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Your to-do list is huge. The workday is only 8 hours and you can’t stay late. You only finished a fraction of what you wanted to accomplish today and now you feel guilt. Enormous guilt. Guilt that you didn’t get to everything on your to-do list. “Well, tomorrow, I’ll get in early and finish these things,” you think. And with that, you leave the office. The next day however, the same thing happens. The following day, the same thing happens again. Until you’ve had it with your disorganized self and decide to make a change. “I gotta get organized,” you think as you order that copy of Getting Things Done and gather a bunch of file folders from the supply room. “I will label and color-code my folders. I will set up my Inbox and Outbox. I’ll prune my email.” And as you’re full of resolve, your boss calls you up and asks you a simple question that sends you on an hour-long search to find the answer. You got that one done and now it’s time to turn back to your work. But your colleague drops in and has a question about something else. And pretty soon, it’s 4 o’clock and you realize that there is no way you will be able to finish this four-hour task that you set out to do today. So you beat yourself up and resolve to do better tomorrow.
But you know what? You don’t need to stay late, improve your organizational skills (though it doesn’t hurt) or learn to say, “No” to your boss. You need to change your perspective about your work. And changing that perspective is the key to reducing guilt, stress, and getting everything done on time.
How most people think about their workday
Before I stumbled upon this realization, my thought process every morning went something like this: I have A, B, and C tasks on my to-do list. A is due today and will take about 2 hours, B might take about 3 hours, and C will take only about half an hour. I have 5.5 hours of work to do today. Perfect. I’ll get all of this done and then see what else I need to do. But hey, let me get myself a cup of tea first and catch up on world events. I’ll read news for 15 minutes and then get started.
Within 15 minutes, four emails land in my inbox, which I answer. Then, my boss calls with a question, which takes me an hour to research and answer, a colleague engages me in chit-chat, and someone needs me to help them figure out how to do something (which I do). It is now 12 pm and time for lunch. After lunch, I begin work on task A. Twenty minutes into task A, someone calls with a question, and then my boss decides to have an impromptu meeting at 3 pm to go over a few things. Fine. That means I have an hour and a half to finish task A. However, then there are 6 more emails to answer, which I can just “knock off” because they’re easy and then get back to my task. Well, now it’s 2:45, the meeting is in 15 minutes and I may as well get my afternoon caffeine fix, go to the bathroom, and gather materials for this meeting. At 4 o’clock, I’m finally out of the meeting and get to finishing task A. The day is now over and I didn’t get B nor C done. Is this what your day is like too?
Failure to predict the future
What happened is that I failed to take into account all the interruptions, meetings, emails, calls, and needs of other people. When I envisioned what I would accomplish today, none of this stuff that I couldn’t have predicted entered into my plans. I never predicted that I might get 20 emails today that I need to respond to (despite the fact that this happens every day). I didn’t predict that my boss would call an impromptu meeting. In other words, I didn’t realize that I only focused on what I needed to do and failed to think about what other people were going to do. But how can I or anyone possibly think about or predict what other people are going to need from me today?
The short answer is, you can’t. But the good news is that you don’t have to.
The thing is that your workday isn’t now, nor has it ever been, like you imagine it to be. It never was this sprawling expanse of time and space that you only needed to fill up with your work. Your workday is full of dark matter. Just like the universe has dark matter and that dark matter accounts for more “stuff” than the matter that we see, your workday is mostly dark matter. And as such, it’s untouchable, unseeable, and uncontrollable. It really is. Just try to control it and you run into trouble. I see people do this all the time and they don’t succeed. Some people have learned that they need to become firmer by saying “no” to people and projects so that no one can encroach on their work time. They close their doors. They don’t answer email and they don’t pick up the phone. I work with people who are always saying “no” and I don’t like working with them. Neither does anyone else. In a team-oriented environment, people rely on each other and being available to others is important for having good relations. If a team member comes to me with a question, I won’t tell her that she needs to make an appointment with me in advance. Nor am I going to ignore an email from someone who just has a quick question. These people will get frustrated because I’m the bottleneck blocking their ability to get work done. So being more protective of your time isn’t a good solution. What about better organization? Being more organized certainly helps but it doesn’t solve the problem of guilt at the end of the workday or the stress you will feel from all that work that you didn’t get to.
Somewhere there is advice that you should estimate how long something will take, then double or triple that estimate to account for the unknown. I used to do that too. If I knew a task would take 2 hours, I would double my estimate to account for complexity of the task or whatever. But the thing is that it has never worked. And it hasn’t worked because it encourages procrastination. Because deep down, you still know that the task takes only two hours and not four hours. And it doesn’t get rid of the dark matter anyway because all those interruptions will come your way regardless of how you’ve estimated your task time.
The above are all techniques for attacking the dark matter directly. But what I’m about to suggest is to stop attacking the dark matter and embrace it instead. Do not fight the dark matter. It is a losing battle and will only create guilt, stress, and ultimately dissatisfaction. Loosen your grip on the dark matter and accept it instead. How?
Shorten your workday
Yes, that’s right. Shorten. And when I say shorten, I mean REALLY shorten, to about 2 hours. Yes, 2 hours out of 8. I know HR and your boss would frown on you leaving mid-day so that’s not what I’m recommending. What I am saying is that you only need to THINK of your workday as 2 hours long and not as 8. That’s because dark matter can account for about 6 hours of every day. That includes emails, chit-chat, meetings, lunch, going to the bathroom and getting those color-coded folders from the supply room. I know this is hard to stomach because every day, we wake up idealists (“today will be different!”) and go to bed realists. Do not believe your idealistic self. It is pure fantasy. If it were really true, you wouldn’t keep feeling guilty at the end of every day. So let me repeat: ACCEPT that there are 6 un-usable hours every day and plan your day around the 2 hours that you can use and control. Now that you’re going to get only 2 hours of work done today, relax and let the dark matter roll in: phone calls, email, bosses, meetings.
If you change your perspective of how long your day actually is, you will begin to plan better. You will look at your to-do list and know that if you have 4 things of 2 hours each, they are not all going to get done today. Instead, you will get A done today, B done tomorrow, etc. You will become more realistic, you will procrastinate less, and you will be accessible to the people you work with. Your boss will love you because you will always be available to do what he/she needs (since all that work falls into the dark matter category) and you will feel less guilt and stress at the end of the day because you didn’t expect to do 8 hours of work in only 2 hours.
I recommend that you try to do your 2 hours of work as early in the day as possible. In fact, it’s absolutely critical that you pretend that you only work from 9-11 am (or whenever your day starts). In fact, take a few moments at the beginning of each day to envision that you absolutely must leave in two hours. This will create a sense of urgency for you so that you can begin work on your 2-hour day as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because as the day wears on and the dark matter of work accumulates, you will be spending down those 2 hours as well. It is likely that you will only get 15 minutes of work done before the first interruption comes. If you keep working through the task or tasks that you’ve allocated for your 2-hour workday, by the end of the day, not only will you have accomplished all that you set out to do, but you also accomplished all the things other people wanted you to do as well.
So, you don’t need to change the way you work; you just need to change how you perceive your time.
Is it possible to be lazy and accomplish what you want to do or do you need to work hard in order to succeed?
I’ve been thinking about this question ever since I stumbled upon the Productivity Showdown at Slackermanager where Steve Pavlina and Fred Gratzon (author of The Lazy Way to Success) engaged in a three-day debate about whether it’s laziness or hard work that leads to success. After having eagerly consumed both Fred’s book and Steve’s posts, I still felt empty, having gotten no closer to an answer. They both seemed right but if that were true, that would be paradoxical.
This paradox naturally intrigued me so I was compelled to resolve it. In order to resolve it, let’s go back to the very definition of work. But not to the kind of work that people do at their jobs (though we will get to that soon), but rather Work, as is used in physics. Simply, Work is the transfer of energy from one system to another. The simplest formula is W=Fd (where Work is Force multiplied by distance). Any combination of force and distance can achieve some amount of Work. You can have a small force going for a long distance or a large force going a short distance to accomplish the same amount of Work. Work always involves motion of some sort. For example, if you have to move a boulder, you have several options to accomplish this. You could push it (using the force of your muscles), you could set it on an incline so that it rolls down by itself (using the force of gravity), you could pull it with a tractor (using technology), or you could use any number of other methods to get the boulder to move some distance.
Most options for getting Work done fall into the following categories:
- Your own labor
- Someone else’s labor
- Technology (e.g. tractor, computer, ox)
- Time, growth, or natural change
- Natural laws or resources (e.g. gravity, a waterfall, sun’s energy)
Now let’s see if we can apply the physics law to the world of work as we think of it. Suppose you have some work you want to do. Before you roll up your sleeves and get to work, consider the following:
Work is a noun before it is a verb.
In other words, a Work is an accomplishment, an end result of force applied over distance. But what does that mean? It means that if you view work as an end result and not an activity (at least not yet), you open up the possibility of multiple paths to get to that result. Let me give an example.
Let’s say that you have to add 1,000 numbers together. How many different ways are there to accomplish this task? You have options from among the categories I listed above. You could add the numbers yourself using a pencil and paper, you could use a calculator, you could write a computer program that will do this for you, you could delegate it to someone else to do or find some other solution I didn’t list. In this example, you have multiple options for adding the numbers and you can choose one or more to complete the task. But is this true for all tasks? No, and this is where the interesting paradox comes in.
Some tasks have a single option: Your own labor. For example, if you want to build muscle, I know of no way to delegate it, to use technology to do it for you (though you can certainly use weights or machines to assist you), to use natural resources, or time. There is only you and if this is something you wish to accomplish, then you have to do the work.
You can only be lazy when you have options. I believe this is what Fred Gratzon means in his book when he encourages one to find the lever. In other words, finding the lever means finding the easy, clever solution that doesn’t require you to do any work. But this is where Fred Gratzon’s book stops short for he doesn’t delve into tasks that have no options other than one’s own labor. And there are many such tasks. In fact, a lot of worthwhile tasks fall into this category. For those tasks, you have no choice but to do them yourself.
So, what I conclude is not that laziness and work are opposites that are in conflict but rather, that they are labels for two different situations: one in which you have a choice, and one in which you don’t have a choice. Work begins where options end. But, as Fred Gratzon indicates in his book, it need not be work if you follow your bliss.
Now that I look at it that way, it’s no longer a paradox.
How do you know if your relationship is meant to be?
Every so often, I get wrapped up in an agonizing analysis of someone else’s behavior. This used to be routine when I was single and dating. But it has also happened to me with friendships. It has even happened to me with potential jobs and job interviews so this phenomenon is not limited to romantic relationships. It works like this: I start to like someone a lot and it seems as if that person likes me a lot too. We begin to spend lots of time together. Then, for no fathomable reason, an abrupt change happens and I perceive that the other person is pulling back. I begin to analyze. I conclude that I must have done something wrong so I attempt to make things right. I begin to walk on eggshells. I like this person so I focus on behaving just so and doing things just so and giving the other person space and making sure that I do absolutely everything right so as not to lose that person. For a while, the relationship continues in a tentative way until the other person finally decides to let me go. Since I am not an aggressive person, I never fight to get back into that person’s life. I always let them go but I spend even more time analyzing what happened. I ask myself what I could have done differently so that I could get a different outcome. I come to conclusions about how I should have turned left instead of turning right. And on and on and on. Time passes of course and wounds heal and I get over this person.
What I have learned through bitter experience is that the die has already been cast. There is NOTHING that I could have done differently that would have created a different and better outcome. If you are in this situation, stop fighting it because you have no control over this. The other person has already decided to let you go but it’s going to take a little bit of time for them to work through their mixed feelings and guilt before they get up the nerve to show you the door. Think of this as a kindness on their part. The earlier they let you go, the kinder they are. Why? Because your relationship was never robust and never will be. It would have eventually come to an end and there was nothing you could have done to save it.
But what do I mean by robust? In computer science, a robust system (software, operating system, etc.) is one that can keep functioning under many different conditions, including adverse conditions or stressful conditions. In statistics, a robust finding is one that keeps coming up over and over again in different settings and with different variables. Something that is robust performs without failure despite stressful or adverse conditions. If you accidentally send your cell phone through the wash cycle because you left it in your pocket and it still works afterwards, it’s a robust cell phone.
You see, relationships are also either robust or fragile and this is obvious from the beginning. Now, a robust relationship may not necessarily last – it can end for other reasons, but at least in the beginning, you ought to be able to assess immediately whether it is robust or not.
So when you are in the early stages of a relationship and you are analyzing it to death and you feel like you are walking on eggshells, ask yourself, Is this a robust relationship? If you don’t police yourself, if you don’t have to choose your words carefully, if you let it all hang out, if you say goofy or foolish things, does the other person tolerate it? Do they overlook it and like you just the same or do you begin to feel as though you crossed some line that’s an unspoken deal-breaker for them? If you can be yourself without fear that you’ll turn the other person off then your relationship is robust. If you feel that you have to behave a certain way to please the other person then you have a weak relationship to begin with and you shouldn’t bother with trying to hold on to it because sooner or later, that person is going to let you go. So why not end it now and spare yourself the agony?
Trust the robust.
In ancient Greece, the ship of Theseus was a ship named after the legendary king of Athens. This ship sailed for many years but as time went on, it began to break down and was in need of repair. First, one board was removed and replaced with a new board, then another and another. Then, the mast needed repair and it was removed and replaced with a new mast. After fifty years, this ship contained all new material and none of its original parts remained. Can this ship be said to be the same ship or is it a different ship? This is a classic philosophical problem of identity.
While the philosophers debate this problem, I want to use the ship as a metaphor. The paradox of the ship illuminates a path that each of us can take to make small changes over time that collectively, amount to one large change. The concept of systematic replacement can be used to make change easy, palatable, and permanent, without completely disrupting our identities.
What in your life needs a big change that you can’t bring yourself to make? Is it too daunting to lose weight, to start a new career, or to finish school? Can you instead make the change in small steps, using this method of systematic replacement? Not every change lends itself to this method, but many changes do. For example, changing one’s diet lends itself to this method while switching jobs may not. Exercising may but breaking off a relationship may not.
Weight Loss with Splenda
After my son was born, I realized that I had lost only ten of the 25 pounds I gained during pregnancy. Three months went by and my weight wasn’t dropping. I was always thin and I wasn’t used to having this extra weight around. I had never dieted in my life but this situation made me impatient and annoyed enough to decide to start a diet. So I bought the South Beach Diet book and began the recommended course. I tried making the recipes and I stayed away from carbs. It was all very tedious and difficult and with a three-month old infant, it wasn’t easy. After about three weeks, I gave up on the diet. However, there was one thing that stuck with me and that was using Splenda. One of the recommendations in the book was to use Splenda instead of sugar. Since I never dieted before, I never had a need to use any alternative sweeteners. I had tried Sweet N’ Low and Equal at some point in my life just for fun but never liked them. But since I was on this diet, I committed to buying and using Splenda in my tea. Oddly enough, it was tasty and therefore, was just as easy to use as sugar. The South Beach Diet is a long-forgotten memory but to this day, I still use Splenda in my tea. It was a small change that became permanent. After 12 months, I lost the rest of my weight and a few more pounds, bringing me down below my pre-pregnancy weight. I can’t attribute my entire weight loss to replacing sugar with Splenda but it did make some difference:
A teaspoon of sugar is 15 calories; I drink two cups of tea per day and use one teaspoon of sugar in each cup. Splenda has 0 calories so I was saving 30 calories per day regardless of the other things I was eating. So 30 calories per day for 365 days equals 10,950 calories that I did not consume. Each pound is roughly 3,500 calories so I can attribute about 3 pounds (or one-fifth) of weight loss to replacing sugar with Splenda.
Not much, you say. Not in itself, no, but imagine this minor change as part of a series of changes. Imagine that the Splenda is just one board in Theseus’s ship. What if you replace one small thing about yourself and make it a habit until it becomes an integral part of you, until you can no longer remember what it was like to be that old self? After it becomes an integral part of you, move on to the next small replacement until that too becomes you.
The Key to Success
The key to this process is to replace one thing with another instead of dropping it completely (yes, at some point, you might need to drop something completely but that’s outside of this discussion). For example, if you want to stop eating junk food, replace your 3 pm chocolate chip cookie with a sugar-free version. Do that for a week or a month or however long until it becomes the new you. Then, replace your sugar-free cookie with a smaller cookie or perhaps pretzels. Do that until it sticks. Then, make the leap and try replacing your pretzels with carrot sticks or celery. (Yes, at some point, you may need to replace the entire mast at once instead of replacing each board.)
The key to change through systematic replacement is having a long time horizon, patience, and the willingness to keep incorporating many small changes until you reach your goal. What series of replacements can you make that would amount to accomplishing your one big goal? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in a year or two years or five years, you looked back and realized that you accomplished your goal without even trying too hard?
And what of Theseus’s ship? I believe that if each change is incorporated fully before the next change, the identity of your ship remains the same.