Just Seven Things

Exploring why and how we do what we do, and how we can do it better

Things Get Done When You Do Less

As a member of the human species, you are hard wired to achieve. You may not feel like that if you’re sat there: brain diffused from multitasking, web-thread-chasing and information channel hopping. The empty plate of cookies or pizza you can’t remember eating as you read about the latest thing you can’t remember reading on the screen five minutes ago: these things may feel a million years from hunting and gathering to achieve another day alive as your relatives did.

A counter-intuitive observation is that things get done when you consciously try to do less and have the will to stick to your commitment to do less. The more you even plan to do in an allotted period of time, the less you actually get done. Why is this? I often think of a computer to help me on this.

A computer has a hard drive to remember things – a bit like memories and knowledge in the human brain. A hard drive becomes fragmented when files and folders get broken down and spread out over the hard drive over time. This slows the computer down because it cannot process information as easily which is not held together. It has to read multiple places on the disk to piece together the information it needs. Defragmenting, or ‘defragging‘,  ‘reorganizes the hard drive by putting pieces of related data back together so that files are organized in a contiguous fashion’. Contiguous means any two or more objects that are very close or connected in space or time.

When you undertake multiple tasks – or even create a long ‘to-do’ list for the day, you similarly spread your mental processing power. Thoughts on other tasks get in the way of you having continuous thoughts on a subject, and thereby slow your ability to achieve your objectives of getting things done. Even if things do get done, often the quality isn’t there because you haven’t been able to hold your attention on one thing for a sufficient period of time to get to the really good or break-through thinking. Don’t confuse this with the use of the conscious to take in multiple inputs for the unconscious to percolate on. In this concept, you absolutely focus on related subject matter for a period of time to gather inputs or ‘ingredients’ for your thinking, and then deliberately turn your conscious attention away to something else to enable your unconscious to work away in the background.

The problem with spreading your mental processing power as a human is that you haven’t got a power cable.You’re on battery and unfortunately it’s not great. Poor sleep/ diet/ exercise all reduce battery life – even before you decide that even though you’ve a task to do, it would be a good idea to dissipate that limited energy by applying processing power across a range of other subjects. I wrote about ‘thrashing’ when I first started thinking about the power of focus and doing less: ‘Thrashing is computer activity that makes little or no progress, usually because memory or other resources have become exhausted or too limited to perform needed operations’. You most often experience a thrashing computer as being stuck, and then requiring a task manager ‘end task’ action. How often have you sat there at the end of an allotted time period, feeling tired and dissatisfied because you’ve been unproductively busy throughout, and now can’t even seem to be able to focus your attention on what you’d set out to do hours before? Unfortunately humans don’t have an immediate re-boot button.

There is a concept in psychology call ‘cognitive dissonance’.  It is defined as ‘an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them’. I feel a similar uncomfortable feeling when I know deep down that I’m either trying to do too much, or I’m not giving sufficient attention or processing power to one set of information – I have allowed my thinking to get too fragmented. I propose that you can apply the concept (without the beliefs/values aspect) to knowing when you’re trying to do too much.

What are the tools and tricks to enable things to get done?

It’s good and bad news (as it always seems to be in matters of conscious and unconscious). The answer is simple: do less, or plan to do less. Turn off all the standard distractions: turn off your mail system/ close multiple unrelated tabs in your browser. Close all files and folders on your desktop that you’re not using for your current task. Put your phone on silent and turn off vibrate: turn it over so you can’t see that tempting text flash up to mix-up your attention. When unrelated  interesting threads or links present themselves during your attention period, refuse to investigate them. Continually just work on the one subject you’ve committed to yourself to work on. Catch yourself when you’re distracted and wandering off subject.

Easy? Absolutely not. Really hard in fact – especially if you’re not particularly disciplined or single-minded. Now I know a lot of people who would argue to this point that you can’t force yourself. That the harder you try and focus on a single subject matter, the more frustrated and unhappy you become, and therefore the less effective you are. I don’t disagree. I just propose that you can be as free-range, creative and innovative with the inputs to your thinking as long as you keep your attention to one subject matter area.

I think Mark Forster is still the man who came up with one of the most brilliantly simple, but effective, methods of improving this self-control:

‘Exercise: Instead of writing a to-do list for tomorrow’s work, try writing a list of things you are not going to do instead eg. I am not going to answer the phone…, I am not going to work on any project except Project X, I am not going to spend more than half an hour on email, I will confine myself to the actions on my action list until I have completed them.’

Try these silly but subtle things to get the sense of how much your brain loves you for less:

1. Go through your Reader software and spend 10 minutes unsubscribing the feeds you always skip. Equally, remove the feeds where there have been no posts over the last quarter.
2. Sort your iTunes library by play count. Now try playing those tracks you’ve played least. Delete the tracks you don’t like (you get an option to remove files from your iTunes, but leave on your drive)
3. Unsubscribe or send to junk-mail every item in your in-box from a source you don’t read
4. Go through your ‘to-do’ list and put everything that’s been on there longer than 1 month onto a separate list called ‘someday, maybe’ and put that list into the bottom of your sock draw. See how fast you can get through the remaining fresher items. If anything nags you from your sock draw list, bring it back to your to-do and get started on it straight away.

I’m just starting on the excellent Leo Babauta’s ‘The Power of Less‘, so will supplement with follow-on posts.

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