Stop being busy! Put your time on a diet

How many hours per day do you spend on actual work?

Really, think about all of the hours you spend in the place you work. Think of the tasks and add up the hours. What’s the total hours you spend? 40? 60? 80??

Now look at that number and think to yourself: am I really working all those hours…or are those hours filled with menial tasks that aren’t adding much value

If you need a refresher on what I mean by value, take a quick read of my previous article here. This post summarizes the ideology and strategy I’ve been implementing for the past month: how many hours must I spend to maximize value and minimize time spent? In other words, can I spend my days working on things that add value by “trimming the fat” of menial tasks?

Enter Tim Ferris

Much of this comes out of The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. If you haven’t heard of Tim, take a look at his site here. He’s a successful entrepreneur that bootstrapped himself to where he is today. He’s accomplished and experienced things that most people only dream of…oh, and he started in his mid-20’s. He is currently 38. That’s why his methodology is powerful. It allowed him to experience what many seek to do in their retirement and while still working/running a business. As you can see, I have a bit of a man crush on him.

Recently, he seeks to lay out his tried and true method he used to become successful. Tim has given talks around the world; along with maintaining a weekly blog/podcast that evolves these ideologies (both are also very good). He’s a man who has led an incredible life and someone you should consider learning about. Man crush aside, let’s examine the book itself.


Based on the title of the book, you may think to yourself, “Sean, that’s preposterous…how can you even think that’s possible?” I answer with two things:

  1. Don’t take the title literally, it’s brilliant marketing.
  2. The book serves as a guide for maximizing your productivity while trimming the excess time sinks.

While the book is extremely detailed and is difficult to summarize in just one post, I’m going to write about one of the main components Tim hits on.

Efficient vs. effective, they are not the same

These were terms I would thoroughly mix up whenever I thought about them. When referring to work, I tended to think in terms of efficiency and effectiveness as being similar (if not the same). However, they are two separate concepts.

Tim defines the two clearly:

            Efficiency: performing a given task in the most economical way possible.

Effectiveness: doing things/tasks that get you closer to your goals.

He lays out that the default state of the world is efficiency without regard to effectiveness. Too many of us are concerned with doing the one task/role/job we’re assigned to efficiently. However, we don’t care whether it’s truly effective for us to do so. In other words, is your work creating value or is it maintaining the status quo?

He further highlights two truths in regards to these definitions:

  1. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.
  2. Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.

And I absolutely love these ideas. Too often we lose sight of who we are because of being “busy.” Removing useless, time consuming components of your day thrust upon you by a boss, advisor, etc. could be hindering you from being truly effective. Sure, you may be praised for how well you do a certain task or job, but is it moving you forward?

This is summarized with this quote from Tim:

“What you do is infinitely more important than how you do it. Efficiency is still important, but it is useless unless applied to the right things.”

Practicality of trimming fat off your time

I understand that many of you reading this blog are driven, success seeking individuals. And you probably think everything in your day is important and being “busy” is a good thing. So, let’s take a step back and analyze this.

How much of your day is truly spent furthering your goals vs. just busy work? Here’s something that I had a difficult time wrapping my head around. Just because you spend 9am-5pm at your work, the lab, etc., doesn’t mean you’re being maximally effective. Maybe you compulsively check email every 10-15 minutes or maybe you check Facebook because damnit, you want to see that picture of you and that adorable dog got some likes. Maybe much of your time is spent answering emails that don’t need to be answered immediately. These small things add up. All of this is a symptom of “busyness”: which is filling your day with nonsense that doesn’t actually matter. You may think it’s important, but it might be buffering you; providing the cover you need to justify that yes, “I got work done today.” The problem is these tasks don’t offer any meaningful feedback on your effectiveness. Tim asserts the controversial idea of “being busy” or “busyness” is a symptom of not having your work/life in order. 

The world tells us that we must function 9am-5pm stamping papers, sending emails, and going to meetings because that’s what we are supposed to do. It’s pitched because society is looking to fill the status quo. It’s terrifying because many of us have become okay functioning with this mentality. What many don’t realize is how much time is wasted in that time when “work is supposed to occur.” I’ve heard anecdotally through friends with these hours that spend most of their day not being productive. They have to sit at their desk because “that’s the way the world works.” There was a shocking statistic recently that less than three hours of an employee’s time spent in the office was actually work (from a British based survey, source).

I initially started seeing this in myself during graduate school. I would find ways to fill my time to make myself “busy” and “productive”. It turns out that most of these tasks were menial and could either be eliminated or batched at set times to conserve time. My days have improved dramatically and have allowed me to set aside time to create (such as writing these blog posts!).

Be ruthless defending your time

Consider the time of day that you are most productive and then keep track of the tasks that absolutely need to be done. From there, plan your day around completing those tasks at times where you’ll be most efficient. For example, only check emails at set times of day as opposed to always having it open. Not only will it relieve your anxiety of having to respond to every email as they come, but you’re also not drawn away from your writing/creation/experiments/etc. when you do receive them.

If you’re in a creative field, make sure you spare your most creative time for creating. You may need to experiment to find out what your optimal time is. Once you’ve found your ideal times to create, any menial tasks that are left to the side can either be batched at your non-creative times or tossed entirely. By batching, I mean you complete something menial like emails at set times of day (I tend to check email only 3-5 times a day to minimize its distraction).

You may find that you only need 3-4 hours per day to get all of your “busy” work done. If that is the case, fantastic! You get to use that free time to learn something new or start on another related project that will make you more effective. This can be a new business idea, a blog, or some other creative project. The point is to get yourself into a position where you have free time to work and create things that increase your effectiveness.

Make sure you defend your time ruthlessly; particularly if you’re in a position to manage time more liberally. If you’re in a job that schedules you for strict hours, try to find a way to complete those menial tasks efficiently and then work on things that are effective. Time is the only currency that is worth anything. Money nor fame won’t buy you more time, so spend it wisely.


Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed what you read or find the information valuable, I’d greatly appreciate it if you shared it with a friend.


Clock credit

Picture from Tim Ferris’ Blog



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