Most of the effort we put into our goals is useless. The greater part of our gains come from a few discrete, high-yield efforts. What if you decided to only do the high-yield stuff? What if there was no other option?
Tim Ferriss’ fifth question in Tools of Titans explores this idea.
5. What if I could only work 2 hours per week on my business? What would I do?
He used this question to investigate the possibility that he needed to get out of the way of his company’s growth process. Like an overbearing parent, he worried that his commitment to his company’s development was actual stifling its growth. It certainly was weighing on him.
He chose the 2-hour framework because it was provocative. Not because he actually thinks you should only work for 2 hours (though you’d probably be surprised how little you’d lose if you did). 2 hours a week. 24 minutes a day. 12 minutes twice a day. Can you make your time so effective you don’t need more than that?
This is not only applicable to business. It is translatable to any situation where you are trying to produce an optimal state. Simply take the Tim’s 2 hours and make it a percentage of a typical 40-hour work week: 5%. How could you get to your goal by only doing 5% effort?
Want to lose weight? Don’t focus on a fad/crash diet. Change 5% of your eating habits. Do 5% more physical exertion. Seem silly yet? Good. That’s how you know you are on to something. The perception of silliness is your subconscious’ way of diverting you from discovery and change.
Let’s stay with weight loss for a second. How would you change 5% of your eating habits? Let’s take a 2000 calorie diet. Can you cut 100 calories a day? If you eat 3.5 meals a day 7 days a week, how would you create weight loss by only changing 1.25 of those meals?
The sell here is that this type of planning is more likely to create an action you are guaranteed to do. Guaranteed action is way more valuable than an idealized action you wish you could do. It also flanks your existing conscious ideas of what works. Your marriage to your existing ideas is why you are here in the first place. They work great for achieving the current state, not a change state.
Pareto’s Law: Planned Efficiency and Efficacy
Part of what is driving the engine under the hood of this exercise is Pareto’s Law. This is a Tim Ferriss specialty. Think of it as a hypothesis that the Minimum Effective Dose of any action is all you will ever need. The law states:
80% of our outcomes are created by 20% of your efforts.
Like I said, instead of 20% we are shooting for the value of being provocative by using 5%. We’ve talked before about the idea that provocation is a great tool for exploring your blindspots. It allows you to take your growth beyond your outside edge of comfort. If you never do that you are very unlikely to find change.
The application of Pareto’s Law exists in the subtlety of our culture of change. Many industries are built on the law without realizing it. Think of strength training in fitness or speed work in running: short bursts of maximal effort with plenty of recovery in between. In nutrition it is exhibited by intermittent fasting or small daily changes rather than sustained arduous diets focused on deprivation. Tech has its planned sprints, specifically in software development. They all illustrate ways people have naturally and maybe unintentionally created applications of Pareto’s Law. Their best outcomes are generated by small but intense volume.
Procrastinators: Efficiency Machines
My favorite example however is a serial procrastinator. They are the absolute best users of Pareto’s Law. In the next month and a half, millions of people across the world will subject themselves to the largest mass, stress wave outside maybe tax season. It’s academic FINALS. Other than maybe New Year resolutions, this will also be the most concentrated time of self-reflection in human existence.
Most(?) of those people will finish their finals season and sit with negative self thoughts. “I should have started earlier.” “If I’d done better on my midterm I could take it easy now.” “Why do I always do this?!”
Well I will tell you why you always do this…because it works. You discovered it because it solves a problem or met a need at a time. Since that point nothing has happened to indicate that the cost outweighs the benefit. You may not be present with the idea that this monkey on your back is a problem. That’s okay. If you realized it you would have stopped it.
I am writing this on a Monday at 7:45am. Right now a serial procrastinator 30 miles south of me is asleep. These glorious 2 hours of sleep are his reward to himself after an all-nighter. The last 24 hours have been a roller coaster of negative emotion. Why don’t we go ahead and meet this guy. Let’s call him Jeff and pretend it’s finals week at Stanford.
At about 4:45AM, Jeff finished cramming for his 10:30AM organic chemistry final. “As long as I have a power nap I should be fine.” On waking Jeff will take a shower (“cold water always gets the cobwebs out”) and drinks a cup of coffee (“as long as I drink it 30 minutes before my exam I can get the benefits before the jitters set in”). He then will mosey into his exam, full of stress and adrenaline (and caffeine…and probably a 5-hour Energy because “it can’t make it worse”). Jeff, our Last-Minute Hero, will take the test and perform EXACTLY to the level he intends. He won’t be happy with the score because it won’t be what he thinks he needs. But it will be 100% in line with what he wants. Subconsciously.
Jeff has big goals and high expectations of himself. He wants to go to medical school at Stanford. He wants to be a trauma surgeon and work disaster relief in developing countries. Jeff knows his ability and his potential. It is limitless. The top quintile in his class is not unreasonable. In fact, he expects it. However Jeff will not make that quintile despite his best efforts.
Jeff’s goal is not actually to be in that quintile. Jeff’s goal is to be exactly where he is right now. His score on his exam will be within 5% of the exact score he needed to be right here. He will also be extremely disappointed by this. Jeff has a disconnect between what he thinks he wants and what his behavior indicates he actually wants.
Jeff is the prototypic procrastinator. However what Jeff doesn’t realize is that he has set himself up in a position to ALWAYS ONLY observe Pareto’s Law. His procrastination guarantees that he never does excess work because there is no more time in which to do it. In this space he also guarantees he can never do better on exams. He can continue to do exactly how he is already doing. It is completely done out of subconscious design.
This gets into the other half of the puzzle of Pareto’s Law… Parkinson’s Law. Tim Ferriss is big on this as well. Parkinson’s Law states:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
It is basically an application of the Ideal Gas Law. I could riff off metaphors for PV=nRT but it would take too much time. Maybe in another article. I do still like the gas analogy as a whole. Here’s why.
Let’s say I sit Jeff down and we decide to fix his procrastination. “Its holding me back. I keep getting subpar grades and I know I can do better.” We analyze his study routine. “I started studying at 1AM. I meant to start right when I got home from class at 3PM. I had the whole day planned out. But then I decided to play Fallout because I figured I needed a little priming before I went hard studying. Figured I’d play for maybe an hour. That didn’t end until about 7PM. Then I was hungry so I had to go get food. When I got to the place I ran into my friend, Ashley. She’d been studying all day and was taking her break. We ended up talking for about an hour. Then I got my food and came home to eat. I always watch Sportscenter while I eat so I turned that on. Next thing I know it’s 9:30PM and I haven’t started studying. I realized the problem is that I kept getting distracted at home. So I decided to go to the library. I’m out the door at 10PM. I was all ready. I get there and forgot it closed at 11PM. It wouldn’t even be worth getting my stuff laid out to start. I pack back up and come home. Now I know I’m in for an all-nighter so I stop at Circle K for snacks and coffee. It takes me about an hour to clean off my table, get things situated, and decide what to focus on. Of course sprinkled in this whole story are 5-10 freak out sessions that each last 10-15 minutes.”
It’s a typical story but here’s the fun part. Jeff studied for his exam for about 3.5 hours. What if I told Jeff at 3PM when he was leaving class “hey, just do 3.5 hrs. Then you’ll be done and you can go play Fallout the rest of the night. Maybe even meet Ashley for dinner”? Would he take it? No way! That’s Parkinson’s Law.
If Jeff had actually started when he planned he likely would have studied until 4:45AM anyway. Consciously or unconsciously he knew he did NOT need to study 13 hours to get the grade he wants. Said differently- the grade he wants doesn’t require 13 hours. It requires 3.5. Remember:
“All voluntary human behavior is done for exactly the outcome it creates. Even the most self-destructive behaviors exist for some perceived net positive gain. No matter how bizarre or obscure that gain may be.” – Kory Stotesbery, His Office, A Few Times a Week
Work expands into open space. Tim’s challenge question of 2 hours a week take the gas and compresses it. Procrastinating does the same thing.
Procrastinators don’t have a problem getting started. They start at exactly the time they are supposed to do. Instead they have a problem restricting expansion. They are bad at setting limits on the back end. Instead they use artificial limits like time deadlines or the physical inability to stay awake. If you take a procrastinator and get them very good at saying no to themselves you can unlock amazing ability. Remember the litany of “as long as I” rules Jeff had around his study habits. Those are reflective of just how great he is at figuring out his personal tricks to bring effective and efficient.
Sure there is also a conversation about why Jeff is so blind to the fact that he is just fine getting the grades he gets and that his life would be MUCH happier if he accepted that and didn’t wish for a single percentage more. If he really wanted to change it he would. We all would. It’s what humans do. Imagine his day had he planned from the beginning to start studying at 1AM.
As easily suggestible, cognitive beings we are prone to maintaining beliefs with no factual basis. We call them assumptions. Pareto’s Law says we drastically overstate what is necessary to achieve a goal. Potentially by 80%. Parkinson’s Law underlines that our overestimation of need is likely a function of the system not being restricted enough. By asking yourself “what would I do if I could only work for 2 hours” you break down both limitations. No one is better at this than procrastinators. Every serial procrastinator has developed a tried-tried-and-true method to achieve their goals. They may just need a little work to give themselves a break and learn to love their skill set. If they ever want more sleep they just need to practice restricting their system. This would allow them to take their Minimim Effectice Dose of work and move it to a more socially and physically palatable time.