This is my second post on lessons I’ve learnt since quitting my job. My first post was on 4 health and wellbeing lessons I’ve learnt. UPDATE: I’ve also written a third about career change lessons I’ve learnt.
4 lessons on work I’ve learnt since quitting my job
1. Busy can be ok, but it isn’t required
My understanding of productivity was built around the idea that being busy was the strongest indicator that you were being productive.
Take the guy who is taking a conference call via a phone at one ear, buying shares via a phone at the other ear and still finding the time to occasionally shout at his secretary. He’s got to be productive!
Whilst I don’t doubt that you can be both busy and productive, being busy isn’t required to be productive.
That might sound kind of obvious – it probably felt obvious to me. But on an unconscious level I was still seeking busyness (this is a word, promise) as a way to prove (to myself and to others) that I was being productive.
The ‘broken’ aim
My broken aim (although I wasn’t aware of it at the time) was to maintain busyness whenever possible.
With hindsight, it’s clear that the reason was two-fold:
- We’re taught to associate busyness with wealth (and therefore productivity). The example I gave above of the angry businessman was playing on a stereotype that we’re all familiar with. That’s what a wealthy or successful person might look like in a film or on TV – it’s how we’re taught to picture success. This isn’t limited to film and TV, of course – it’s true throughout education and our culture in general
- I lacked any real framework for understanding learning and success but at the same time I was desperate to learn and to be successful. It seemed natural to me that the best way to achieve my goals was to throw as much time and effort as possible at them. I wasn’t selective – I just tried to do as much as I could. This meant that being busy felt like progress
These reasons were pretty deeply ingrained in me. After leaving my job it became clear to me that something wasn’t right – I no longer had any career-based motivation to be busy, no pressure to appear busy. But I felt anxious when I wasn’t busy!
I spent time reflecting on my reasons for feeling that way and figured out the two reasons above. But I still found myself trying to be busy! I needed a new aim.
The new aim
The two reasons above ultimately boil down to the same thing – I thought that being busy was the path to success. To escape from busyness, I needed to look at how I defined success.
My broken idea of success at the time was about getting ‘as much as possible’ of things. As much money as possible, as much recognition as possible for my achievements. It was open-ended, which meant I was never actually going to feel like I was achieving success.
Then I made a breakthrough! I started setting myself well-defined goals. Goal-setting is a topic that I’ll cover in a later post but (at the risk of sounding vague), my goals are now:
- Small in number
- A mixture of long-term (‘dream’) goals and short-term (realistically achievable) goals
Setting goals certainly wasn’t new to me but in the past I hadn’t fully understood the link between goals and success. Your goals define your success. Success is making progress towards your goals.
In a way, that’s still pretty open-ended. You make progress towards your goals, but goals are a moving target – once you achieve your existing goals, you set new ones. But this is a positive kind of open-endedness – if you’re constantly making progress towards your goals, you’re constantly succeeding. The open-endedness means that your potential for success never runs out. Compare that to my previous definition of success where success always feels out of your reach.
2. Convincing yourself can be a challenge
Self-doubt and confirmation
I had made a pretty convincing argument to myself, but I still found myself trying to be busy! Self-doubt had struck – the argument made sense but I just didn’t trust myself. What if I was wrong – what if making progress towards my goals wasn’t enough? I needed convincing.
Needing convincing has been a pretty common theme for me. I love to think about things independently and come to my own conclusions but actually following through on those conclusions is a whole new challenge.
I’ve found that as I’ve become more comfortable with making mistakes, I’ve become more comfortable with taking leaps of faith. But sometimes I just can’t pull the trigger – I need convincing.
The easiest way to convince yourself, in my experience, is to find someone else who has done some thinking on the same subject. Check their conclusions – if they agree with yours, that confirmation is some pretty strong evidence. Suddenly acting on your conclusions feels much less like a leap of faith. Enter The 4-Hour Work Week…
The 4-Hour Work Week
Confirmation can come from many sources – friends, colleagues, random people on the internet. In this instance, it came from a book.
The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss was recommended to me by a friend. The book is built around the idea of:
- Creating an ideal lifestyle
- Working the minimum amount of time required to achieve that lifestyle
That’s a massive over-simplification of the book’s ideas but it was all I needed at the time. The book told me that it wasn’t lazy to do less work – being busy shouldn’t be the aim! It was the confirmation that I needed.
3. Procrastination can disguise itself as work
The next battle
I had escaped from my aim of being busy all of the time. But I had only fought half the battle.
To add some context, my goals at this time were based building a website for Find A Spark. I felt totally focused on those goals. I knew what I needed to do – now I just needed to do it. The thing was, I didn’t have time. I had escaped from wanting to be busy, but I hadn’t escaped from actually being busy. Bad habits still remained – the next half of the battle had to be fought.
I had always had a healthy fear of procrastination. I associated procrastination with failure – procrastination stops you from making progress with the things that are important, stops you achieving your goals.
My definition of procrastination, however, was pretty narrow. Opening up Facebook when you’re in the middle of work? That’s procrastination. Opening up Twitter? Procrastination. BBC Sport? That too.
What I didn’t realise was that procrastination can disguise itself as work. It didn’t have to take on the obvious form of social media or news – it was sneakier than that. Procrastination is avoiding doing a task which needs to be completed. What you’re actually doing whilst procrastinating doesn’t matter – if you’re avoiding doing what’s actually important, you’re procrastinating.
My own flavour of procrastination
My habits and routines still reflected my previous focus on being busy – I had filled my days with time-consuming habits. Whilst engaged in these habits I certainly felt like I was working – they were always related to my goals.
In some cases these habits probably did get me closer to achieving my goals. But they weren’t the tasks that would get me closest to achieving my goals. They weren’t the tasks which needed to be completed. I was procrastinating.
The fact that this form of procrastination is ‘disguised’ makes it pretty tough to deal with. In addition to breaking the habit of procrastinating, you’ve got to identify what is procrastination and what isn’t.
The simplest way, at least on paper, is to identify the tasks which absolutely need to be completed in order to achieve your goals. Then, by definition, procrastination is anything which helps you to avoid completing those tasks.
In practice I found that identifying these ‘vital’ tasks was a little easier said than done. I needed a method. Re-enter The 4-Hour Work Week…
4. Don’t try to do everything
The power of elimination
In The 4-Hour Work Week Ferriss gives a great example of how he quickly freed up a large percentage of his time whilst running his sports nutrition business.
The gist of the story is this:
- He ranked customers based on the revenue that they generated for his company
- He also ranked customers based on the amount of his own time that was required to keep them happy (responding to emails etc)
- He then compared the two lists and picked out the customers that ranked high on the second list (lots of time required) but not particularly high on the first list (lower revenue)
So he picked out the customers that were providing a poor return on time invested. If I remember rightly, he even picked out a customer that was high on the first list and top on the second list by a distance – although their revenue was significant to his company, they were just taking up too much of his time for it to be worth it.
Having identified these ‘problem’ customers, he acted decisively. He contacted the customers to provide them with two options – either be low-maintenance or take their business elsewhere. Obviously he did this diplomatically (citing a change in company policy, if I remember rightly) but it was cut-throat nonetheless.
The approach was successful – Ferriss details it in the book. It made sense to me, but I wasn’t sure how to apply it to my specific problem. Luckily, Ferriss suggests a more general methodology.
Pareto’s Law of 80/20
In his customer analysis, Ferriss had identified customers that were imbalanced – they consumed a disproportionate amount of input (his time) given the amount of output (revenue) they provided.
This analysis was a practical application of a Pareto’s Law, which states that for many events 80% of the input accounts for 20% of the output.
In the example, 80% of Ferriss’ time was spent on customers that accounted for 20% of his revenue – these are the customers that he ultimately got rid of.
Looking at the flip side of this, only 20% of his time was spent on customers that accounted for 80% of his revenue. These customers were low-maintenance, effectively providing an automatic income. Even after cutting out the ‘problem’ customers, he still had 80% of his revenues. 80% of his revenues was enough to achieve his goals – he had identified the tasks which needed to be completed.
It’s worth noting that Pareto’s Law is a rule of thumb – it doesn’t suggest that there’s exactly an 80/20 split at all times. The principle is simply that a large percentage of the input will account for a small percentage of the output. This principle holds true across a vast range of applications – productivity is one of them.
Efficiency and effectiveness
In defining productivity, Ferriss talks about the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.
Efficiency is completing tasks with minimum wasted effort or expense. It’s entirely focused on your performance of the task – it’s indifferent to how you chose the task itself.
Effectiveness, on the other hand, is focused completely on how you chose the task. To be effective, you need to choose the tasks that get you closest to achieving your goals.
This is where it all clicked for me. I had been letting myself get away with procrastination because I was focused only on efficiency – as long as a task was work-related and I completed it efficiently, I thought that I was on the path to success.
I knew I only had one more step to go – finding the tasks that were most effective.
The final step
Ferriss’ 80/20 analysis can be applied in much the same way to analyse whether tasks are effective. The process I used was as follows:
- List out everything (I mean everything) that was currently part of my work routine. This included recurring habits and specific items relating to my goals. This might sound like a lot of effort but I wanted to weed out everything that wasn’t effective – I wanted to fix the problem, once and for all
- I ran through the list, considering how much time each item took (the input) and how much each item progressed me towards my goals (the output)
- If an item wasn’t giving me a good return on my input, I took the Tim Ferriss approach – I cut it out
I was pretty cut-throat about it, which was kind of scary. These were things that I had been telling myself were important for quite a long while, after all. I followed through, however, because I knew that something needed to change and that there was nothing stopping me from returning to my old routine if things didn’t work out.
Recapping the steps
As a recap, the steps that I went through in learning these lessons were:
- I identified that I was associating busyness with success. This was leading me to make myself busy when it wasn’t necessary
- I set a small number of well-defined goals, with a mixture of long-term and short-term goals
- I defined success as making progress towards my goals
- I convinced myself that this approach was correct by getting confirmation from someone else (via The 4-Hour Work Week)
- I identified that my procrastination was disguised as work – it was anything that meant I was avoiding doing the tasks that really needed to be completed (the ‘effective’ tasks). Efficiency alone wasn’t enough
- I discovered 80/20 analysis and used it to pick out the habits and routines which were disguising procrastination
- I removed these habits and routines completely, hoping to make myself less busy
My original aim had been to extract myself from the habit of making myself busy, creating time to actually do the things that mattered.
The results? Pretty great so far. Completing the original 80/20 immediately freed up a huge amount of time – suddenly I was back to spending the majority of my time on things that I loved. Having clearly defined goals and the time to constantly make progress towards them helped me to feel successful, escaping from my previous ‘broken’ definition of success.
I’m aware of the importance of effectiveness and can therefore identify procrastination much more easily. On the flip side, because I’m more confident in my ability to be effective and make progress, I’m more relaxed about taking time off. I feel less of an urge to make myself busy.
Having said that, it’s incredibly easy to fall back into bad habits and I’ve found myself teetering on the edge at times. Because of this, I’ve found it useful to complete a mini 80/20 analysis as part of my weekly routine. It only takes me 5-10 minutes and is mostly just a failsafe to ensure that I can’t just return to my old ways.
I needn’t have worried about my initial 80/20 analysis – I’ve not felt the need to return to any of the habits that I initially identified as ineffective. If they’re part of the 80% of input that provides only 20% of output, you can be pretty confident that getting rid of them is the right decision.
I’ve still got many lessons left to learn – now I feel like I have time to learn them.
I’ve got a few more lessons to share – look out for posts in the near future.
In the mean time, I’m still learning (and I’ll never stop!). I don’t claim to be an expert on anything that I’ve written about in this post – I want to learn more! Please share your own insights and lessons in the comments below.