The Art of Doing Things That Matter

In his book Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss gives an amazing analogy on what it truly means to be productive and chase goals that truly matter. This principle has stuck with me over the last few weeks, so I think it is definitely worth sharing.

Imagine that you are a lion in the African Savanna. Every morning you wake up, you have one big goal: Eat as much as possible to stay alive.

Now, you can go about this in two ways: First, you can catch field mice all day long. They are the easiest animals to catch and don't require as much effort as other animals. However, they also don't provide you with a lot of nutrients, and catching them takes as much energy as eating them gives you.

The second choice is the harder one. If you decide to catch antelopes, you won't succeed as often. There may be days where you don't get a single bite of food because the antelopes are fast enough to escape, and so you don't get to catch them as often. But any time you do, it is a win worth celebrating because an antelope can sustain you for several days.

Now, you could be eating field mice all day long. They are readily available and serve as a convenient snack, so it is easy to get jealous at the lion that eats mice all day.

But the truth is, eating nothing more than field mice will never allow you to grow to your full potential. The effort required to catch them is too much compared to the energy you get from eating it, so it is not sustainable in the long run.

In order to grow and reach its full size, a lion needs to hunt antelopes. They may be harder to get, but are also more rewarding over time. You don´t have to hunt every day because once you catch an antelope, you have enough meat to sustain you for a few days. And then the hunt begins again...

Getting trapped in the small stuff
In life, it is easy to get caught up into trying to win the small battles while forgetting about the bigger picture. We focus on being busy instead of productive, checking the news instead of working, and checking off the small things on our to-do list instead of making progress towards our most important goals.

We humans are pleasure seekers, meaning that more often than not, we choose what is easy and fun to do over what is hard and meaningful. As I explain in this post on procrastination, we are not wired to do what's best for us in the long run, but rather to seek immediate pleasure, right now!

The Pareto Principle
The Pareto Principle is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who, in 1896, found that 80% of the land was owned by only 20% of the people. That shouldn´t be too much of a surprise, but the real power of the pareto principle lies in its ability to generalize to other areas:

80% of your results come from 20% of your tasks.

80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers.

80% of your health comes from 20% of your activities.

80% of income is earned by the top 20%.

Now, these ratios are obviously not always true. They may be 60/40, 70/30, or even 95/5. But the important lesson is that the outcomes of different activities are unevenly distributed. A few of your daily actions will create the majority of your results, so it is important to know exactly what your high-value activities are.

Using up the same amount of time, some activities will bring you closer to your goals while others barely make any progress. For example, if you want to lose weight, there is very limited use in researching nutrition and exercises until you know everything about the topic if that comes at the expense of actually doing the work. If, instead of researching for 30 minutes a day, you just walked out the door and went for a run, your results would be dramatically different.

The same holds true for your daily productivity: You can spend all day doing small tasks that don't really matter while neglecting the big ones, but that will hold you back from reaching your full potential. Instead of chasing small victories and immediate gratification, think long-term: What is your most important task right now? Not the easiest or quickest, but the one that will have the greatest impact on your future. 

The essence of time management is to set your priorities straight and then stick to them. Every morning you wake up, there are a dozens of choices you have to make on what to do and when to do it. Start that new project or answer emails? Finish another task or chat with your colleagues? The choices you make every day will determine how much you get done and therefore your success or failure.

In order to be as productive as possible, you constantly need to ask yourself: “What's the most valuable use of my time right now?” There are dozens of things you could be doing, but only one thing you should be doing. Your job is to determine what that is in advance and then every day stick it until finished.

Like the lion that can only grow when hunting antelopes, you need to focus on the tasks that will get you the most results for the time you put in. Different tasks lead to different results, so make sure to chase antelopes, not field mice.

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