You’re Wasting Half Your Day

Or at least I was.


We perceive our productivity by how busy we feel. If we have 3 meetings, return 14 phone calls and send 77 emails, we feel we’re 94 steps closer to a promotion.


But just as someone who reads thirty five blog posts about the benefits of the paleo diet is no closer to their goal weight; feeling busy doesn’t mean we’re productive.


Productivity does not care about your effort. It awards no participation trophies. Productivity, like a 1950s school teach with a waiting cane by their side, cares about only one thing. Your results.

Think of the person you consider most successful. Got them in your mind? Okay. Now, ask yourself, are they successful because they answer more phone calls, send more emails and attend more meetings than anyone else?


Probably not. They’re successful because they have developed a rare and valuable skill. And that skill allows them to produce better results, whether it’s selling out arenas for a performance or building a billion dollar company.


Results are the real deal. Results are a Rollex. Business is a knock-off. Business is the Rollex you buy in Bali.


Cal Newport is so productive he’s written the Wall Street Journal bestseller Deep Work, whilst being an Associate Professor at Georgetown University. In Deep Work he defines business as a proxy for productivity:


“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”


Yet we don’t only act busy because it looks good, we act busy because it feels good. Or rather, it feels easier.


Newport defined another term; The principle of least resistance:


“In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviours to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviours that are easiest in the moment.”


These two principles make for dangerous cocktail of ‘busy work’ that much like an old lady in a store that won’t accept her coupon, makes a lot of noise but accomplishes nothing.


While actual cocktails led me to waste much of my life hungover, the business cocktail led met waste even more of my life.


I would answer my phone as if someone important was calling. They weren’t. I would answer my emails as if they were urgent. They weren’t. I would attend meetings as if they mattered. They didn’t.


“But what’s the harm in all this business?” we think. On its own it’s really not so bad. In fact those small tasks we complete help us in small ways. The harm comes because business stops us from working on the things that really matter. The things that develop a rare and valuable skill that is crucial in the new economy.


What’s the new economy? Well, it’s definitely not the economy your parents grew up with. It’s not the economy of more people makes more productivity. It’s not the economy of endless jobs for endless tasks.


The new economy allows the single best producer to share what she creates with many people. The best jam maker used to sell to her local community. Now she can sell to the world. They new economy is hyper-competitive. It’s a winner take all economy.


Again we turn to Cal Newport, who identified two core abilities for thriving in the new economy:


  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.


As you probably guessed, Newport’s advice on how to build these two core abilities is to focus on ‘deep work’.


What’s deep work? It’s the opposite of busywork. It’s avoiding emails so you can spend long, uninterrupted blocks of time focused on a single difficult but important task.


These tasks include writing a sales proposal, creating a marketing strategy, programming a new application and designing a new product. Essentially, you can identify these tasks by seeing if they meet the following criteria:


  1. They’re difficult (often emotionally painful) to complete.
  2. They’re valued by the market (they can make you rich).


You’ll notice that criteria doesn’t describe email, phone calls, meetings and other busy work.


Yet many, if not most of today’s knowledge workers spend half their day in their inbox, in meetings, on social media or their phone. Half their day is being wasted. Half of your day is being wasted.


Don’t let it become half your life.