Uri Bram in 1843 Magazine:
If there’s one experience that fundamentally defines the modern working professional it’s trying, and failing, to get more work done. It took me six minutes to write that last sentence because between starting and ending I opened four new tabs, including an interesting Harvard study on how our inability to focus is making us miserable. But as a matter of deepest principle, your resident economist will never let personal inadequacy prevent him from offering advice. Stick to the following guidelines and you’ll be able to clock off at lunchtime:
1. Put your long-term self in charge
Thomas Schelling, who invented behavioural economics decades before it was a thing, encouraged his readers to think of themselves as two selves: a weak-willed short-term self and a far-sighted long-term one. Your short-term self is like a rat in a maze: it will run in random directions, or wherever it smells food, with no regard for the bigger picture. The trick to better life decisions, says Schelling, is for your long-term self (when it’s briefly in control) to drop your short-term self into a carefully structured maze, channelling your primal, impulsive actions towards inevitably good results.
For example, if your short-term self is left with any choice at all between writing a report and wasting time on the internet, it will inevitably choose the temptations of the web. As a result, Schelling says that it’s rational for the long-term self to yank the router out of the socket so that the short-term self won’t have internet to distract it. (If you like your dramatic gestures a little less dramatic, the Self Control app lets your long-term self simply block distracting websites that might tempt you later). Similarly, apps like Beeminder and Stickk let your long-term self create “commitment contracts” which will pressure your short-term self into achieving your deeper goals.
2. Remember Pareto
The Pareto principle, certain management thinkers will tell you, is that 20% of the work always gives you 80% of the results. They’re wrong, however, about the universality of the numbers. Pareto was making an empirical observation about some specific situations, for instance, that a “vital few” of the peapods in his garden were providing him most of the peas. The general concept it embodies, though – that if you just do the most important work you’ll get most of the results, and that a large amount of trifling work doesn’t add very much at all – is often true outside the vegetable patch. As such, it’s easy to do double the work in half the time by doing 20% of the work for two-and-a-half different projects and thereby getting 200% of the output afters 50% of the hours.