When I was a consultant, I was ridiculously efficient.
I had a toolkit full of “efficiency hacks” that I used everyday to get work done at an accelerated rate: custom Inbox Zero routines, muscle-memory keyboard shortcuts, folders full of PowerPoint templates, etc.
Back then, my colleagues and I were setting records with the insane amount of slides, models, and emails we produced every day.
But there was one small problem: efficiency is overrated.
I’ve been ridiculously inefficient in 90% of what I’ve done this week, but I don’t care.
Because instead of focusing on efficiency and speed, I have a new way of thinking about work that has skyrocketed my productivity and made efficiency irrelevant to my success.
Skyrocket your productivity and achieve more
Productivity is a measure of output per unit of input.
One of those ‘inputs’ is time, so speed and efficiency are definitely important, but here’s the catch: your productivity is zero if you’re producing the wrong ‘output’.
Take these examples from my consulting years:
Early in my time as an analyst I spent an entire day with my head-down churning out 20+ high-quality slides. It was only after doing a review with my manager that I realized I’d spent 8 hours building a story that the client didn’t care about. We had to start from scratch the next day.
Another time, I had a partner shoot me an email asking me to do a new scenario in a financial model I was working on. I powered through and finished it in record time, but when we looked at the end result he that he wanted something else instead. I’d wasted a good 6-hours on it.
In both scenarios, instead of worrying about doing things as fast as possible — efficiency — I should have been worrying about what I was doing and why. Spending just 5-minutes with a blank piece of paper to do some planning would have reduced a full-day of rework and skyrocketed my productivity even if I was incredibly slow and inefficient at doing the actual work.
Unfortunately, focusing on what you’re doing (any why) isn’t as easy as it sounds. Our natural inclination is to dive right in and start working because it gives us the feeling of progress, but trust me when I say the 5 – 10 minutes you invest in thinking will be worth it because you’ll actually be producing the desired output.
This quote from Tim Ferriss sums up my point-of-view well:
What you do is infinitely more important than how you do it.
It sounds so simple, but it’s hard to snap ourselves out of the moment-to-moment reactionary thinking and take two-seconds to look at the bigger picture and think before we act.
After years of making this mistake and being perpetually unproductive, I’ve started to piece together a new approach to productivity.
How to increase your productivity with 5 thought provoking questions
When I’m trying to be productive, I try to focus on what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and not how I’m doing it.
I’ve found the best way to trigger this focused thinking is with questions. Whenever I find myself working on something where I don’t know what I’m trying to achieve, I stop what I’m doing and ask myself 5 questions. I also look at these when I’m trying to plan my day, week, or year as it reminds me to narrow my focus.
You’ll notice that some of these questions push beyond the usual day-to-day work concerns and into the broader arena of overall life. For me this topic is still within the productivity realm, as I often get so focused on staying productive in my day-to-day work that I never stop to think about what ‘output’ is required for a ‘productive life’.
Here are the questions. Below the questions I’ve included the context of where I found them, and a link to the source if you want to read more.
- Did I spend the last hour productively?
- If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?
- Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?
- How will I feel about this when today is over?
- If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?
#1: Peter Bregman – 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done
Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour and start the work that’s listed on your calendar. When you hear the beep, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour. Manage your day hour by hour. Don’t let the hours manage you.
#2 & #3: Tim Ferriss – “Productivity” Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me)
Write down the 3-5 things — and no more — that are making you most anxious or uncomfortable […] For each item, ask yourself:
– “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”
– “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”
#4: Leo Babauta – The End of the Day Philosophy
I’ve been making my small decisions throughout the day, recently, with a simple question: How will I feel about this when today is over?“
#5: Steve Jobs – 2005 Stanford University Commencement Speech
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
This approach complements the ‘Life Checklist’ that I wrote about on WSO a few weeks ago (How I Limit Anxiety, Stress, and Regret). Asking these questions helps inform the items I put on the checklist, and ensures I’m spending time on the right things.
After you’ve thought about each question, let me ask you this: What was your biggest takeaway? How will you start using these questions to impact your day-to-day life?
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