Someone once described me as “scarily efficient”. I have to say, I took it as a huge compliment. However after reading The 4-Hour Work Week (Tim Ferriss – Amazon) and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen R Covey – Amazon) I’ve been focusing more on Effectiveness. There’s an important distinction. You can be efficient at doing trivial things, effectiveness is focusing your energy on things that will allow you to achieve the most important things.
One of my friends was talking to me this evening about how she’s not achieving what she wants to, and about how she feels like having a personal life eats into her “work time”. I hope I gave her some reasonable advice, so I’m going to reproduce it here.
1. Get Some Perspective
Read The 4-Hour Work Week and 7 Habits (Amazon) and learn the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Think about the things that you do that are efficient, rather than effective, and whether it’s possible to eliminate them.
2. Don’t be Overwhelmed
My friend has big problems keeping up with her RSS feeds. But if you’re overwhelmed to the point where you’re not reading anything, you’re not keeping up with what’s important. Incidentally, if you’re getting more articles than you can read a day and you stop trying to keep up, you’re still getting more articles than you can read a day and ultimately it won’t take long before you’ve got more than you’ll ever catch up with. Don’t just declare “RSS bankruptcy” – eliminate ruthlessly and keep just the important feeds. Learn to skim – if you start reading something and it’s not interesting, or relevant enough, don’t waste your time reading to the end – move onto the next thing.
3. Set Manageable Goals
If you have a full time job and work 50-60 hours a week are you really going to spend your weekend reading an entire text book? I really hope not! Get a proper todo-list manager (I’m liking Remember The Milk) and make some lists. Set repeating tasks that are manageable. Manageable is key, because once you get behind you probably won’t be able to catch up. I feel that a backlog of a week’s daily repeating tasks should be able to be cleared in one day focused on them – but that’s not a scientific measurement. Also, as a grad student my schedule is somewhat different.
A really useful aspect of a todo list, is if you get home feeling drained knowing you should do something productive but incapable of deciding what – the todo list will decide for you. Do it, and you’ve achieved something more than just watching TV. Consider the warm glow this gives you a gift. I do this when I’m feeling overwhelmed, just pick the top-priority task of the list. Or pick an easy “repeating” task to warm up and gear me up to being productive.
4. Put Those Goals in Public
I’m finding my Week in Brief really helpful. I put my goals in public and that makes me accountable. I also evaluate what my high level goals for the week are. As a graduate student, I only answer to my supervisor but he’s just concerned that I’m making progress – he doesn’t prescribe what that progress should be. Once I’ve written the list for the coming week I can evaluate how the tasks I’ve set myself fall into my “roles” (grad student, TA, blogger, President of WISE). At the end of the week when I evaluate what I’ve checked off and what I haven’t managed, I can see whether I’ve devoted too much time to one “role” at the expense of another, and when I look at what I have managed I can take a moment to be proud of what I have achieved this week. A Masters Thesis is this big, long-off goal, but I know that if I chip away at it week in week out, I’ll get there.
If you don’t want to announce your todo list on your blog, you can always share it with a friend and get them to motivate you!
5. Focus on What’s Important
Now you’ve got your life in order, you need to stop it getting out of hand again! New opportunities, people, and activities are great but do they help you achieve your longer-term goals or distract you from them? For instance, I get really drained by people who enjoy an argument. Not, as in, a good debate, but deliberately taking a (relatively unimportant) point of contention and making it into a time consuming argument which just leaves me frustrated and bored. One of my friends really enjoys these, but after I finished one the other day with “I’m going to go and have a more productive conversation with a brick wall” we’ve agreed that he’ll stop having them with me.
6. It’s not All or Nothing
Finding a degree of balance in your life is hard, and there’s debate on whether or not it’s a good idea (I wrote more about my personal findings on happiness in this post). But I really don’t believe that having a boyfriend or girlfriend need negatively impact your professional life. My boyfriend is incredibly supportive with everything I do for WISE, and honestly I wouldn’t have achieved as much there without his advice and support. He’s President of IGADI (CS Grad Association), and I encouraged him to go for that. He wasn’t wild about me going to China, but he supported me in it (and never said “I told you so” when I got frustrated). I’ve dated more than my share of idiots and possessives, but my experience in a stable and balanced relationship is that we build each other up and achieve more.
7. It’s OK not to be Super-Human
I’ve been reading Stumbling on Happiness lately and it’s really insightful. Losing control did make me miserable, and I’ve realized that when I imagine the future it’s one where I sleep a maximum of 4 hours a night (I think I’m fairly productive, but in my imagined future I achieve new, unimagined levels of productivity and there are never unforseen setbacks). I’m starting to try to imagine the future in a more rational, balanced way. I probably won’t become an uber-productive cyborg, but that’s OK. I expect uber-productive cyborgs don’t have that many friends, anyway.