Do you feel like you’re constantly striving to do more yet feeling frustrated with your results? I’d like to share a counterintuitive solution that actually works. It’s the art of aiming lower – but that doesn’t mean expecting less of yourself. Instead, there are some specific techniques that change the way you approach things and can make ALL the difference.
I first stumbled on this phenomenon when I was working for a large corporate company. The business I’d helped build for the past five years had been acquired by this corporation and I was now the marketing manager for a portfolio of somewhat difficult business units. At one point, I was studying for my MBA part-time and training for a big mountaineering trip at the same time, whilst getting more and more frustrated about this role.
One weekend, I privately decided that in six months time, I would quit this job to focus on my training full-time.
That’s when everything changed. Somehow knowing that I was going to resign in a few months gave me the freedom to operate from a different mentality.
Firstly, I realized I had limited time, so I made a conscious decision to focus only on a handful of projects I had identified as the most important for the business. Of course, this meant that I needed to let a lot of other stuff slide. Reports for finance, WIP meetings, relationship building with agencies – I skipped it all!
Instead, I blocked out big chunks of time on my calendar and forced myself to focus on those high impact projects and making progress on them. To me, it seemed that I was constantly turning down meetings, and in some ways, being an irresponsible employee.
The results? A couple of months into this new way of operating, I was called in to see my manager. I thought I might be pulled up on my lack of attention to some of the busy-work, or even for coming into the office late and leaving early (to fit in my training and study). Instead, I was given a promotion and a lot of praise for taking on the tough projects and getting them moving.
By aiming to do less, I was actually able to achieve far better results.
This experience taught me a lot and I’ve since further developed my approach about aiming lower in order to achieve more. Hopefully, some of these strategies can help you too!
Use a Daily Action List
Most of us ambitious types have a to-do list the size of Mt Everest that keeps growing and growing. This is normal, and a sign of a person that has a lot of ideas!
But a to-do list like this doesn’t actually help us get the important stuff done. What’s more, it’s also demoralizing and leads to feelings of frustration. Yes, you can spend time categorizing and prioritizing your to-do list, but a much better approach is to also use a daily action list.
Keep a master to-do list (or master task list as I call it), but in addition, start using a daily action list. Each day, write down the top few things that are important to get done the next day. You can use a purpose-built productivity tool or even just a post-it note. Doing this each day forces you to think through what your top priorities really are and helps you keep focused on these.
Then, start each day using this action list. Work on the first one until it’s done, then move onto the next. Even if you don’t get them all done, you’ll still have made more real progress than if you work from your to-do list.
Aim to do LESS in a Day
So you’re now working from a daily action list, but you probably have a tendency to put way too much on that list. This means that you’re still not doing your highest priority actions. If you have eight actions on your list and you get five done – it’s usually the three you didn’t do that would really have made a difference. So instead, limit your daily action list to 3-5 things that will each take less than an hour.
Think of the truly impactful, amazing people you know. Chances are, they have an uncanny ability to prioritize. They decide what’s most important, then they do the important things. As Seth Godin says; “You don’t need more time in your day. You need to decide.”
To prioritize properly we need to accept that we simply cannot do all the things. Instead, we must proactively decide which things to do. And the more things we include in this list, the less effective we’re likely to be in doing them.
We need to plan to do less because we are notoriously bad at planning ahead and estimating how much we can do in a day. Unexpected things will always crop up and everything takes longer than you think. I think the quote below sums it up nicely!
Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
So start your day with a stupidly small action list. If you get it all done, great – you can always add more, but at least you’ll know you’ve checked off the most important items.
Lower Your Standards
People procrastinate for lots of reasons, but a common one is that they want to do everything just right. We don’t let something go because it’s not as good as we’d like it to be. You’ve probably heard of the quote “Done is better than perfect” and it pays to set this as a mantra. Of course, we don’t want to do low quality work, but we also need to make progress. In most cases, having three projects that are each 90% done but not yet delivered is almost the same as having made no progress at all. We have to finish things.
Lowering your standards especially applies to all the things that are not on your high priority list. Around our action items, we all have other things we need to do – but we can choose how much time we allow them to take. In the office, this might mean letting some emails go unanswered, just doing the bare minimum on some jobs, and neglecting some of the busy work. If you work from home, it could mean lowering your standards on cleaning or the standard of meals you prepare (if that’s the thing you turn to when procrastinating).
Just do the First Bit
When we’re left with a list that is only our highest priority actions, chances are these are in some way difficult and push us out of our comfort zones. This is why they’re high impact! But it also means that we need to come up with ways to make them easier.
Finding a way to “just do the first bit” often gets you going in the right direction. It could be as simple as;
- If you need to write up a complex report, set an action to “open a blank document and write down your headings”
- If you need to re-do your website, the first bit could be “find 3 websites for inspiration”, or “find 3 potential web designers” or “write the headline copy for the home page”
- If you need to make a big decision, you could “write down 3 options”
I also use this in my personal life. For example, when I don’t feel like going for a run, I tell myself I’ll just jog for 200 metres and then I can turn around. Of course, I always go further than this once I get started. Or, if I’m faced with a mountain of laundry to fold, I tell myself I’ll just fold 10 things.
Once we start something, we often find that we gather momentum and will do a lot more. But make it easy to get started.
A Sense of Progress Leads to More Progress
As you can probably tell, aiming low helps you achieve more because it directly addresses our psychology and the mental blocks that stop us from doing the most important things. Another element of this is the momentum that comes when you feel like you’re making progress. That feeling of progress leads to more progress.
This is why it’s so important to use a daily action list which is stupidly easy to get done. When you can cross everything off your list at the end of the day, that feeling of satisfaction empowers you and creates more momentum to tackle increasingly more challenging actions in the future.
The crazy thing is, the impact of doing something small, but significant on a consistent basis actually leads to amazing results. It’s not that you need to do more things once those few high impact things are done each day. It’s simply that you need to do those high impact things on a regular basis.
The ability to prioritize effectively is the key skill that underpins all high achievers. It requires an awareness and the maturity to accept that we all have extremely limited capacity – probably more limited that we’d like to admit! But by accepting this and aiming lower, we will actually get a lot more of the important things done.