Boost Productivity: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential

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Perhaps you’ve heard of the Pareto principle, known also as the 80/20 rule. It’s a common rule of thumb in business that suggests that 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of your clients. In the world of simple living, we could use it to suggest that 80 percent of our benefits come from 20 percent of our efforts. While I don’t think the percentages are exact, the principle is true: We should focus on the few things that get us the most benefit.

In an effort to figure out a systematic way to focus on the essential stuff and eliminate the rest, I developed what I call Haiku Productivity. The key to Haiku Productivity is to limit yourself to an arbitrary but small number of things, forcing yourself to focus on the important stuff and eliminate all else.

To understand this simple concept, think about the form of the haiku (the common version, at least): it’s poetry in 17 syllables, with three lines of five, seven and five syllables (I know there are variations and this is only a rough definition, but that’s not important here). The point is that the form of the haiku is extremely limited to a small number of lines and syllables, forcing the poet to focus on only those words that mean the most to the poem. While other forms of poetry can go on for pages, haiku are short and compact. As a result, haiku can be some of the most powerful poems in any language.

Limited but Productive

So how does this apply to productivity? Well, if you think this will allow you to accomplish twice as many tasks, you’re wrong. You’ll accomplish fewer tasks. But you will most likely be more effective, because you will have to choose only the essential tasks—the ones that will give you the most benefit for your limited time. It also forces you to limit the time you spend on things, which means you have more time for the things that are most important to you.

There is only one rule to Haiku Productivity: Put limits on everything you do. That’s it. What are the things you do? It’s different for everyone. Common items for an office worker might be: email, phone calls, reaching out to new contacts, social media, time wasters, organizational tasks. What limits should you set? Again, it’s different for everyone. Base yours on your own experience and experimentation. Here are the limits I’ve set for myself that seem to work—but remember that they will be different for you.

ONE goal: The number of goals I’m allowed to have at any one time. I can only really focus on one goal at a time…any more than that and I lose focus and energy.

TWO times to process email: If I only allow myself to check email twice a day, I cannot let email control my life. It makes me much more efficient. When I process email, I process to empty. Now, there are other times during the day when I have to send email, such as emailing a post to one of my editors. At that time, I might respond quickly to one or two emails, but I don’t process my email during that time.

THREE MITs: I choose three Most Important Tasks for each day, and focus completely on these. Any more than that and I might not get them all done.

FOUR batch tasks: Along with MITs, I also give myself four smaller tasks that I try to batch all at once. This usually takes me 30 to 60 minutes at the end of the day.

FIVE sentence emails: I got this idea from Mike Davidson, vice president of design at Twitter. I read an article of his at a perfect time as I was limiting other things in my life, and was trying to keep my emails short. His five-sentence rule (no email can be longer than five sentences) fit in perfectly with everything else I tried to do, and I’ve adopted it. It forces you to write only what’s essential. I broke the rule at first, but I’ve been pretty good lately. This rule also limits the amount of time you spend replying to email, and makes processing a breeze.

SIX news articles: I’ve adjusted this as I’ve experimented, but I’ve settled on reading six articles per day. The method: I open my news source headlines (whether you get news from social media, news organization sites, or whatever), and choose just six to read, opening them in new tabs.

SEVENminutes of wasted time: This is just for fun, but when I’ve completed a task, I reward myself with seven minutes of being able to do anything I want. That means I can read a humor site, or go read comments on my blog, or look through Delicious or Digg or a forum, whatever I want—for seven minutes. Then I get back to work. This allows me to have a little fun sprinkled throughout my day, but limits it. I set a timer. Totally works.

Again, your limits and the things you limit will vary depending on your situation. I am in no way suggesting that you adopt these limits. But by restricting yourself to a small number of things, you force yourself to focus only on the essential. It’ll make a world of difference. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

Find more tips for home organization and simple living inA Guide to Simplifying Life.