How to decide what to spend your time and energy on

A couple picks buttercup flowers in a field near the southern town of Kiryat Gat April 21, 2012.  REUTERS/Amir Cohen (ISRAEL - Tags: SOCIETY) - RTR311IT

A couple picks buttercup flowers in a field. Image: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Ash Read
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When I first jumped into the freelance world I was constantly working. I would answer email at any hour of the day, spend my evenings finishing up client work, and never fully take a weekend off. It was crazy. I realize now that this mentality came down almost entirely to fear. I was new to freelancing and felt that if I didn’t work 24/7/365 then I’d be missing out on opportunities.

Other times, it was because I constantly wanted to be busy. If I wasn’t doing something I felt like I wasn’t working hard enough. If I wasn’t hustling and didn’t put in the long hours, I feared I wouldn’t “make it.”My energy was all over the place.

It was only when I took a step back and discovered the unimportance of almost everything that things really started to kick off for me. And not just with my business . I started finding myself with more free time to go grab a beer with a friend. I started feeling much happier. And in the time I did spend working, I was much more productive.

I learned that there are very few things in business (and life) that truly matter, and that we’re more likely to miss out on the meaningful things if we focus all of our efforts on just staying busy.

The curse of urgent

We live in a world that’s constantly fighting for our attention. There’s a war against focus, with every single element of the modern world vying for what little time we have. We get sucked into feeling that certain activities are urgent and demand our immediate attention. However, take a second to really look at your urgent list and you’ll realize that most can be completed later (or not at all) with no real consequences. (Think about the pile of unanswered messages in your inbox or those meetings in your calendar you only accepted to be courteous).

When you look at the most successful people in any industry, one key distinction between them and the rest of their peers is the ability to focus on what’s important, not what’s simply in front of them at that moment in time.

As Apple’s chief design officer Jonny Ive explains:

The thing with focus is, it’s not this thing you aspire to, or you decide on Monday,”‘You know, I’m going to be focused.” It is a every minute, “Why are we talking about this? This is what we’re working on.” You can achieve so much when you truly focus.

The problem comes when the 99% of things that don’t matter cause us to lose focus on what’s important. A recent study found that half of the average employee’s time is spent on email and other unproductive tasks such as trying to contact customers or colleagues, scheduling meetings, and duplicating information (like forwarding emails). We enjoy checking things off a list. For example, answering an email delivers satisfaction and give us a sense of progress, “that’s one more thing off the to-do list.”

By comparison, a more important task, like sitting down and planning your overall marketing strategy doesn’t deliver the same immediate gratification, though it will be far more valuable in the long run. I’ve seen it time and time again in the content marketing world: the pressure to keep churning out content every single day results in the bigger picture thinking—the strategy behind it all—being shifted further and further back.

As a result, you’re left with a ton of content but a lack of direction and no real focus on value. And that’s the danger in all of this—once time passes, the important eventually becomes urgent. But by then it may be too late to do much about it. Your competitors—the ones who focused on the important things—have already gotten ahead.

Efforts vs results

Too often we fall victim to the idea that effort and reward are completely aligned. It’s enticing to believe that the amount of work you put in is directly linked to the rewards you receive.

However, this is rarely the case. And if you are in a position where your results are in direct relation to the amount of work you put in, you’re on the road to burn out (or worse).

Instead, we need to learn to play the long game. To focus our time and effort on what’s really important and find ways to multiply our own time.

The law of the vital few

You’re probably familiar with the 80/20 rule. The idea that 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers, or as Joel Gascoigne explains over at Buffer’s Open blog, “80% of the effects of something come from 20% of the causes.”

The 80/20 rule is also known as The Law of the Vital Few (or Pareto’s Principle) and dates back to the 1790s when Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people.

Separating the “vital few” from the “trivial many” can help you succeed in all areas of life and is especially powerful when applied in the workplace. As Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer for Microsoft, explained: “The top software developers are more productive than average software developers not by a factor of 10x or 100x or even 1,000x, but by 10,000x.”

The top software developers aren’t superhuman. They aren’t working 100 hour weeks to be more productive than their counterparts. They’ve simply mastered the art of focusing on what matters. For example, email and communication tools like Slack are unavoidable in the workplace but if you can schedule time away from these tools to focus on important work you’ll reap the benefits. Studies have shown that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to your original task after being interrupted.

Imagine how much more we could do if we focused on the vital few tasks for eight hours per day, instead of bowing to the pressure of the trivial many.

How to decide what to spend your time and energy on

It’s all well and good to say that “99% of things don’t matter,” but how do you go about distinguishing the 1% that does matter?

On his blog, Cal Newport discusses the notion of deep work versus shallow work:

Shallow work involves “Tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, and so on).”

This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy. However, shallow work is not the place where we do our best, most remarkable work. As Newport explains: “This type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicatable.”

On the flip side, deep work consists of “Cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.” Deep work is the important stuff. It allows us to improve the quantity of valuable output we produce, allows us to utilize the skills we’ve worked for years to hone, and drives far greater reward in the long term. When planning your work, sit back and think about how you can spend more time focusing valuable, deep work.

How can you cut out the shallow work distractions that waste 80% of your time? For me, this means only responding to communication (emails, Tweets, Slack messages, etc…) at certain times of the day so I can block out chunks of time to focus on deep work. Another great way to figure out what’s important is to look at your to-do list, order it by rank of importance (not urgency), and then cross off everything but the number one item.

Put time aside to focus purely on this task, without distraction. And when you’re working on the task, write down every time you think about opening email, checking Facebook, or any other distracting task. The act of noting down every time you go to distract yourself will make you much more mindful of how easy it is to lose focus and help you build more productive habits.

Being proud of what you don’t do

Famous billionaire investor Warren Buffett once said: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” Whether you’re an athlete saying no to partying so that you can work on your shot, aproduct manager saying no to new features to build a better product, or a writer saying no to new projects to focus on the ones you care about, “no” is an essential part of success in any walk of life.

“Saying no frees you up to say yes when it matters most,” wrote author and Wharton professor Adam Grant on his Linkedin column. Entrepreneur and writer Derek Sivers shares a similar sentiment on his blog: “When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say ‘HELL YEAH!’” Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. In order to focus on these, don’t clutter your calendar with commitments that pull you away from the work that you truly want to do.

People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.

We hold ourselves back by believing that everything is important. When we spend our time working on the urgent, busy work, we’re at our least productive, and are in a position where we’re not producing to the best of our abilities.

It’s not a case of needing more time in the day. We simply need to spend more time on what we’re brilliant at. And less time on all the other stuff. Focus and success come from understanding the unimportance of almost everything. It’s about saying no to good opportunities to pursue the truly great ones.

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