One of the most interesting parts of being a popular internet writer that reviews a lot of books is that, over time, I’ve wound up on the mailing lists of various publishing companies. They send me piles of books that might be of interest without me even asking – and most of them aren’t bad, but aren’t particularly exciting, either. I usually end up giving away most of them, passing them on to people who will get some use out of them.
When I’m going to invest the time in reading and/or reviewing a book for The Simple Dollar, I usually look for a book that has one of two things (or, ideally, both). It either must challenge or deeply entertain me in some way (a la Your Money or Your Life) or it must offer some very specific advice that’s not entirely duplicated in other works that I’ve read (a la The Complete Tightwad Gazette). If a book doesn’t seem to have either, I either don’t read it or, in the case that I’ve discovered this while reading the book, I don’t usually review it. Again, it’s not a matter of a book being bad, it’s just not a rewarding read.
This brings us around to the book I’m reviewing this week, 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More by Stever Robbins, who podcasts at Quick and Dirty Tips as Get-It-Done Guy (a podcast I listen to semi-regularly). This book was one of those “random” ones sent to me by the publisher and, after leafing through it, I quickly placed the book in that second category – a nice collection of very specific advice and tips that offers a few new ideas and some encouragement on things I should already be doing. In this case, the focus is on time management and efficiency, a subject area I find goes deeply hand in hand with financial success.
Step 1: Live on Purpose
A successful day is any day where as many of your actions as possible have purpose. In other words, the less time you spend in idle activity – doing nothing, or merely doing something to “burn time” or out of boredom – the better off you are. Many people equate this with having no leisure time, but I wholly disagree. I engage in a lot of different hobbies, but even within those hobbies, there’s purpose. I want to finish a certain book or a certain reading list, which builds my understanding of a certain topic. I want to master a video game, improving my ability to think under fire and my hand-eye coordination. I want to master a piano piece, improving many levels of cognitive ability. It’s all about goals leading the way, particularly big goals broken down into small bits that fill your day with purposeful activity.
Step 2: Stop Procrastinating
I reallly liked Robbins’ suggestion for beating procrastination in this chapter. It borrows a bit from Getting Things Done, but it’s really clever. For every short-term and medium-term project you have going on (everything less than a few months down the road), perform an action related to that project every single day without fail. He calls it an “action pack” – I call it a pretty good idea. Just keep a list of your projects with you and each day, come up with an action you can take that moves you along for that project. Write a page of that paper. Clean out that closet. File those papers. Whatever little step it is, take one of them every day.
Step 3: Conquer Technology
Technology can make communication much easier. That’s simultaneously a benefit and a problem, because when it becomes easy for someone to send you a message, you wake up to an inbox with a thousand messages in it. Sometimes, I’m basically forced to follow the advice in this chapter and just declare an email bankruptcy – I just empty my inbox and start over after reading as many as I can, as much as I try to keep on top of things. Why? The deluge is just too great to deal with at times – if I dealt with every single message, I would literally get nothing else done some days. Robbins’ argument is that if something is really important, you’ll be contacted another way.
Step 4: Beat Distractions to Cultivate Focus
For me, the best practice here is to just shut off distractions. I often turn off my cell phone and my internet access when I’m trying to write, simply to minimize distractions (and to make it harder to distract myself). Distractions slow down the writing process, not only due to the interruptions, but the time it takes to re-focus after an interruption. This is true of any process that requires focus. Multitasking simply means you’re switching your attention back and forth (with a little bit of re-focus time between each switch), which means that if you’re multitasking between two things, you’re giving less than 50% to each of them. This might work if the things are extremely simple, but you’ll just end up producing subpar work if you multitask with important things on the table.
Step 5: Stay Organized
Once you have a system in place, it’s worth a bit of time each day to make sure that your system keeps running, because the consistency of that system is what makes it worthwhile. One of the “shocking” things about GTD (a system I mention often) is that you spend time each day maintaining the system by processing your inbox and so on. It can feel like time lost, but when you actually take in the breadth of what you’re able to accomplish by having a truly trusted system that works, it far more than makes up for itself.
Step 6: Stop Wasting Time
Here, Robbins seems to distinguish between the various categories of things we have going on in our life – “not important, not urgent;” “important, not urgent;” “urgent, not important;” and “important and urgent.” Take note of the times when you find yourself doing things that are “urgent and not important” because they are the ultimate time wasters. For me, many phone calls fall into this category – they’re urgent (the ringing phone) but not important (a telemarketer or some other needless call). Thus, I’ve trained myself to basically ignore the phone when working.
Step 7: Optimize
The real key to this entire chapter is to never stop polishing what you’re doing. You should always look for better ways of doing the things you need to do, whether it saves time or saves money or allows you to accomplish more with the same resources. Robbins offers several ways of doing this, but for me, the best key is to just listen to myself and observe what I’m doing. If I’m not doing something or something isn’t working, I don’t beat myself up over it – it just means I need a better solution for that problem.
Step 8: Build Stronger Relationships
I am a huge believer in stronger relationships. A core set of relationships in your life can sustain you and help you with anything that goes on in your life. Spend some time figuring out who the really important people are in your life, then go the extra mile to cement each of those relationships by reaching out regularly to those people, helping them when they need help, and involving them in your life. The more you do it, the stronger the core group around you will be and the more they’ll support you during your crunch times.
Step 9: Leverage
The book concludes with an encouragement to use the skills that you have to every advantage. If you’re exceptionally good at something, use that skill as often as you can. Trade using that skill. Negotiate with that skill as a bargaining chip. Share that skill with friends. Barter using that skill. If you can accomplish something easily that’s very difficult for someone else, you’ve got something valuable there. Use it – and often.
Is 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More Worth Reading?
9 Steps to Work Less and Do More is a very solid and easy read with a lot of good little tips and ideas strewn throughout – much like the podcast, in fact.
It’s not an all-encompassing time management system, nor will it solve all of your problems. Instead, it’s just a collection of specific tactics that you can pull out and use in your own life, a piece here and a piece there, to make your situation stronger. Some of the ideas are excellent, too, like the “action pack” concept.
I enjoyed the book. If you’re thinking about time management, you probably will, too.
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