To be effective, you have to become aware, gain motivation, be decisive, focus, take efficient action, move in the right direction, collect feedback, adapt, and iterate at a sustainable pace.
Blindly, unwillingly, indecisively flailing about in a diluted manner in the wrong direction is pointless. Sitting around complaining about what you are not willing to change is pointless. Busily multitasking inefficiently to show others what a hard worker you are is just vanity. These things may feel good and even look good, but they are NOT good. Being effective is good (well, depending on what your goal is–largely irrelevant because you, at least, likely believe your goal is good, even if you are wrong).
Awareness can be painful though. Just writing this makes me aware of how ineffective I am at times. Pain can be a good motivator, so onward!
If you are not effective, you will not reach your goals. All your effort is therefor pointless. Harsh? Yes. True? Enough.
The best motivation comes from intrinsic obsession. If you are lucky enough to have some, roll with it. You cannot learn obsession; you can only become aware of it in yourself. There are other artificial/external means of motivation (money, ego, social pressure, etc.), but the spark of obsession is the best. However, obsession without action yields nothing.
Sometimes I find myself in the grocery store buying, say, some yogurt. Every container is the same, and yet I hesitate to pick one. Why? They’re all the same! Be decisive, pick one, and move on with your life.
Like all things in life, there must be balance. Inaction is costly. Suppose I just cannot decide. I might die of starvation in a grocery store surrounded by food! However, suppose I rashly run across a busy street without looking? Or I become so paralyzed by fear that I decide never to cross a road? Neither extreme is effective. You need to be aware so that you gain just enough information to make a quality decision (positive expected value relative to the cost of analysis), and then act. Perhaps wait until the last responsible moment to act (more information has diminishing returns and your window of opportunity is closing). Paying attention helps you gain the information necessary to be decisive. That said, you only have so much attention that you can pay out.
I have been studying Lean manufacturing principles lately (I mean, it’s clear I’ve been drinking some of that kool aid, right?). One of the big ideas is limiting work in progress. The basic idea is that if you juggle too many balls at once, you will drop them all eventually. He who chases too many squirrels catches none. Suppose you have 5 projects that are 50% done. How much progress have you made? 50%? No, the answer is zero. You have accomplished nothing of final value yet. Half a resume won’t get you a job. Nobody is going to buy half of your iPhone app. Once you focus on a particular goal, achieving it efficiently will yield real, value-captured progress.
Take Efficient Action
Great, you’ve decided to do something (hey, this does not always happen)! You know which of the identical yogurt containers to take from the shelf and put into your shopping cart. You slowly move your hand forward and reach for it. Hours pass. Angry customers trying to get at the yogurt gather around you with torches and pitchforks. The store closes. The rest of the food in your cart spoils. Everything goes wrong because you were not sufficiently efficient.
Again, balance. If you quickly thrust your hand forward to grab the yogurt, injure your hand, knock all the yogurt containers on the ground, rage stomp them, and then run over 3 innocent bystanders with your shopping cart as you efficiently beeline to nearest checkout lane, then you are full of fail. You still need to perform high quality actions regardless of speed otherwise the damage produced by your efficiency more than negates any value it provides. Efficiency without quality is in vain. Even with quality, it does not matter if you are moving in the wrong direction.
Move in the Right Direction
You have trained your whole life. You are an efficient machine. The ultimate. The best. You are Usain Bolt. You line up to start the race. The gun fires. You blaze forward like no one ever has–but in the wrong direction. Congratulations! You have just set the world record for failure. To know where you are going, it helps to know where you are, so collect some feedback.
If you had opened your eyes for a second instead of visualizing your glorious success (thanks again, ego), you would have realized you were running the wrong way and then changed directions. You might then win (or at least finish) the race. Potential alone is not sufficient for success.
Obviously, the earlier and more often you gather feedback, the better (if its cost is essentially zero). Imagine driving your car and adjusting the duty cycle of your eyes being opened ever less and less. If you try this experiment in real life, you will know the value of frequent feedback (although you probably won’t live to apply that insight).
You are decisively, efficiently driving in the correct direction. You are completely winning. You see a shopping cart full of bricks in your path, look again, and, much to your dismay, it is still there. Reality is annoying like that. You need to adapt soon! What was good enough to be effective in the past may no longer be good. It might even be horrible now. Your context is always changing. This means there is no fixed set of rules you can apply to always succeed.
Iterate at a Sustainable Pace
Yay! You dodged that shopping cart full of bricks. You become so enamored with your own effectiveness that you decide to drive for 36 hours straight (thanks yet again, ego). After all, how can you make any progress by sleeping? Sleep is for fools! You successfully dodge the next 8 or so shopping carts before your “effectiveness” ends permanently. Bricks don’t care how great you think you are.
Become Even More Aware
While reading some of the situations above, you may think, “nobody could ever be so dumb as to do those things.” However, they happen all the time. Life unfolds slowly. It is not always easy to tell when you are being ineffective when the consequences are still months or years away. Try reviewing past less-than-successful long term projects in your mind in fast forward. You will almost certainly find that more than one aspect of effectiveness was consistently neglected over that time. The things you can’t see can hurt you. I have enumerated some of these failure-inducing things that may be invisible to you in another post: Failure.
All this talk of effectiveness has made me supremely aware of how tired I am. I am strongly motivated to decisively take a nap now so that I can sustain my efforts for the rest of the day. May you also be so effective today.