Don’t Confuse Activity for Effectiveness

Never confuse activity for effectiveness.  Many people wrongly believe that because they are busy, they are also moving forward and accomplishing goals.  Without activity, there is no effectiveness but there can be plenty of activity without effectiveness.  It’s important to differentiate between the two.

In the early part of any process, nearly any activity will equal effectiveness.  The first one-mile walk you go on when you’re looking to get in shape is both active and effective.  If you’re a half-marathoner looking to do a full marathon, taking a one-mile walk doesn’t do much.  It’s active, but no longer effective towards your goal of running a full marathon.

The best way to think about this is to take a look at the intersection between active and effective.  Below shows the four combinations and what they might mean in the context of moving forward with your goals.

Clearly all of us should strive to be in the upper right box as much as possible in our life.  We often start in the lower right box but hopefully graduate to the upper right box.  We can even spend some time in the upper left box once in a while – recreational activities are a good example of being active yet not particularly effective.  You could argue that you are being effective at helping your sanity, but let’s not cheat ourselves.  It’s absolutely okay to be active and ineffective so long as you’re intentional about it.  We want to limit our time in the lower left box to as little as possible, preferably none.

Activity Can Always Be a Waste of Time

Activity can always be a waste of time when trying to accomplish something.  There are common activities that no one should partake in: complaining about coworkers or something outside their control, gossiping, sitting around and waiting for things to happen, or surfing the web endlessly.  These are pretty common time sucks that afflict many (myself included occasionally).

Yet those are not the types of activities that I want to focus on.  Let’s instead focus on activities that people think are effective but ultimately are not.

  1. No Clearly Defined Goal: Having no clearly defined goal is going to make being active and effective awfully difficult. Without both a big picture plan and the steps needed to get you there, you can spend a lot of time wasted on doing the wrong things.  Further, the lack of a clear goal can make it difficult to stay on task.  Wanting and knowing what you’re working towards can make doing the hard stuff easier.
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  2. Email: To be fair, some emails are both active and effective. An email leading to new business or one that saves the company millions can be both active and effective.  But those are rare (exceedingly so in fact).  Instead, email has become a waste of time for nearly every office worker.  There is no cost beyond time to write and send an email and many people feel at the very least obligated to read it.  I often fall into this latter camp.  Looking through my emails this morning, I had one that was actually actionable and relevant and dozens that just got deleted or filed away.  Not an effective use of my time.  Feel free to ignore most emails.
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  3. Meetings: The older I get, the more convinced I am that any meeting with more than four people has no chance of being an effective one. Even meetings with four or fewer people are questionable in their necessity.  Meetings should have one specific purpose and only be held if there are no other alternatives (like emails!).  Even then, these should be as short as possible and as on point as possible.  Meetings are not required to share information or “get everyone on the same page.”  Nor are they needed to get “buy-in” for a project – a great project will get plenty of buy-in.  Accountability while doing said project is rarely discussed at these meetings (awkward in a big setting) and people often show up late or “think out loud” – a waste of time for everyone else.
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  4. Solving the Same Problem Over and Over Again: People and businesses generally run into the same roadblocks again and again. Don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel.  If you are constantly solving the same problem then you are not moving forward.  Running into new problems is often the best sign that you’re actually making progress.  When presented with a problem, first take the time to actually solve the problem.  Many times we just paper over a problem with a short term solution.  This ends up costing more time in the long run.  Then, once you figure out how to solve it, document the solution.  You may occasionally run into the problem again, but at least you’ll be ready right away and won’t waste too much time thinking about how to tackle it once more.
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  5. Waiting for the Right Time: How many times have you heard, “It’s just not the right time” as an excuse for someone not doing something that they want?  How many times have you used it?  There’s always going to be something in our way.  No one takes us seriously in our 20s.  We’ve got young kids in our 30s.  Too many commitments in our 40s.  Too old to start over in our 50s.  There will never be a right time!  Waiting around for something to happen instead of making it happen is a great way to ensure nothing happens!  Stop kicking the can down the road and do it.

The Holy Grail: How to Ensure Effectiveness

While knowing what activity is ineffective is important, knowing what actions are effective is both more difficult and far more helpful.  In many cases, there is no blueprint to follow – you have to figure it out yourself.  This leads to a lot of wasted effort but through time, you continue to improve and that waste decreases.

There is also a difference in activity when the goal is a personal one versus one that involves multiple people, like at work or with your family.  Personal goals are ultimately all on you.  You can have an accountability partner, but even then, it’s too easy to dismiss a third party.  Personal goals must be heavily internalized.  For work or family goals, your objective is more to set the vision and lay out the path forward.  Since you can’t accomplish a group goal by yourself, you can only do your best to set others up for success.  Do the work that you need to do, but also get everyone else on the same page.

Like anything else though, following a well-defined process can help.

  1. Define What You Want: A lot of activity has no clearly defined goal because many people haven’t figured out what they want.  This is where we start to get into specifics.  Instead of saying I want F-You money, figure out what that means.  Does that mean having enough savings so that you can say F-You to your boss and have enough money to take a little time off and be choosy with your next job?  Or does it mean never having to work again?  Get specific – if you want to never have to work again, figure out what that amount is.  For us, it’s $2.5 million in a taxable brokerage account and we estimate that we’ll be there in 8-10 years.  In reality, we’ll be financially independent before then when you include retirement savings, but that’s a number we feel comfortable with.  Our specificity allows us to better define our goals.
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  2. Gather Information: The first step to achieve a goal is to determine what needs to be done. This is where what appears to be inactivity is actually very effective.  What you need to do often contradicts with what you want to do.  For example, if the goal is to reach $1 million in a taxable brokerage account by age 40, you may want to focus on finding the best investments and getting the highest return possible.  It’s just more fun.  Instead, what needs to be done is figuring out your income and expenses, where you stand now, and how to increase income while decreasing expenses.  Draft a savings plan that gives you a savings goal each month until you reach your goal.  Constantly refine it and push yourself towards stretch goals.  Only then can you figure out how to best invest your money.
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  3. Write It Down: Once you gather the needed information, it’s time to write down your action plan.  Writing it down has the dual benefits of making the goal real and forcing you to organize your thoughts and plans.  An idea in your head is not very useful because your memory is not perfect.  Writing it down shows a path to putting your ideas into actions.  This plan does not have to be set in stone- it provides more of a compass instead of a map.  Yet it must also create a system of checks in order to ensure that you are continually moving forward.  Things always change and we never have all the facts up front, but we cannot use that as an excuse to halt or abandon our goals.
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  4. Do the Work: Once you’ve created your roadmap, it’s time to execute it. This is the tough part but also the most satisfying.  Doing the work and crossing items off of the to-do list can be extremely gratifying.  Set deadlines, own your accountability, and cover your bases.  Once you complete the first few items on the action plan, you’ll often develop momentum and pick up speed.  This is why it’s so important to commit and force yourself to complete the first few items.  Getting started is the hardest part.
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  5. Communicate: As a leader, either in your family or at work, you have to take responsibility for communicating goals and expectations. You are not allowed to ram your goals onto your employees or family members though.  In order to make it a true team goal, it must come from everyone.  Once you figure out the steps to be followed, someone has to communicate what the action plan is and how you’re going to accomplish the goal.  Be the one to step up.  In our family, my wife and I come up with our financial goals (along with our children, when it makes sense).  However, I am often the one to bring it up at our family meetings or at dinner to make sure that everyone knows what those goals are.
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  6. Take Responsibility and Focus the Group: Finally, take responsibility as a leader to focus the group, challenge your family or fellow employees, and get people back on task when they stray from the action plan.  Like anyone else, our family sometimes lets expenses get a little high or we pay less attention than we should and things slip through the cracks.  Instead of giving up on our goals, we learn from our mistakes and refocus our energy.

Don’t Waste Time

Never confuse activity for effectiveness.  Those that constantly talk about how busy their life is are often the least effective.  Don’t be one of those people.  Instead, figure out the ways that you can be the most effective.  Whether you are looking to move up the food chain at work, get in better shape, or achieve financial independence, don’t waste time and energy with useless actions.  Cleary define what you want, develop a game plan, write it down, and get to work.  When it involves others, take responsibility to communicate the goals and action plan and keep everyone on task throughout.

Keep building my friends.

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