,” says Vaden. “That isn’t procrastination; that is a virtue that the world really needs: the patience to put off the insignificant things like checking email 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Watch Rory Vaden’s TEDx talk on the subject How to Multiply Your Time.