This question originally appeared on Quora: What is the best strategy to motivate myself to work smart rather than hard? Answer by Yishan Wong, former CEO of Reddit, co-founder of Sunfire Offices, and contributing editor at Forbes magazine.
The primary change you need to make to your thinking is that activity is not necessarily production.
That notion is left over from the manufacturing era, when almost all front-line productive activity involved the direct building of products; therefore, if someone was engaging in the activity of their job, they were building a unit of whatever the factory was producing. This is no longer true at many “knowledge working” companies.
For example, there are many activities you can engage in during your workday (that aren’t considered outright slacking) which do not directly contribute towards useful output. Writing status reports, organizing things, creating organizational systems, recording things multiple times, going to meetings, and replying to low-priority communications are all examples of this. Worst of all, there is no correlation between the time or level of effort that any of these activities takes and the degree to which it contributes (or doesn’t contribute) to real, value-creating output. That is, a particular activity may be very difficult and may take a lot of time, and it could very well be one of the most useless things you could be doing.
To avoid these activities, try the following:
- Identify a goal that contributes directly to useful output (e.g. shipping a product to actual users, making a sale, etc)
- List the steps necessary to reach this goal. Make sure the steps are listed sequentially and that each step is actually necessary to achieve the next one. Eliminate “nice-to-have” steps or “targets of opportunity.”
- Do those steps, and postpone everything else. If some other tasks starts nagging on you, just put it off and tell yourself that you can do that after you finish the sequence of steps. Don’t ignore it, just postpone it. Tell yourself that you are going to do it later.
Once you do this, you’ll end up achieving real results much faster, because you won’t be wasting time on unnecessary intervening tasks, and you will force yourself to ignore the unimportant things that weren’t on the list.
After you do this, you will be flush with the excitement of having produced something real, and you should do it again. Identify the next “real results” goal, make a list, and pound out the steps. You will find that the things you are skipping aren’t really that important, and you can just keep on postponing them. Your boss or whoever else would care about them will often offer only mild criticism (e.g. they’d like you to fill out your weekly status reports), since at the same time you are clearly delivering actual results at high speed. I have personally experienced this both as a boss who managed someone like this (I would write him glowing performance reviews and fill in the “areas for improvement” with boring things like the status reports he wasn’t always diligent in filling out) and as someone who achieved fairly high levels of personal (and team) throughput by implementing strategies like this.
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