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I don’t know about you, but I always seem to have a to-do list that never ends, which leads me to feel like a “hamster on a wheel” much of the time. Even when I have what could be called a very productive day, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of the many, many things I need to do. What makes the situation all the more challenging is that I have quite a few other days when I feel like I’m slogging through quicksand to get much of anything accomplished at all.

When I look around at those people who I consider “successful,” I think that they must be super productive every single day. They must accomplish considerably more to-do list items than I do, and that’s why they’re so successful. This makes sense on the surface, but I recently read an article that gave me a whole new perspective on the concept of time management. In today’s post, I share the key concepts from that article, how I’ve been putting them into practice this week, and the way it has positively impacted my life.

Focus on being productive instead of being busy

The Myth of “Successful” People

Tim Ferriss is the author of multiple best-selling books, including The Four-Hour Work Week and Tools of Titans. Despite the fact that he wrote about working only four hours a week, I always thought he got a lot more done than me with far fewer days of floundering or spinning his wheels. It’s no big surprise that I thought such things, as “successful” people like him are typically portrayed as superheroes by the media. We think they don’t experience the same types of challenges that we mere mortals do, but we’re wrong.

I came across an article Tim wrote titled “Productivity Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me),” and of course I was intrigued. After all, at least one of those descriptors applies to me much of the time. Reading the article, I learned that much like I do, Tim has some dysfunctional habits and behaviors. Sometimes he hits the snooze button multiple times, surfs the internet too much, or holds a negative attitude toward life. Still, he manages to accomplish some larger-than-life goals despite these types of self-defeating habits. Fortunately, he shares some of his secrets in the article.

How to Maximize Efficacy

Many of us place our focus on the wrong objective. We think we need to be efficient, which means doing as many things as possible and getting them done in the fastest amount of time. However, what really leads to success in life is efficacy, which means doing the right things. Maximizing efficacy is what helps people like Tim Ferriss achieve the type of success they’re known for.

Tim presents his 8-step process for maximizing efficacy in the article, but here it is in a nutshell. Each day, before you look at your smart phone or computer, get out a pen and paper and write down the three to five to-do list items that are making you most anxious or uncomfortable. These are usually things that you’ve been putting off from day to day because you fear rejection, conflict, or failure should you take them on.

For each item on your list, ask yourself two questions:

  1. If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?
  2. Will moving this forward make all of the other to-dos either unimportant or easier to knock off later?

Consider only those items for which you answered “yes” to at least one question. Then select just one item and block off two to three hours of uninterrupted time to focus on it today. Set all of your other seemingly urgent but less important tasks aside and work on the task you’ve deemed most important. Everything else will still be there later or tomorrow.

This simple method is how Tim has been able to create big outcomes despite his propensity to procrastinate and engage in time-wasting activities like we all do. If he tried to accomplish ten tasks each day, it’s likely that none of them would actually get done, but he feels confident that he can work on one must-do item for two to three hours each day. Efficacy over efficiency…

Tim states that “being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” He believes that the following is the only rule we need when it comes to time-management:

“What you do is more important than how you do everything else, and doing something well does not make it important.”

An “Aha Moment” and a Plan…

Tim’s words really resonated with me, and like the prescription for a happy life that I wrote about last week, his “productivity tricks” feel doable. After reading the article, I realized that I don’t need to do all the things. In order to move forward in my life and feel more successful, I just need to determine the most important thing each day and do that.

I decided to give Tim’s method a try beginning this week. It’s only been five days so far, but I feel significantly better about my productivity for the week than I usually do. I’ve ticked off some important but long procrastinated upon to-do list items and I feel a great sense of accomplishment as a result. Even on a day like today that got off to a rough start and included a fair number of unproductive activities, I still accomplished my most important task of the day, writing and publishing this blog post. Where I faltered today is that I failed to block off a specific time period for blogging, thus I procrastinated until later in the day. Although there’s room for improvement in my implementation of Tim Ferriss’s approach, I can still consider today a success because I’ve done what I deemed was most important.

Sometimes I procrastinate writing these posts because I’m still “rusty” with this type of writing after not having done it for almost a year. I’m also unsure that what I write will be good and/or well-received. I want to make a difference through my words, and my identity as a writer is something that’s very important to me. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that I have a tendency to put off sitting down to write. However, I never regret having done so and I usually feel a sense of pride when I hit the “publish” button and send my writing out into the world.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Two to Three Hours

Not all of the tasks I procrastinate on are as important to me as writing. Some of them are tedious activities that aren’t much fun but do need to get done. They don’t all require two to three hours, either. Sometimes what we dread most is making a phone call or sending an email that may only take five minutes, but we put it off for days, weeks, or even months. Using the simple process that Tim Ferriss laid out makes it far more likely that we’ll stop procrastinating and finally get our most critical actions done, be they big or small.

I plan to continue using Tim’s process to help me maximize my efficacy, and I highly recommend it for anyone who feels they’re always busy but aren’t making headway on their goals and dreams.  I know that not everyone has two to three hours to dedicate to a key task each day. While Tim’s method may be most easily implemented by those who are self-employed or have a lot of unscheduled time, I feel that it can be modified for use by most people. Even if you can only dedicate half an hour per day to work on a to-do list item that’s making you anxious or uncomfortable, those small time segments add up! As I wrote about in “The Power of Small Steps,” those baby steps can lead to big changes if they are the right steps. Tim’s simple process can make it easier for you to determine what those are.

Your Thoughts?

Now I’d like to hear from you:

  • How do you think using Tim Ferriss’s process would help you to maximize your efficacy?
  • What modifications, if any, would you make to the process?
  • What time-management techniques have been most effective for you?

I welcome your thoughts on these topics, as well as any other insights you want to share related to this post.

11 thoughts on “To Be More Productive, Aim for Efficacy over Efficiency

  1. Heather says:

    Debbie, I am really enjoying your new blog. Every post gives me so much to think about. I think it may take me a while to process how I can implement today’s ideas, but I think they would be really healthy. I have some days that are so full I don’t sit down until after dinner, and then I just collapse, and other days that aren’t so busy. I think a good place to start would be trying to implement this process just on the “slower’ days. Even then, I will be making forward progress, instead of NEVER getting to the things that are weighing on me.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad you are liking the new blog, Heather. It took me a little while to “digest” Tim Ferriss’s process, too. I think it can definitely be something that is used only on certain days when a person has more time to work on projects or as I said, it can be tweaked and used for much shorter time periods to keep forward motion going. Best of luck to you!

  2. Martine says:

    Hello Debbie ! Your post is brilliant ! It made me think about “eat your frog first thing in the morning”. So I just googled it and found this article which may be useful fo you too: Mar 4, 2016 • 3 min read

    What it Means to Eat the Frog

    As Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

    The frog is that one thing you have on your to-do list that you have absolutely no motivation to do and that you’re most likely to procrastinate on. Eating the frog means to just do it, otherwise the frog will eat you meaning that you’ll end up procrastinating it the whole day.
    Once that one task is done, the rest of the day will be an easier ride and you will get both momentum and a sense of accomplishment at the beginning of your day.

    How do I spot the frog?

    There are always some tasks we would like to tick off of our to-do list as soon as possible and that if accomplished would help us feel better, but are just so unmotivating to do.
    We usually wait until the end of the day to tackle them, often realising we do not have any more time to do them today and pushing them on the to-do list for the day after. This builds pressure and stress.
    Indeed, those things end up weighing on our mind, becoming moment after moment heavier and heavier, and preventing us to really accomplish something during the day.

    In order to get an overview of your tasks and similarly to the Eisenhower Box technique, you can divide your to-do list in 4 categories:

    Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.
    Things you want to do and actually need to do.
    Things you want to do, but actually don’t need to do.
    Things you don’t want to do, and actually don’t need to do.

    The frog is the Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.

    What if I have 2 frogs?

    If you have more than one important thing to achieve for the day, simply tackle the biggest first.
    Facing the most important and biggest task of the day first thing in the morning means you will tackle it with a clearer mind, probably a quiet office and while your willpower is at its strongest. This is the optimal setting to work on things you don’t want to do.
    Remember that the longer you wait to eat the frog, the more tired you’ll be and the more willpower it will require you.

    Take action

    Starting and taking action is key. Just pick your frog and eat it without thinking too much about it. Discipline yourself on working on your task until it’s completed.
    Many people are not productive simply because they confuse activity with efficiency, keeping themselves busy the whole day but not accomplishing a single important task at the end of it.
    What it Means to Eat the Frog
    Build a habit

    To be successful at this technique and be more effective with your to-do list, it is very important to develop the habit of tackling your major task first thing each morning.
    The satisfactions of having achieved something, whether it’s a big job or a small task, will trigger your brain to produce Endorphins and Dopamine – neurotransmitters that our brain produces to nudge us into doing stuff – helping you stay focused, productive and motivated to achieve more.

    Plan ahead

    Remove the stress of choosing your frog early in the morning. Leave your resources to tackle it instead.
    Just write down the thing you have to do for the day the evening before, prioritize and pick your frog. The morning after you’ll simply have to act on it.

    Remember, if you manage to eat the frog first thing in the morning every day, you’ll end up having a clearer mind and spending more time doing things you actually enjoy doing more.

    For more productivity hacks, check out The Ultimate Productivity List – 100 Hacks To Get Things Done.

    Stefano Founder and CEO at Noisli

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thank you so much for sharing that article, Martine. I really enjoyed reading it, even though I have heard about “Eat your frog” before and even wrote about it a few times, including in this post:

      Lots of great information in the article you shared! I especially liked this line: “Many people are not productive simply because they confuse activity with efficiency, keeping themselves busy the whole day but not accomplishing a single important task at the end of it.” Boy, has that been the truth for me many times! Yes, we can certainly avoid those “frogs” and sometimes they don’t even take all that long to do and we wonder what took us so long to get going… Definitely some food for thought with what you shared!

  3. Martine says:

    I love your fount. Do you work on Mac or PC ? Kind regards. Have a great day !

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Martine, the font on the blog has nothing to do with my computer (although I use a PC). It’s part of the WordPress (the framework the blog is built on) theme I’m using and I’m actually not sure what theme it is! I’m glad you like it, though 🙂

  4. SharonW says:

    Hi Debbie. I totally agree that tackling the most difficult task first does make sense as it can create momentum for the rest of the day but I don’t always put this in motion. Ironically I read the title of this article on my iPhone as I was awaking & decided to read with my morning coffee on a larger screen. As I was getting ready I was thinking I was looking forward to some tips as I feel I spend my days like a hamster on a wheel. How hilarious that your opening paragraph contained the same phrase (great minds haha). I retired early a few years back from a demanding office management role and I have struggled with the slower pace of life and loss of identity. I find I structure my day mercilessly in a bid to retain the feeling of importance my former career provided. However when I am not caring for my elderly in laws I spend time doing vast amounts of domestic duties that are largely unnecessary or procrastinating. I think going forward I have decided to limit the amount of housework and try to make more time for self care which is greatly lacking. I have made quite an important change recently that has increased my energy levels/mood, and that has been to switch out my usual classical music to more uptempo music. My current favorite tune that motivates me to get started on the day is Queen – Killer Queen. My husbands is Can’t stop – Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I was surprised to hear you worry that what you write will be well received as I consider you quite the master of words and you never fail to impress me with how articulate you are. I often deliberate terribly and heavily edit my comments as I worry about the quality. I spend so much time with dementia patients & the lack of intellectual stimulation combined with having to communicate on a very basic level leaves me feeling somewhat inept when trying to articulate my thoughts. However I so appreciate the amount of work involved in producing your essays and will continue to comment even if I have to agonize over the process!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Yes, it does seem like we think alike in a lot of respects, Sharon! By the way, your comments always come across as very articulate and well-written, so no worries there. I understand, though, that we can get out of practice with communicating on a deeper level. That’s pretty much what I meant about being “rusty” with this type of writing. Although I have done quite a bit of business-type writing since I put “Recovering Shopaholic” on hiatus, it’s quite different and takes an alternate set of skills to the type of blogging I like to do. Thank you for your kind words about my blog and writing!

      I agree that it’s a lot easier to be productive and structure our days when we are in an office framework, and I understand the identity piece of it, too. I’m glad you are going to prioritize self-care over housework to a greater degree, as it’s very important. Even short bursts of self-care activities done soon after we wake up can really set the tone for a positive day. I love the motivating tunes that you and your husband use – classics. I wish you the best in taking more time for you.

  5. Sam says:

    Thank you for this new blog, Debbie. This post is encouraging me to ‘feel the (anxiety) and do it anyway’ as have a couple of’ ‘frogs to eat’ today…

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad you like the new blog and found this post helpful, Sam! I hope you got some of those frogs done yesterday 🙂

      1. Sam says:

        I did! Which Then freed some space to something that makes me smile, something that makes someone else smile, and something I’m good at. Trying to keep this structure each day and make it a habit… thanks to this wonderful blog. Have a lovely day!

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