Occasionally, I enjoy playing computer games and during the Christmas break, I spent some time in Eve Online. It’s an open-world game, set in space, where you’re free to do any activity that you like. As I was spending time in this game, I realized something interesting: the return in terms of in-game currency that I was earning with certain activities was orders of magnitude different from other activities I could be spending time on. Not 10 percent but 10x, 100x or even 1000x!
When I look at my life outside of computer games, I notice something similar. Whether it’s publications (I am a professor after all), financial returns (I invest in startups as well as traditional passive index funds) or health returns (I exercise daily), how I decide to spend my time has a significant impact on the return I generate. For instance, standing on a cross-trainer at a moderate setting for 40 minutes has, according to some research that I read, the same cardiovascular effect as three times one minute of full-out high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Three minutes has the same effect as 40 minutes – that’s more than 10x!
In the companies I work with, in various capacities, I see a similar pattern: most of the people I meet are hardworking and well intentioned, but for many, the return on their activities is quite limited. Especially for us, who are toiling to drive change in companies, many initiatives run out into the sand without any real impact as the resistance to change proves too powerful. It easily starts to feel like “shuffling chairs on the deck of the Titanic” – you’re close to the lifeboats, but you’re doing little to avoid disaster.
Many moons ago, when I was working for Nokia, one of the senior leaders in the company mentioned a quote that I’ve taken to heart and try to operationalize as often as I can: activity isn’t the same as progress. Being raised traditional Calvinist protestant, the importance of working hard was ingrained deeply in my upbringing. My dad often told me: “There are workhorses and there are show horses. You’re a showy workhorse.” And I must admit that I’ve never met a successful person who didn’t work his or her behind off.
Hard work is necessary but not sufficient. It’s also about working smart. How do we make sure that the things we spend our time on indeed result in the outcomes we’re looking for? The Pareto principle states that 80 percent of the outcomes result from 20 percent of the causes. The effect of this principle can be found in wealth and income distribution, taxation, quality management, sports and even software development, as the hardest 20 percent of the code takes 80 percent of the time.
The Pareto principle also applies to how we spend our time as professionals. Being creatures of habit, it’s easy to step on the treadmill of our daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly tasks and just execute as this is how we’ve always done it. However, as everything we and our companies do commoditizes over time, we should always look for ways to automate or remove activities that add little value in order to free up time for new activities and initiatives that have the potential of an order of magnitude higher return of investment (RoI). Innovation doesn’t only apply to products and services but also to how we organize our workday.
My challenge to you is to evaluate the effect or impact of the activities you spend your time on. Identify the 80 percent that results in little impact, find ways to automate or get rid of those and use the freed-up time to do more of the 20 percent activities that have the high RoI. In the end, we all want to make a difference and just working hard isn’t the optimal way to get there. Remember: activity isn’t the same as progress.