Archive for February, 2017

An economic theory developed in 1817 can help you cut your to-do list in half

We all use to-do lists. Most often we use them to remember what’s most important and do that first. But do we have to be the one to do every task on the list?

This week, we look at how we can trim our to-do lists using the economic theory of comparative advantage:

 

The problem with my lengthy to-do lists is that they are utterly unrealistic. And yet one really does need to call the boring old bank and respond to mountains of emails, etcetera. Or at least, I thought I had to do all those things—until Tiffany Dufu, author of the new book Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less, taught me about the theory of comparative advantage.

To figure out how to prune your to-do list, Dufu recommends using the theory of comparative advantage, a principle developed by the classical economist David Ricardo in 1817 to explain the benefits of free trade. Ricardo’s theory holds that countries do not produce all the goods they require simply because they can produce them. Instead, they consider opportunity cost.

The principle can be applied to our personal productivity, too. Dufu first learned about comparative advantage at a management training session, where she was taught how bosses can use the concept to decide which tasks to delegate and which ones were the best use of their time and energy.

“For example,” she writes in Drop the Ball, “as a seasoned nonprofit fund-raiser, I might be better than my staff at drafting annual fund letters, but I brought the most value in face-to-face meetings pitching major donors. No one else on my team could do that.” So it made sense for her to let go of letter-writing—even if she was really good at it—and concentrate on forging connections with philanthropists.

Other tasks, like booking a dentist appointment for her child, really did need to get done. But Dufu didn’t necessarily have to be the one to do them.

“We live our lives by default, kind of like the ringtone on your iPhone that never changes because it’s working fine,” Dufu says. But if we each think of ourselves as a country, what are the things we really want to be known for?

As for me, I’m still figuring out what my top exports are. But I know that I want writing to be one of them—so it makes sense to devote energy and resources to finishing this article. A sparkling stovetop, by contrast, is nice to have. But in the big picture, I’m cool with some splatter. Consider that ball dropped.

 

So the next time you make your to-do list, spend some time deciding where your efforts are best utilized and delegate the rest.

We got this from the folks at Quartz, check them out for more!

Catch up on your favorite Friday Focus in our Archives page!

How Unnecessarily Ambitious Deadlines Can Crush Progress

Deadlines are a modern tool of productivity. We often use them to create urgency and get stuff done. But can we make something “too urgent”?

This week, we look at how setting overly ambitious deadlines can actually harm your progress:

 

A false deadline is a hard stop you give yourself for some non-consequential reason. It could be to placate your ego, it could be you want to get a project off your plate, it could be you’re just sick of looking at it on the to-do list. The fact is that it actually doesn’t matter: You have no external pressure to perform. It is all internal.

Can you relate? Here’s how I calm myself down when I see myself setting up (and failing) a false deadline.

  1. Where did this deadline come from? If you pause for a second, then you may find the origin of your deadline isn’t even relevant anymore. I’ve worked on projects where the aggressive timeline was based on another department’s needs – yet when the other group pushed its timeline out, we didn’t change ours! The result was us rushing around for quite literally nothing.
  2. When did this deadline become a priority? I’m a big advocate for not waiting until tomorrow to create the life you want, but it is just as important to know today what moves are ideal and what moves are necessary. An ideal goal can sneak into the necessary goal category and, suddenly, the amount of pressure you give yourself to reach this ambitious end is significantly higher. I just wrote a book on productivity and I still struggle with this phenomenon.
  3. What will happen if you don’t meet this goal? This last point is critical, as you have to be able to identify what you fear will happen if you don’t meet this false deadline. You can’t process the anxiety around meeting the deadline if you don’t know what, exactly, you are feeling.

For me, I’m proud of what I’ve created, so missing today’s deadline means I have to wait longer to share it. Disappointing? Definitely. Career threatening? Far from it. And oftentimes, when I have missed a false deadline, opportunities to make the product greater have popped up after the fact – making the temporary pain all the more worthwhile. It’s just a matter of remember this while it is happening.

 

Remember your deadline is only as effective as the intrinsic urgency of the task it’s attached to.

Check out inc.com for more like this and beyond!

Catch up on your favorite Friday Focus in our Archives page!

The Global Economy in January

Global markets were marked by concern over the policies of President Donald Trump, with signs that the post-election rally in US equities was slowing down. This was even while there was euphoria over the Dow Jones index reaching the record 20,000 level for the first time on January 25th. Markets are concerned that with the recent executive order putting a moratorium on entry into the US for persons from seven majority-Muslim countries, the Trump administration might be expending political capital that could otherwise be used in getting through the promised stimulus package. The US Dollar has descended from its 14-year high, while US Treasury yields have also dropped from the record highs seen towards end-2016.

The uncertainty in the US markets have helped Emerging Markets regain the loses made in the aftermath of the surprise election of Trump in November. Russia and Brazil have seen both their stocks and currencies make gains in the month, helped by the rally in commodity prices, especially oil. However, there is a concern that Trump might persevere with his promises of protectionism, after he formally withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) dealing a heavy blow to prospects of free trade. This has allowed China to appear as the major proponent of global free trade, with President Xi coming to its defence in his first ever speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

However, China has taken renewed efforts to curb capital flight and help prevent a further slide in the yuan. These efforts have even come to affect China’s trade flows, with increased difficulty to furnish payments for imports. Thus, some analysts see China entering a new era of isolationism; far from being ready to take up a role as the leader of global free trade.

Meanwhile in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May laid out, in a much-anticipated speech, her government’s plans on Brexit. It involved optimism for a good trade deal with the EU and a promise to give parliament a vote on the final deal reached, but there is no clarity as to how such a deal might be achieved. Analysts are concerned that Britain’s post-Brexit economic resilience might come to an end as consumer spending shows signs of slowing down.

OPEC has surprised analysts by sticking to its output limitation quotas, that came into force on January 1st, with some members like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait even reporting output cuts deeper than promised. This has helped oil prices to continuously hold around the mid-$50s. However, the uptick in prices has encouraged US shale oil production to increase and there is concern that OPEC cuts will be offset by increased production in the US.  In the past week, prices have also been pushed up by concerns about tensions between USA and Iran, with a new set of US sanctions being imposed in response to Iran’s ballistic missile tests.

The Best Ways to Get Through Hundreds of Emails In One Day

Email. We’ve spoken about it before and here we are again. This week we’ll look at a few tips we can use to reach that elusive nirvana that is “inbox zero”:

 

If reading and responding to emails leaves you exhausted and oppressed, it’s time to get your inbox under control. As your inbox gets cluttered and jammed full, so does your mind. And all those untended emails nag the back of your mind like the Sword of Damocles. No wonder you can’t focus. No wonder messages fall through the cracks. No wonder you’re stressed out.

Change the Way You Think of Your Inbox. Two simple paradigm shifts can have a tectonic impact on your inbox:

  • Paradigm Shift #1: Email shouldn’t stay in your inbox.

Think of your inbox as your kitchen counter and an inbox full of new messages as a big bag of groceries. You wouldn’t leave those groceries on the counter, would you? No, you’d put the perishables in the fridge, canned goods in the cupboard, sugar and flour in the pantry. You get the idea. So why do you leave all those emails in your inbox? Put them away!

  • Paradigm Shift #2. It’s better to search than to sort.

Once upon a time, you had to sort each email into some kind of elaborate folder structure. But those days are long gone. The best way to “put away” email these days is, as soon as you’ve dealt with it, archive it. Now, don’t worry, the message isn’t gone. You can find it whenever you want by using the email app’s search function.

Now when you’re looking at a new email, immediately do one of the following:

Deal with it: If it will only take 1-3 minutes, then go ahead and respond to the email. Then archive it.

Delete it: If there’s no action for you take on the email, then get rid of it by archiving it. In effect, you “delete” the email from your inbox but you’ll still be able to find it later on if you need to.

Defer it: Now if you need to respond to an email, but you can’t do it at this exact moment, then you can defer it to a reminder.

And what about the backlog of emails in your inbox? Pick a threshold or period when emails of a certain age just aren’t important anymore. For example, take all the emails older than six weeks (or whatever threshold you choose), mark them as read, and archive them. For the remaining emails, put them away, once and for all. This may take a few hours, but before you know it, you’ve achieved Inbox Zero.

 

If you can’t see it, does it really exist? Archiving mail can make your inbox just that much more manageable. Now, go build your productive inbox!

For more about dealing with email, check out inc.com

Catch up on your favorite Friday Focus in our Archives page!