Time Efficiency Done Right
I'm going to take a bit of a tangent from the usual here to discuss the topic of time efficiency and ways that you can make your social life (and the rest of your life) much more efficient.
This article is in answer to K's comment here that asks:
Thank you so much for this website. It is truthfully the only comprehensive "how to live life" site that takes a logical approach to everything. I especially enjoyed the "Are you smart post". The difference between hard working and smart is truly all important. It would be amazing if you could get a post up here about how to be incredibly time efficient, so that we can learn how to really maximize the effectiveness of our work.
K's referencing the article "Are You Smart? It Doesn't Much Matter Either Way," in which we examined some research done on children praised as "smart" compared to children praised as "hard working" from an early age. The findings were that the children praised as "smart" early on shied away from hard problems later in life out of fear of failing and proving themselves "not smart," while children praised as "hard working" early on dove into hard problems later in life in with zest to show how "hard working" they really were.
In this article, I want to turn the spotlight onto the topics of hard limits, autopilot, and also revisit some of what we discussed in the article on ego depletion - so we can talk about how one becomes truly time efficient.
Throughout high school and college, I was part happy about, but also part as confused as anyone else, why I always seemed to have less work than my classmates.
They attended the same classes I did.
They had the same teachers I did.
They got the same assignments I did.
Yet, they'd be working their tails off, and I'd be playing music really loud or watching a movie or going to a party, and hardly ever working.
And I'd still get better grades than them.
At first, I thought maybe I was just a lot smarter than they were.
Maybe I just remembered things better and didn't need to spend as much
time thinking about them or looking them up in text books. But there
were plenty of very intelligent classmates of mine... that didn't seem
to be able to explain it. I was smart, but I wasn't in a league of my
own or anything like that.
Next I thought perhaps I just worked a lot harder, but in shorter bursts. So maybe I just sat down to do my work and tore through it in an hour or two, while they sat down and did... God knows what for 4 or 5 or 6 hours instead.
This continued in the working world. I'd get a project, I'd finish all the work in a tenth of the time my supervisors told me it'd take. They'd give me something else, and then it'd be done like that. Something else, done like that. Pretty soon, I'd have torn through all the work, and they'd be double-checking my work - it looked great, much better than they'd expected, but it must have a mistake if it was done that fast - only to find, no, it was flawless. I worked so fast that I was often the first one off of projects - while everyone else was still working on their second assignment, I'd completed my sixth, and then sat around falling asleep or surfing the Internet because there was nothing else anyone could think for me to do... and the higher ups thought I wasn't working. I was working myself out of a job.
The final month of my corporate career, I worked three 60-hour a week projects at the same time from home. I was on phone calls with people on both coasts of the U.S. nearly 24/7; at one point, one of my project managers asked me when exactly did I sleep? I put in the third highest hours of all 530-something employees in my division, and I wasn't phoning it in - all three project managers gave rave reviews for me to my chain-of-command manager, and reported me as one of the key personnel on each team.
And immediately after this I was laid off, because, apparently, it
seemed like I
wasn't getting enough done... I didn't seem "busy" enough. A number of
managers and higher ups offered to help go to bat for me and fight the
decision, but I asked them not to; I'd had enough of working in the
corporate world for now.
Since then, I've run a number of small startup companies - some at least a little bit successful and profitable, others failed and shuttered and employees laid off - and along the way, I've kept up the trend. Books written in a week. Sales pitches that would normally be worked out over a series of days or weeks put together in an afternoon. Business proposals built overnight that floor investors and make them want to throw money at us. I'm a machine.
But most of the time when you see me, it looks like I never work at all.
In fact, it seems like I'm really lazy, and usually just relaxing.
What's going on?
Time efficiency is one of those things that sounds boring or compulsive. Who cares about that?
As you get more familiar with it though, you realize that it's actually exciting... and compulsive.
Most people who talk about efficiency talk about structure and lists and rituals and things like that. You'd think from listening to them that they must be from an alien planet... Vulcan, perhaps. You imagine them as these über-productive success machines who just churn out one piece of production after another.
And then you meet them, and find out they don't get anything done.
I've met some of these productivity gurus. I've yet to be impressed with their actual production. Most of what they produce seems to be writing about how productive they are.
I realized where I think the disconnect is: these guys who right about productivity all the time are writing about it because THEY aren't productive THEMSELVES and it frustrates the HELL out of them. They're chiding themselves to produce more... and it ain't working.
If you're a normal person... with a normal life... and other people and businesses and events in it that are out of your control and are prone to disrupt your routines and rituals and habits without a moment's notice, care, or concern... are you ever really going to be able to get yourself following a daily checklist for the next 40 years?
Is that the key to efficiency and productivity?
Personally, I think it's balderdash. Maybe there are people out there who can get themselves on lists and stay there for decades... but they're a vanishingly small minority.
Their books sell well, of course; everybody wants to read about "the secret to an efficient, productive life" and feel good about it... even if what he gets out of the experience isn't something he'll end up using any longer than a couple of weeks.
Just like with work, my approach to socializing is remarkably similar.
Most of the time when I go out anymore, I don't do a whole lot of approaching (I still recommend you do and talk to lots of girls if you're new to approaching women, though... you need to build up enough data points where you can accurately gauge interest as you become more skilled). I sit at the bar, sip a Jack and Coke, talk with my friend if I have one there with me or stare at the wall or the crowd if I don't, and don't get into a conversation unless I see someone I want to talk to.
Then I meet some girl I think is pretty, we talk for a few minutes, and then we leave together.
Or, I'll go to an event of some sort, and spend most of my time sitting around listening or not talking too much. Then, midway through or near the end of the event, I'll meet one of the more interesting, successful people there, we'll get into a conversation, exchange contact details, and suddenly we're having lunch a few days later and now we're good friends.
Fact is, I don't need to go out that often to bring the kinds of people I want into my life... these days, I can devote my time to other things, and be reasonably assured that I can get the women, friends, or connections I want relatively quickly with relatively little effort expended.
Things that seem difficult or nearly impossible to most men are a snap for me these days.
First-date sex is just about the
only kind of date sex I have anymore, outside of one-night stands /
same-day lays. And not just with "easy" girls... there are plenty of
quite beautiful, quite conservative girls in that mix who've never done
that before with anyone else and may well never do it again. I haven't
been on a second date in ages.
My pickups these days are mostly measured in minutes, not hours.
My social outings are sparsely strewn about, but result in plenty of new, quality contacts whenever I have them.
I see all these people spending scads and scads of their free time doing social things, and I wonder... are they doing this because they genuinely enjoy it? Or are they doing this because they hope to meet new friends and new romantic partners, and they just don't know any more efficient way of doing so than this?
Different Kinds of "Automatic"
You've no doubt heard that you want to be "running on automatic." That's the epitome of time efficiency.
What you probably haven't heard though is that EVERYBODY is running on automatic, ALL the TIME... it's just that there are many very different kinds of automatics.
Most people's kind of automatic seems to be "I have to do this until it's done." That really seems to be it.
- Do your work until it's done
- Talk to a girl until it's done
- Take her on dates until it's done
- Go to a party until it's done
- Hang out with your friends until it's done
- Do [whatever] until it's done
There's no planning there... no longer-term objective in sight.
It's just go with the flow, and finish what's on your plate before thinking about what comes next.
In chess, war, business, or romance, however, this is a losing strategy. If you're only thinking one move ahead, I guarantee you you're going to find yourself stumbling into a lot of very frustrating cul-de-sacs (and probably never stopping to question how you might better have avoided them).
This is a kind of automatic... it's just not a very efficient kind of automatic.
But - and here's the thing - to most people, it feels efficient.
It feels like too much work to try and plan two or three or four or more moves out.
That's what those time efficiency gurus are telling them to do with lists and rituals... but it doesn't work. People only stick to those things for so long.
And those things take mental energy to stick to. They burn willpower and ego deplete you. They eventually make you not even want to work on them anymore.
Those tools are supposed to make you forward-thinking automatic, but they themselves are not automatic.
And because the brain only wants to do what's automatic, at some point - usually not long into adopting them - they get thrown out.
Real time efficiency isn't lists or rituals... we know that much. Those things are too difficult to use on a long-term basis.
But the way of being "automatic" that most people use - just doing what you're doing without thinking about it too much - is horribly long-term inefficient as well.
How do you become more efficient, so that you aren't wasting time on things you'd be better served not wasting time on, and actually STAY more efficient?
Throwing Out the Logical
I'm a big proponent of writing down a quick little list of things you want to work on when you go out to socialize - no more than three (3) things at a time.
And I find writing the occasional to-do list down when I'm too backlogged with things I need to do, business or otherwise, to be immensely useful in clearing my plate quickly.
However, these are not things you can do all the time or rely on to make you consistently more efficient. Trying will only wear you out and disillusion you.
The reason why of course is because they're logical things you must push yourself to do. Your brain may be excited about writing lists if you haven't done it in a while, but after a time it gets tired of writing and following these lists and doesn't want to do it anymore.
Your brain does not agree that lists and lots of habits are a good way to run your life.
Lists and routines have their place... they ARE useful.
But I suggest you throw them out as your way of forcing yourself to
be more efficient.
What you need is another way, one that plugs directly into your brain's reward circuit, to train yourself to prioritize efficiency above all else.
Wanting to Be Efficient
Nobody wants to be efficient for the sake of efficiency.
The people who are efficient are efficient because they want the rewards of efficiency - they want free time, they want recognition for their efficient awesomeness, they want to show what a good, fast job they can do. They want to finish whatever it is they're working on and get onto the good stuff.
And they want to avoid those cul-de-sacs that come with a lack of
When I analyzed my own efficiency and that of other people I observed being highly efficient, I realized it was much more an emotional thing than a logical thing.
The most efficient people aren't efficient because they logically
decided to be. They are that way
because they emotionally need to be.
Personally, when I'm working on something, the thoughts and feelings in my head that drive me to find ways to make things more efficient look something like this:
"I wonder how fast I can get this done? Can I make those people who told me this would take 2 weeks drop their jaws on the ground and think I'm some kind of whiz at this, even though I'm unfamiliar with it?"
"All right, I only have a finite amount of energy tonight, so let's make sure to waste as little of it as possible on women who aren't going to bite. I need to make sure I zero in on the girl I find most attractive who's also most likely to go home with me tonight and get right to it and move things quickly."
"Okay, if I spend a lot of time monkeying around talking to whomever, I'm just going to look like another scattered nobody who doesn't know what he wants or how to get it. If I want to meet the most worthwhile people here, I've got to seem calm, composed, and like I don't care to meet anyone, then maneuver into meeting him incidentally and hit it off with him and grab contact details."
"My conversation isn't efficient enough yet - it's taking me too long to get to learning meaningful things about people, and that's costing me women and connections."
"I'm not moving fast enough on trading contact details with people - I need to be more cognizant of the fact that someone can be torn away at any time and unless I want to run after her asking for a phone number I've got to make sure I grab her info as soon as humanly possible."
"I'm taking too long to get these reports done - I really don't want to do these all day long, several times a month. I need to find a faster way to do them. Are there tricks to using this software that will help me speed up the process, or can I create a template that allows me to have large parts of reports ready-made and all I have to do is plop the new information in each time?"
The overwhelming emotional drivers are these:
- I want my free time
- I want to do as little work as possible
- I want the best results I can possibly get
Because I want to reduce my workload and maximize my returns, I naturally turn toward efficiency - and I start spending the mental energy required to figure out more efficient ways of doing things... faster ways of doing things... more automated ways of doing things.
And once you want to become efficient, because you see it emotionally as a means to getting the things you want, it becomes an exciting compulsion that you enjoy.
You Can't Tell Yourself to Want to Be "Efficient"
This is where the time efficiency gurus seem to get it all wrong. They're trying to convince you - logically - that you ought to want to be efficient.
And you can nod your head all you want and logically agree that, "Yes, I ought to want to!" but that won't change anything, because your emotions are still opposed to the idea of you "wasting time" on trying to figure out more efficient ways of doing things.
That means that so long as you're trying to willpower yourself to efficiency, you'll be fighting an internal battle, your logical mind waging war with your emotional one... until you become ego depleted and run out of gas.
You need to get all parts of your brain on the same page - you need to not just rationally want to be
efficient, but you've got to want it emotionally, too.
So how do you start to want to be efficient emotionally?
Let me tell you what inefficiency feels like to me.
When it starts to feel like my time is being wasted, I get upset. When I feel like I'm putting a lot of time into something and getting little in return, I get irritated. But I don't give up... instead, I ask myself, "How can I do this in a way that DOESN'T waste my time?" And then I do that.
Everyone gets annoyed at his time being wasted. But not everyone says, "Okay, how can I get what I want with a smaller investment of time?"
And I think that's the key. You're not telling yourself, "I want to be efficient." You're telling yourself, "Screw letting my time be wasted, I need to figure out a way to do this fast and be done with it."
Very different thoughts, and very different emotional underpinnings.
Reliability and Delayed Gratification
You may be familiar with the Stanford marshmallow experiment. If not, here's the summary: researchers from Stanford took 600 children, ages four to six, and let them select a treat of their choice: an Oreo cookie, a marshmallow, or a pretzel. Their treat of choice was then placed on a table in front of them, and they were told that if they could wait for fifteen minutes without eating it, they'd be given a second treat and could then eat both.
Two treats instead of one, and all you've got to do is wait 15
minutes. Easy choice, right?
Only one third of the children made it the entire 15 minutes and received both treats.
20 years later, the researchers checked in on these children to see how their lives had progressed, and found that the children who'd delayed gratification were described by their parents as significantly more competent, and scored higher on their SATs.
A 2012 university of Rochester experiment then shed some additional light on what was happening here: children were again given a marshmallow test, but only after first being promised something and then either getting it or not getting it.
On average, the "reliable" tester group - the children who'd been promised something and had that promise fulfilled - waited four times as long for the second treat to appear than the "unreliable" tester group - the children who'd been promised something and had that promise go unfulfilled.
What seems to be happening is that
ability to delay gratification is directly tied to how reliably you
trust you'll actually get the thing you're delaying gratification for. And
this is an emotional trust, not a logical one... of course logically you know you'll get the
treat. But emotionally... your emotions are just saying, "Take it NOW!"
Because emotionally, they don't buy it.
Training yourself to be efficient is about delaying gratification. Finding the right girl to talk to, or the right new friend to make, means delaying gratification until you know whom you want to talk to. Building a spreadsheet to help you organize your data and run through work much more quickly and effectively means delaying gratification and doing additional work now to do less work a little later.
Therefore, as delayed gratification is a product of your levels of belief in the reliability of the world, I also see efficiency as a matter of trust in reliability: do you trust that by delaying working on something in order to find a way to do it more efficiently you will actually reap the rewards of less future work, more free time, and more prestige, or do you not?
But I've got you thinking about this all wrong now again.
You must be thinking about it emotionally; you must trust that YOU know how to find a way to not waste so much time.
And you must trust yourself to do that.
Hard Limits and the Emotional Brain
I'm a believer in hard limits. I've used them for years to prevent mental overwork and make decision making more efficient.
Hard limits can include things like:
I must save at least $500 a month
- I must do everything I say I'm going to do
I must not drink more than two drinks in an hour
I must go to the gym at minimum twice every week
I must squelch negative thoughts the moment they appear
I must refuse making decisions when tired or being pressured
I must move or get a phone number from every girl I talk to within 10 minutes
I must invite home with me every girl I like whom I talk to for 20+ minutes
I must kiss every girl I take home within 10 minutes of getting her inside
I must invite every new contact to something cool and offer to provide value
Hard limits mean you waste less time on small decisions and save more willpower and mental processing power for more important things.
You burn out less, stay fresher, and are more productive and effective.
What's more, they enable you to easily delay gratification.
For instance, I have a rule that says before I start doing some mindless task that'll be back-breaking and take a long time, the first thing I do is stop and see if there's an easier way of doing this.
Except, these rules aren't logical, they're emotional.
I imagine the upsides of following and downsides of not following the rule, and then I want to follow the rule.
In that example, I'd look at the back-breaking, mindless task and think, "Geez, I don't want to do this. Wouldn't it be better if I was done it in 10 minutes instead of 3 hours? How can I do it faster or more efficiently or even completely automated so I don't have to do it myself?"
For the "musts" above, that'd look like this:
[imagine really needing money but having none available, and imagine the mental freedom a large savings account balance will bring] "I LIKE saving $500 a month - I hope I can save MORE!"
[imagine not doing something you said you'll do, and having people lose faith in you, never to have it restored; then imagine doing something you said you'll do, and having people gradually come to trust you more and more] "I LOVE keeping my word - it differentiates me from all the 'big promise, under deliver’ers!"
[imagine drinking too much and getting arrested or losing some girl who really likes you because you're too sloppy drunk; then imagine drinking just a bit and having a great night and meeting some amazing girl] "I enjoy sleeping with pretty girls and not being in jail WAY more than I like having a little bit more alcohol!"
... and so on and so forth.
Even with hard limits, the focus is not on willpowering your way to executing on the limit itself, but rather on obtaining the rewards you'll get from doing so and avoiding the punishments from not doing so.
It's all about threats and opportunities.
Your high and mighty neocortex may see the value of efficiency and hard limits, but your mammalian and reptilian brains don't see the value, and they have a lot more say over what you ultimately do than your nobler but weaker rational self. If you actually want to do what you want to do, you must speak the language of your lower brains - and that language is "fear and reward."
Feed it fears of bad things happening if you don't do what you want to do, and rewards of good things happening if you DO do what you want to do... and suddenly you will find yourself doing what you want to do.
In a Nutshell
If you want greater time efficiency, it must be automatic... which means emotional. You'll never get there by saying to yourself, "I'm going to be more efficient!" and then drawing up some lists and trying to willpower yourself to new habits and routines.
Not gonna happen.
Efficiency doesn't result from lots of specific habits and lists and such. Not real efficiency. Real efficiency comes from an emotional desire to not waste your time and/or to not look or be ineffective.
Efficiency is at the root of the Law of Least Effort and sprezzatura. Efficiency is what differentiates the most productive people from the rest. Efficiency is the one thing in common among all the most impressive people you've ever seen, read about, heard about, or met.
And all it boils down to are those two key emotional desires:
"I want to do this as fast as I can and get onto the next thing... let's see how fast I can do it, and if there's any way of doing it faster."
"I want people to see how impressively effective I am - let them be amazed as they watch me crank out production of both a quality and quantity they simply cannot match."
If you start to think this way - instead of just plowing headlong into whatever it is you're going to do without wondering if you could do it more efficiently and more impressively and save yourself time and avoid burning out on something by taking too long - you'll soon find you have stronger and stronger abilities to make things happen efficiently, and people more and more come to wonder at how you do it all so fast and produce so much.
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