02 Jan 2015

Do Less

Perceived vs Actual Freedom

The problem we’re all wresting with can be stated in many ways…

  • “I’m too busy”
  • “I don’t have time”
  • “I’m making commitments I can’t keep”

…but another way to think about the problem may be the difference between our “perceived” freedom and our actual freedom. That is, we perceive—we believe—that we have a very narrow scope of possible actions, that we don’t have a lot of freedom. That’s a not a good feeling.

While a lot of us believe that our range of possible actions, our arena of freedom, is quite small. It is actually much bigger that most of us believe. (You may share this belief about someone else: a friend who can’t seem to take some obvious step in their business, life, or relationship. Freedom is a lot easier to see in others than in ourselves.)

So why do we feel like we have so few choices; why do we feel like we have so little time?

One thing that blinds us to our freedom is that if we think that all the things we’re working on are more or less of the same importance, then it becomes very hard to discard anything, and becomes very hard to do something later instead of right now. Thus we feel like we don’t have a lot of choice in what we do, don’t have a lot of discretion, don’t have a lot of freedom.


Our Work is not All of Equal Importance

This sounds obvious, but lacking a consistent way to define “importance” we treat everything the same or take some other ranking (like the order things came into my inbox), or someone else’s ranking, as a stand-in for their importance. Consider this example:

Most of us would agree with psychologists who say humans are bad at estimating: this planning fallacy means we routinely underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete something. And this optimistic bias exists no matter how experienced we are with the task we’re estimating.

The naive answer is to build some padding into our estimates to compensate for the planning fallacy and give us a little breathing room. So why don’t we? Most of our schedules, deadlines, and plans have no slack in them at all.

I believe the real reason we can’t seem to do this is that we lack a framework for truly prioritizing the project we want to pad above those competing tasks that surround it. That is, we can’t do less, can’t leave unscheduled time at the end of our projects, because we’re not truly convinced the thing we’re working on is important enough. [1]

Rather than pad our most important activities, we switch over to something equally important as soon as we’re “done”. This is what’s corrosive about having all your tasks be more or less of the same priority. It feels like treading water no matter how hard you’re working.

If we were on to something truly important we’d probably have more courage to bake in some real padding: real open and unscheduled time. (If you’re a leader, one of the best things you can do is communicate what your *most important* objectives are, and give your team criteria by which to make these determinations themselves.)

Doing Less Unlocks Everything Else

This is how we get to “less”. The things we’re doing now are not all timely and they are not all of the same importance. Knowing that we can discard some, defer others. Doing less means you have more time for what remains: that’s pretty powerful. You literally “have more time”. And, having gotten clear about what’s important, we can start blocking off time for that important work. Or even blocking off empty time—time we plan not to work—time for resting, reflecting, or planning.

I was amazed once to hear that a particular leader at Amazon, having decided he needed to come up to speed on a new field, simply sat down in his office with a stack of books and started reading up on the subject. At work! (When was the last time you saw someone plowing through a book at work?) But it makes sense—if reading this stuff was truly important why consign it to the end of the day, after hours, or bedtime reading. He blocked off time on his calendar and sat down to read: because it was that important. (And because the leadership shared his vision of its importance.)

So why do we have to “block off time” instead of just fitting things in?

Blocking Off Time: Why “Do the important stuff first” Doesn’t Work

My friend Tim is despairing over not getting enough done. He runs a small software firm, has 16 people under him, and holds himself to very high standards. He says, “my problem is that I have all these emails to catch up on, and all this other stuff to do—all these obligations—and I *mean* to ship my product/get proposals out/whatever, but I have all these emails to get to. So I start them and make some headway and by the time I’m done I just can’t do this *other* work that I really, really need to be doing.”

I think this is incredibly common and I certainly recognize myself in Tim’s description. The most common advice you hear to remedy this is “well, just do the more important stuff first” and then get to the email. That’s good advice, and it works to a point. But there is a big piece missing; if you’ve tried this and it hasn’t panned out, maybe this is why.

Here is where the advice does work to a point. Tim *had time* after his email-answering was done to work on the new product launch, he just couldn’t. Why not? Why can’t you just work on your most important work at the end of the day when you’re done with your dreck?[2] There are probably a number of reasons, and some of it is just how our brain works. You get into this reactive mode with email and that’s so dopamine receptive and cool that you just don’t feel like switching gears into this harder, quieter space after all that “rewarding” work. This kernel of brain science is the reason why “Do the important stuff first” seems so plausible. It’s like the productivity version of “pay yourself first” and seems as self evident.

But taking a closer look at this, it’s not that the things Tim’s working on are unimportant—I think in this conversation some of his emails were responding to customers who wanted a webinar of one of his products. Others were getting quotes out to folks who’d asked about purchasing upgrades. That’s money coming in the door and needs to be acted upon (though maybe not by Tim). And of course he was answering emails from his team. That’s the first problem with saying “just work on what’s important first”—that doesn’t help if it’s all kind of important.

The real reason this advice fails isn’t just that we’re treating everything like it’s all of the same importance, it’s that just saying “Do that first” isn’t enough. “First” isn’t definite enough to defend itself against your schedule. “First” doesn’t have a start time; it doesn’t chime to tell you it’s 10 minutes to “first”. And perhaps most importantly, “first” doesn’t have a duration (as we’ll see below). You have to carve out a time to do your most important work it and then respect that time.

We’re much better at this with physical space, by the way, and are used to the idea of rooms being for particular purposes. We need to bring that same demarcation into time.

I remember when I was painting, some days I’d get to the studio I’d just sit and stare at the paintings unsure of what to do next. I berated myself. And then I left. I felt bad, of course, but at some point you come to realize that this is part of the process. The berating falls away and the sitting remains. And one day, sitting there you pick up the brush and make some marks and that gets you through whatever had you sitting and staring for three days. And the painting continues. Note that it’s not like I just needed to screw up my courage to make those marks. Rather, they’re informed by the sitting and by all that time thinking about the painting: by that time doing nothing.

With that kind of thing in mind, here is why “Doing your most important work first thing in the morning” isn’t enough. You say, I’m going to work on this new business proposal first thing in the morning, before I allow myself to be distracted by the rest of my day. So you do, and you get into the proposal, and then, like painting, you run into something that’s hard. Or it’s not coming; the words just aren’t coming that day.

So you say, well if it’s not coming, I have all this other important stuff to tackle so I’m going to go work on some of that. And you feel good because you started the tough thing, you did a little work on it, and you honored your bargain by doing it first. But you didn’t really make progress on it, because with ton of nearly-as-important-and-maybe-more-seductive stuff competing with it, you just switched your focus.

There is a big difference between doing that and respecting a block of time you’ve set aside to work: sitting in front of the painting and doing nothing, if that’s what it takes. Reading a book, at your desk, from 9am to noon on Monday morning. I think of it like keeping the sabbath: if you’ve blocked off two hours in the morning to work on copy for the new website, then two hours. Even if you don’t write a word. Even if you only write a sentence. You spend that time there because some of this work is that hard. It needs time. You need some of that time to pickup the thread from where you left it. And sometimes you need time to screw up your courage.

The good stuff doesn’t get done by effectively saying “if this doesn’t feel good in 20 minutes, I’m gonna switch to something else.”

It’s like sitting in meditation alone vs in a group. Alone you say, “wow, this is uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable yet,” meaning that when it gets a bit more uncomfortable you’ll give yourself permission to quit. In a group you’ve promised to sit for X minutes so you do, rather than checking in with yourself every few minutes to see if you feel permission to move, get up, or quit. One is no more badass or less kind to yourself than the other; they are just different kinds of promises

So declare what’s most important to you. For many of us, we know the thing that is truly most important. And it’s often something we’re not doing much of at all, or something we’re afraid to start. It’s what our soul longs for; what we yearn to be doing

Then make a promise that matches the importance of what you’re after, a promise that in its scope and ambition matches the value and potential of this one life we have. Make a sacred space in your day—take a day back from your week—and then stick to it. Both do less and keep your sabbath.

Remember, doing less means you have more time for other things. You literally have more time. What would you do if you knew you had enough time?


Notes   [ + ]

1. We’re not talking about budgeting an extra 15 minutes to get across two for a meeting. Real padding means adding open, unscheduled time onto the end of that two-week project.
2. The “end of the day” is a strange thing for most of us as we don’t really know when we’ve done enough work on a given day, so we just keep working. We work until something else forces us to stop—we have to make dinner, or pickup the kids, or just run out of gas. How many people *know* when they’ve made enough progress on their important projects and stop work then? Not many: because everything they work on is of the same importance.

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