Less is more when it comes to productivity

22 February 2023

Donna McGeorge

Donna McGeorge is an author and global authority on productivity.

We tend to be over-optimistic about the time needed to complete a task. This is why we often end up feeling overwhelmed at work. Donna McGeorge explores three ways you can achieve more by doing less.

U.S. Olympian Carl Lewis, the nine-time gold medallist sprinter, was known as a ‘master finisher’. He was also considered to be a slow starter. In a 100-metre sprint, he was often either last or second to last at the 40-metre mark, but breezed past other competitors by the finish line. Contrary to common sense, he did nothing special towards the end. His breathing and form remained the same throughout the race.

While other runners were clearly having to push harder at the end – clenching their fists, scrunching their faces – Carl Lewis looked exactly the same when he won the race as he had at the start.

It came to be understood later that while others were performing at full throttle, Carl Lewis was running at 85 per cent from start to finish. By doing less, he was consistently able to outpace his competitors.

Create a margin

Think about your workday. Your eight hours are your total capacity. If you plan to use all those working hours (or more), you aren’t leaving yourself any margin.

What do you need a margin for? Think about the last time you put your head down to dedicate yourself to getting something done. How many times were you interrupted? And how much longer did it take to complete what you needed to do? How often do we truly do eight hours of solid work in an eight-hour time frame?

That’s why we need a margin. If we plan to operate at 85 per cent capacity, when something unexpected comes up (and it will), we can handle it.

In the book he wrote with Amos Tversky, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman first coined the term ‘the planning fallacy’. As he explained, we tend to be over-optimistic about the time needed to complete a task.

This is why we end up feeling overwhelmed. We underestimate how long things will take, over commit and before we know it, we are drowning in overdue tasks or projects.

Here are three ways that you can achieve more by doing less.

1. Small things, consistently

If behaviour scientist BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything teaches us anything, it is that getting small things done, consistently over time, will have the greatest impact on our results and productivity.

If you work at 85 per cent capacity and focus 100 per cent on the task at hand, you will get more consistent results.

2. Give yourself a break

You’ll do far better if, rather than operating flat out at 100 per cent capacity all the time, you perform below your peak capacity, thereby giving yourself some breathing room to relax, as well as some capacity to surge when necessary.

For example, when building a business – like a financial planning practice – giving 100 per cent would mean working 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Clearly, this isn’t sustainable.

I know it feels wrong to put in less effort, but rest and relaxation are essential elements in producing your best work. Studies have shown that trying too hard at work doesn’t usually result in positive career outcomes and is actually detrimental to one’s career.

3. Purple patches

When was the last time you had ‘free time’ in your diary? Most of the time we end up with a bit of free space by accident when an appointment is cancelled. And how good does that feel?

One of my clients identified these rare moments as ‘purple patches’. I encouraged him to block out these patches so he could take advantage of them any time he liked! He colour-coded the time – in purple – in his calendar.

Using that time effectively allows us to shift from reacting to what has to be done right now, urgently, to being proactive and planning ahead.

This is what creates the appearance of cool, calm and collected. It also creates space to deal with any emergencies that may occur.

In the end, deadlines are useful, but it’s your capacity that will drive your projects.

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