It’s all about throughput and output, not activity

In productivity, getting things done by neville

On June 3rd, 2017 Alex Honnold did the unthinkable – scaling El Capitan free solo. No ropes, no safety devices – just his hands and feet and a year’s worth of preparation for this one climb.

Alex eventually did the climb in 4.5 hours – but every single move was planned in detail before he started climbing. Before the climb he did a practice run (with ropes) to mark out his route and rappelled down after a rainstorm to make sure his marks were still there.

Because Alex prepared so well he was able to perform an almost impossible feat. The result – the output of all the preparatory work – involved the minimum amount of activity to achieve something no one had ever accomplished – or even contemplated – before.

For all of us, it’s the result that counts – not the amount of work we put into it. We need to drop the badge of 80-hour weeks and the vanity metrics and take up the throughout and output metrics that really count.

Here are three mistakes we make that result in too much work and not enough output:

  1. Not enough planning
  2. Too much planning
  3. Not following the plan

1. Not enough planning

To get anything non-trivial done you need a plan. At the very least you need to break down the work into manageable chunks so that you can get stuff done. If you don’t, two things will happen:

  • You lose motivation. The goal is so big and the work so undefined that it seems like an insurmountable obstacle. Result: you spend more and more time working on stuff without measurable progress – and you lose motivation.
  • Too much time on stuff that is not important. Because the work is not well defined you can spend hours and hours on something that should be small. Result: overwork.

I suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome (or SOS). In my mind it’s the instant gratification monkey that gets terribly excited and tries to detract me from the important stuff. I love technology, insights and new things that are going to make my life oh so much easier. Every time the SOS monkey chatters I get distracted.

So I need a plan to get stuff done. And the plan has to be broken down into small enough chunks that I can happily tell the SOS monkey to wait – I will get to you as soon as I’m done with this bit.

So my planning (generally) is broken down into chunks of work that I can easily get done in a day. And on the day I break it up into 90-minute bits so that I can power through each piece and then go play with the monkey (for just a bit).

2. Too much planning

I’m a perfectionist (with some stuff only, as my wife would point out). I sometimes have so much pleasure in planning things in the finest amount of detail I forget that I don’t need to plan every minute of every day. And then I get upset when I don’t get things done according to plan.

Too much planning leads to analysis paralysis.

Plan only as much as necessary. You’re looking for outcomes, chunks of work done well rather than the amount of work you do. Adding more detail into the plan does not help you get it done – you need just enough detail to know what the outcome of that chunk is going to deliver for you.

Finding the right balance between too little and too much planning can be tough. To some extent you need to find what works for you – but one technique that may help works as follows:

  • Break a big task (or project) into major chunks.
  • Take the first chunk and break that into smaller chunks. Leave the other chunks for later.
  • Take the first small chunk, decide how much more detail you need and either plan those details or just go and do it.
  • Move on to the second chunk. Rinse and repeat.

3. Not following the plan

You’ve planned but life gets in the way. The stuff you had scheduled for this week didn’t get done (as just happened to me) and now you’re behind schedule.

Sometimes hard work helps – just powering through the stuff, not taking time off to relax or spend time with your family or friends. But you know the price you’re going to pay, right?

So here’s what I do (it works for me):

  • Never plan out more than 70% of your day. Make room for chaos.
  • When chaos happens, postpone it to after you get your planned stuff done. I know this doesn’t always work – but when you can, get your work done first and handle the chaos in the other 30% of your day.

So now you have a plan, it’s broken down into chunks that are small enough to get done in a day and you’ve made provision for chaos. You have a fighting chance of actually getting it done on time.

How this helps me get more and more writing out the door

I’m writing more and more and thoroughly enjoying it. But I have a business to build and run so I have to be very effective at writing. Here’s how I do it:

  • I use a mind map (my favourite app is Mindnode) to organise my writing. The root node of the mind map is called “Article Ideas”.
  • The mind map is divided into the 3 layers and 11 boxes of the Tornado Method.
  • Each box has one or more article ideas. Every time I think of something worth writing about, I add it to the mind map.

Here’s what my Article Ideas mind map looks like today:

For the past month I’ve been writing an article (just about) every weekday. To keep up with this pace is not easy – I’ve had to learn to get up earlier so I have undisturbed time to write; I’m learning to outline articles in advance so I don’t sit in front of a blank screen and wonder what to write about; and I’m learning how to get ultra-focused and avoid distractions while I’m writing.

It’s a work in progress of course. I’ve only been writing for a year and I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but I can see just how much I still have to learn about writing. But the nice surprise is that I’m enjoying it. I miss the days when I don’t get to write.

Planning my writing has been the key to success. If I hadn’t learnt how to plan I would never have been able to produce the amount of content I’ve produced up to today. Planning is key.

Plan like a climber

Alex Honnold spent a year preparing for his free solo ascent of El Capitan. He planned every single move in excruciating detail – because his life depended on it.

Your life may not depend on your next project, but you will have an interesting life if you don’t plan. So plan just enough to maximise your throughout and your output – and still enjoy life.

Next steps

You can read more about Alex Honnold’s feat in National Geographic here and on YouTube here.

You can read more about the Tornado Method here – it is the world’s simplest system for building and growing a business.