Many, many people have asked me how I get so much done.
I’m in college. I typically take 24-30 units each quarter. I participate in over 7 ensembles (pretty much everyone I can get into). I’m a double major. I play a lot outside of school. I participate in extra-curriculars. I read. I cook. I still have time to socialize. I have time for fun. I write blog posts and probably do much more than what’s listed here.
And I still get a full night’s sleep every night.
So the question is: how?
Many say it’s about working harder. Others say it’s about working smarter. But I believe it is about both working smarter and harder.
So in this two-part post, we are going to first learn how to work smarter and then in the next post we are going to learn how to work harder.
The first step to understanding productivity is to realize that productivity is simply achieving results.
The corollary is that if you are not achieving results, you are not being productive. This allows us to make an important distinction between busyness and productivity:
- achieving results
- working without achieving results
It might be obvious, but we want to eliminate business and increase our productivity. And to do that, there are several helpful things we can do.
The main way to stay productive and not busy is to do real work. Not fake work, but real work. So what is fake work?
Fake work is any work that work that is not productive and does not align with your goals1.
Let’s look at an example: studying for tests.
Specifically, let’s look at one particular practice for studying that involves reading over notes and potentially even lecture slides. On the outset, this seems like a decently good strategy because you are reviewing the information from the class. In reality, this is fake work.
How? The answer is quite subtle and gives some insight into how “hidden” fake work can be.
In a test, you are being tested on recall. Which means that if you want to study most efficiently for a test, you need to practice recall. Simply looking over notes and lecture slides may help jog your memory about what is on the test, but they won’t necessarily help you score higher. Okay, maybe they’ll help you score slightly higher, but your time is better spent studying in other ways.
This is fake work because while you are working and getting results, these are not results that are aimed at your goal.
You can be productive and still go nowhere. That’s fake work.
And yet the majority of students spend most of their time reading over their notes!
And there are more ways to have fake work in studying other than not practicing recall. So you are smart and decided to practice recall instead of simply looking over notes because you’ve read the above paragraph. So how are you now going to practice recall? Flash cards!
You realize that flash cards not only help remind you of all the information you need (as looking over notes does), but it also forces you to work on your recall abilities. Yet flash cards can still be fake work.
In fact, you might be working on memorizing things that aren’t part of the test! Or they might be so insignificant that it is not worth the time and effort to work on for the test. Hence, fake work.
So then what is the most ideal way to study for tests? Well, here’s a video of a researcher who studied tens of thousands of students to find out that very answer.
In terms of recall, practice tests are ideal because you will find the gaps in the information you don’t remember. And you’ll only find the gaps necessary for the test! If you are specifically studying by taking practice tests, you can’t be doing fake work.
How to Eliminate Fake Work
There are two very simple steps to eliminating fake work:
- Understand the goal
- Connect your current task to the goal
Essentially, if you can draw a direct connection from what you are currently doing to your goal, then you are probably not doing fake work.
Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist who in 1896 published a paper titled, “Cours d’économie politique” (“Political Economy Course” according to Google Translate). He discovered that in Italy, 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population2.
Hence the start of the famous 80/20 rule.
- Pareto Principle (80/20 rule)
- A majority of the outputs are caused by a minority of the inputs
That is how Koch showed the rule visually in his book The 80/20 Principle2.
Furthermore, Pareto postulated that this wealth inequality held true throughout time. So let’s take a look at the distribution of GDP in 19893.
|Quintile of Population||Income|
In this case, the inputs is the richest quintile while the output is the income. As you can see, the top 20% produces 80% of the world’s income.
The key is that a minority of inputs causes a majority of the outputs. So these numbers aren’t necessarily always true. For instance, it could very easily be the 70/30 rule or the 90/10 rule. In fact, the numbers don’t even need to add up to 100. The 70/10 rule is perfectly valid. In 2007, the wealth distribution in the United States was a 73/10 rule. 4
But if you’ve ready my post on domain dependency, then you’ll start to think that maybe this principle doesn’t just apply to economics. And you’d be right.
It applies to science, sports, software, safety, crime, and work in general.
Using the 80/20 Rule for Productivity
So let’s go back to the studying example from earlier. We know now that practice tests are the number one indicator to performance on a test. And that makes sense. But should you also review your notes and make flashcards? The 80/20 rule says no.
Remember, productivity is getting things done. So the more an activity gets done, the more productive it is. Hence, you always want to work on the small 20% of activities that produce the big results.
Sure, if you use flash cards on top of practice tests your score will probably go up. But you’ll get diminishing returns. Your time is better spent doing something else after taking a couple practice tests.
This is the reason why the highest performing students typically study less than those who perform slightly under them!
Fake work helps us eliminate work that doesn’t help, and the 80/20 rule tells us to only do the work that helps the most. This is how the top students and the top workers go about being smart about their work.
So now that we know how to eliminate any extraneous work, we need to be able to complete the work in a short amount of time. This brings us to our next idea:
- Parkinson’s Law
- work expands or contracts to fill the time available to complete it
Tim Ferris is one of the top masters of productivity of our current time. He has popularized the idea of condensing down a regular 40 hour workweek into just four hours in his first book, The Four Hour Workweek. And in this book, he details exactly how he combines the 80/20 Rule and Parkinson’s Law to complete big things in little amounts of time.6 Now I’m not going to detail exactly how he does this (the book is well worth the read), but I am going to show you how I use Parkinson’s Law in my life.
The essence is that now that you have the minimum amount of work you need to do, you have to allot the smallest possible time to complete it. Here are some ways to do this.
Yes, procrastinate. More specifically, plan to procrastinate. If you leave some things for the last-minute, those things have a set amount of time to finish. And remember, if there is less time, the work will contract to fill only the new time available to complete it.
Now there are a couple of downfalls with this, so keep the following in mind:
- Plan for a reasonable amount of time to complete the task. If you estimate that a project will take 5 hours, begin using procrastination by waiting until 5 hours before. Then afterwards, asses how much time you actually spent working on the task. If you were not 100% efficient, plan for slightly next time the next time around. But do not see that the project takes 5 hours and automatically assume that you can squeeze it into 2 hours. This will get you into trouble.
- Don’t Stress about not working on what you are supposed to finish. As human beings, we have a tendency to want to be doing things because that makes us feel productive. But when you are procrastinating on purpose, that makes you feel busy. It’s best to not do anything related to what you are procrastinating on. Play some games, work on something else, but don’t work on what you are procrastinating.
- Not everything will benefit from procrastination, like learning or skills. Because of neuroscience and how the brain works, these things will take time to develop. A skill cannot be learned permanently in one day. So it’s best to use another method instead of this one.
Create an Unrealistic Deadline
In January of last year, Tesla finished a project to help the California electricity system: one of the world’s largest energy storage systems. Because California is aiming to expand on its clean energy production and lower its carbon footprint, it needs a way to store excess electricity. Solar panels and other solar systems will eventually create an excess of energy during the day and there needs to be some way to use that energy at night.7
So in steps Tesla.
Tesla is on the leading edge of creating fully electric cars and is one of the largest commercial solar panel producers. But keep in mind, they haven’t done anything like this before.
So Tesla had to design and build this facility from the ground up. Literally.
They finished the project in 90 days.8 That’s impressive.
And setting unreasonable deadlines like this is not new to Elon Musk, the CEO and owner of Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, The Boring Company, and OpenAI. He is the guy that in less than a decade reduced rocket costs by a factor of 10 and created the first relaunchable rocket.
Now he claims that he can make an energy storage system for Australia that’s 12 times larger in 100 days, or it’s free.8
But what can be learned from this is that one way of hacking Parkinson’s Law is to simply set an unrealistic deadline. The work will contract to fill only the time given for the deadline.
Plan to Do More
The third way is to simply plan on doing more. There’s not too much to say on this point other than if you plan on doing more things, you will have less time to work on each thing.
So when I say that I’ve taken 30 units before in school, I necessarily have to spend less time on each class than if I were to take only 12. Because I have more to do in the same amount of time, everything gets done quicker.
I want to do as little work as possible in the least amount of time to still achieve extraordinary results. Hence I eliminate fake work and apply the 80/rule and Parkinson’s law whenever I plan out my work.
But simply being more efficient with the work I do doesn’t actually make me work more efficiently. You cannot simply aim to eliminate extra work and end up being more productive. You need a work ethic to back it up.
You can’t simply work smart, you have to also be able to work hard.
And for that, you’ll have to read Productivity Part 2.
Peterson, B. D. & Nielson, G. W. (2009) Fake Work. New York, NY: Gallery Books. ↩
Wolff, E. N. (2010). Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze—an Update to 2007. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_589.pdf ↩
By Stephen Ewen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons ↩
Ferris, T. (2009) The Four Hour Workweek. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group. ↩