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Applying Tim Ferriss' 4-hour work week rules to tech comm projects

by Tom Johnson on Jul 20, 2016
categories: technical-writing innovationpodcasts

Principles in Tim Ferriss' book The 4-Hour Work Week can be applied to tech comm projects. By focusing on the 20% of tasks that result in 80% of the results, limiting your focus to two mission critical tasks a day, empowering those around you to make decisions, and avoiding distractions from trivial tasks, meetings, and email, you can be much more productive in your work. More than crossing off a list of tasks, this approach will likely make your efforts matter.

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I’ve written previously about the inefficiency of context-switching and how Kanban can regulate the flow of tasks.

To give you a sense of my day, last week I started regulating tasks following Kanban principles. To the right of my desk, I have a whiteboard where I wrote the three tasks I wanted to accomplish that day.

During the day, other tasks kept getting added to my plate, so I noted them by writing them on the same whiteboard below a horizontal line. By the end of the day, my whiteboard looked like a jumble of notes written by someone who is scattered-brained:

My chaos flow. I started out with just 3 tasks on this board, but by the end of the day it looked like a jumble of notes.

I didn’t act on each of these incoming tasks but rather noted them only and later, at the end of the day, entered them in an issue tracking system to tackle later. By doing this, I was attempting to regulate the flow of tasks.

However, as you can see, at this rate I’m only getting more and more buried in work. Limiting the flow of tasks may help me avoid burnout, but it’s clearly not cutting through the pile of to-do items here. I’m only getting more and more behind.

That’s why I started reading Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week. What stood out most to me in Ferriss’ ideas is to apply the 80-20 rule, or Pareto’s Law, to all aspects of my life. Ferriss says:

Pareto’s Law can be summarized as follows: 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs. Alternative ways to phrase this, depending on the context, include:

  • 80% of the consequences flow from 20% of the causes.
  • 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort and time.
  • 80% of the company profits come from 20% of the products and customers.
  • 80% of all stock market gains are realized by 20% of the investors and 20% of an individual portfolio.

Let’s apply this to the goal of handling two major projects at once. Suppose you have 10 tasks to complete for Project A, and another 10 to complete with Project B. Identify the 20% that is responsible for the 80% – that is, identify the two most important tasks from each project that actually matter to customers, and tackle those.

This means you only have 4 tasks to complete total, instead of 20. Now juggling two projects suddenly seems much more practical. If the 80-20 rule really holds true, this approach might let me actually tackle both projects in a semi-feasible way.

Ferriss explains that a lot of people will keep busy all day by completing a list of trivial tasks without actually focusing on those tasks that truly matter. He says,

Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective–doing less–is the path of the productive. Focus on the important few and ignore the rest…. It’s easy to get caught in a flood of minutiae, and the key to not feeling rushed is remembering that *lack of time is actually lack of priorities.

Previously, when I had a list of 20 tasks to complete, I would often pick tasks that I thought I could easily finish, since this accomplishment would give me momentum and energy to keep moving through the list.

But focusing on more trivial tasks isn’t the right approach. Ferriss says, “Doing something well does not make it important. … What you do is infinitely more important than how you do it.”

No matter what project management approach you use, or what software tools you employ, it doesn’t matter if you’re focusing on the wrong tasks.

Ferriss says that about 95% of his customer base was taking up almost all of his time but producing very little in terms of revenue. Instead, the top revenue was coming from just 3% of his customers. So he fired 95% of his customers and focused his attention on the top 3%. In short, he applied the 80-20 rule with his customers.

To focus on those 80-20 tasks, Ferris says to limit your day to tackling just two mission-critical tasks. He says,

There should never be more than two mission-critical items to complete each day. Never. It just isn’t necessary if they’re actually high-impact. If you are stuck trying to decide between multiple items that all seem crucial, as happens to all of us, look at each in turn and ask yourself, If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?

Once you’ve identified these high value tasks that result in 80% of the result, focus on them singularly. Limit interruptions from email, meetings, chatty colleagues, and other disruptions. Ferriss says,

Do them separately from start to finish without distraction. Divided attention will result in more frequent interruptions, lapses in concentration, poorer net results, and less gratification.

Use Parkinson’s Law to accomplish more in less time. Shorten schedules and deadlines to necessitate focused action instead of deliberation and procrastination. On a weekly and daily macro level, attempt to take Monday and/or Friday off, as well as leave work at 4pm. This will focus you to prioritize more effectively and quite possibly develop a social life.

Parkinson’s Law is the idea that work will automatically expand to fill the time you have to complete it. (Or as my wife explains it, the amount of stuff you have will automatically grow to fill the space available in your house.)

If you have 8 hours of time to finish a task, you will spend 8 hours completing the task, regardless of how much time it actually takes to complete it. Consequently, Ferriss says you should limit your time at work so that you get more done within that time. Leaving work at 4pm certainly focuses you more in the afternoon.

Another way to be more productive is to empower people around you to take action and solve their problems. Ferriss allows his team to make decisions for themselves and solve their own problems. He says,

Problems, as a rule, solve themselves or disappear if you remove yourself as an information bottleneck and empower others. … It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.

In other words, if some of the tasks on your plate seem do-able by others (and it’s appropriate for them to do them), why not empower them to do those tasks? In my context, this might meant asking subject matter experts to contribute their knowledge in a help topic here and there. If it’s easier to curate content from others who already have the knowledge, why not empower those people to write?

Other time wasters include meetings and email. Here Ferriss is relentless at removing these distractions and recommends the following:

Decide that, given the non-urgent nature of most issues, you will steer people toward the following means of communication, in order of preference: e-mail, phone, and in-person meetings. …I haven’t had an in-person meeting for my business in more than five years and have had fewer than a dozen conference calls, all lasting less than 30 minutes.

Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The former scrambles your priorities and plans for the day, and the latter just gives you insomnia. E-mail can wait until 10 A.M, after you’ve completed at least one of your critical to-do items.

By focusing on your two mission-critical tasks the first thing in the morning – instead of responding to email and focusing on trivial errands – you set yourself up to be more productive. And if you know that you’re leaving the office at 4pm, you’re less likely to let time slip by chatting at the watercooler, browsing websites, or sitting in pointless meetings.

Overall, some of Ferriss’ tactics seem too harsh. I’m probably not going to shut down all social interactions, cancel meetings, and take myself offline for hours at a time. But I am going to focus on those top 2 tasks that are responsible for 80% of the output. Even if the list of tasks continues to grow on Projects A and B, perhaps it won’t matter as much because I’ll be completing the things that matter.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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