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To Accomplish Big Things: Think Big but Act Small

A few weeks back I wrote a post that discussed the importance, especially for busy parents, of taking advantage of the early morning hours to accomplish big things, be it starting a business, mastering a new talent, or writing a book. Early morning is, indeed, a time to get things done.

My post prompted a few questions from readers, the most common of which was some variation of: “Okay, great, so early morning is a good time to work on big goals. What then?”

Fair question. Put another way: If early morning is when to work, once my alarm goes off, how should I work? I responded to each person and gave them my take, with the intention of leaving it at that. Our blog, after all, is not focused on issues like productivity. It’s focused on self improvement in a broader sense. From spending more time outside in nature, to engaging in creative pursuits, Life and Whim is all about encouraging our community to pursue active, meaningful lives.

The more I thought about it, though, I realized that learning how to work in the most effective and productive manner is, for many, integral to experiencing a life well lived. Much of our time on this planet is spent working, and it’s only through hard work that we can realize our dreams, so we might as well make the most of our time spent on the road, in the field, on the site, and in the office.

The good news is that hard work can be deeply satisfying. It feels good to do a job well done. Accomplishment gives us meaning. Hopefully this resonates, because it’s a feeling you’ve experienced before. But it’s not just me making this assertion about the connection between hard work and happiness – academic research backs it up.

In the early 1980s, well known psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a series of studies meant to understand the psychological impact of common behaviors we engage in every day. One of the major insights of his work was to show that depth generates meaning. He found that people are actually happier doing deep work than they are relaxing. Based on his findings he concluded: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.” Csikszentmihalyi popularized the term “flow state” that is used to describe the effortless feeling experienced by high achievers – from authors to athletes – operating at peak performance during periods of hard work.

It’s called “hard” work for a reason. Any time you’re trying to learn a new skill, or attempting to build something worthwhile, it’s hard. Most of us start enjoying something only after we get good at it. And it takes practice and hard work to get good. Take playing the guitar, for example. Practicing guitar is painful (physically and emotionally) and frustrating for several months until enough work has been put in to build up calluses and learn the basics. Once someone earns their calluses and their skills improve, however, guitar starts to become fun and satisfying. Resilience is built up during the painful periods of any worthy endeavor, and serves as a bridge to the other side.

If you want to do something that’s satisfying, most times you have to do it when it’s not. Practice is a precursor to passion.

The point is that the type of intense work that leads to high achievement is not only remunerative, it’s psychologically rewarding as well. In light of work’s holistic benefits, it therefore makes sense to work in the most productive manner possible in order to realize the greatest benefits. What follows is my take on how to get things done.

I’ll start with an overarching argument, which is that the best way to tackle something big and important is to: Minimize as many distractions as possible in order to create space and time to work intensely and consistently on one’s most important priorities.

Notice that this formulation consists of three elements which can be summarized and categorized as follows: (1) minimize distractions, (2) do intense, consistent work, and (3) establish important priorities.

Minimize Distractions

When he was CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates would disconnect twice a year for off-site “Think Weeks” during which he would do nothing but read and think deeply. In 1845, Henry David Thoreau headed to the woods for two years to write his master work, Walden. George Orwell fled the hustle and bustle of London and escaped to a remote house on the small island of Jura off the coast of Scotland to write 1984. He described his writing sanctuary as “extremely un-get-atable.” After his standout 2014 season, All Pro defensive lineman J.J. Watt of the NFL’s Houston Texans bought a minimalist cabin in a remote area of northern Wisconsin in order to isolate himself during the offseason while upping his training regimen.

Now, as a busy person, I’m not suggesting that you can or should head off to a remote location in order to live and work monastically, but in order to consistently produce valuable work, you do need to find ways to minimize distractions in your day.

Distractions come in many forms. At the office: relentless email; mind numbing, soul sucking meetings; chatty colleagues; LinkedIn; phone calls; the window washing guy outside your office. At home: the kids; the dog; heaps of laundry; dirty dishes; television; Facebook; the comfy couch.

Ever go on the Internet just to check out “one thing” and emerge from a daze twenty minutes later wondering what the heck just happened? You get the idea. In fact, that “minute or two” you intend to spend online checking Facebook is costing you much more.

According to a study conducted by Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for us to return to our original task after an interruption. Do the math on that during the course of an 8 hour day, and you’ll see why interruptions aren’t some trifling annoyance – they’re productivity killers.

To avoid the “work, distraction, work, distraction” cycle that leads to unproductive days, you need to set firm boundaries – for yourself and others. You need to create a work environment that fosters the type of focused work required to achieve big things.

Intense, Consistent Work

Thinking big is expansive thinking. Thinking small is restrictive thinking. Thinking big is all about possibilities. Thinking small is all about limitations. Have big dreams? You need to think big.

However, the size of our dreams is what often stops us from pursuing them. The task ahead seems so momentous that we don’t even start. We assume we need long blocks of uninterrupted time to make progress, and because we’re busy and don’t have long blocks of time, we just give up instead.

It’s okay – in fact, it’s necessary – to think big, and have big dreams, if you want to accomplish big things. But the way to get there is not by acting big – it’s by acting small. Success is sequential. It results from tackling lots of small things on a consistent basis, not trying to tackle everything at once. Dominoes fall one at a time.

In practical terms, what this means is that it’s necessary to break big and unwieldy tasks into a bunch of small and manageable tasks, and then work intensely and consistently to accomplish each one. You’ve probably heard this one before because it’s timeless: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Establish Important Priorities

There’s never enough time in the day, and you probably can’t work longer hours – at home or at the office – than you already do, so it’s important to work smarter. No matter how skilled a manager you may be, it’s tough to manage through the chaos of a typical day without understanding the hierarchy of your priorities. In this sense, productive people – effective people – practice “time curation” as opposed to “time management.” They discern. They pick and choose. They don’t multitask, they prioritize. And then they ruthlessly honor, defend and work in accordance with those priorities. In other words, when it comes to how they structure their days, they’re “essentialists.”

This is the central argument of Greg McKeown’s excellent book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. It’s a book that espouses the importance of focusing on the most important, essential tasks on your plate. McKeown describes his methodology as the “disciplined pursuit of less.” At its core, essentialism is about setting priorities. According to McKeown: “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”

For example, if you have a business idea, there’s no point worrying about what your logo and website will look like, or what your domain name will be, before you’ve nailed down far more essential priorities, such as what product or service you’re selling, to whom, for what price, and what your expenses will be, so you know if the idea is even financially viable in the first place.

You can work hard, but hard work matters little if you’re working on the wrong thing. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Before worrying about eliminating distractions and developing a deep work habit, the most important step in accomplishing big things is spending the necessary time to identify your most important priorities.

Think Big and Act Small

It’s not all of the big, bold things we do during our lives and careers that lead to success. It’s the small actions taken every day that make the difference and lead to compounding results over time.

Author and marketing guru Seth Godin wrote on his blog: “The thing is, incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track  – this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.” It’s how lives and careers change too.

Clear goals. The right priorities. Small, consistent actions. This is the formula to leverage the power of progress in order to make big things happen.