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The secret of getting more done with less effort
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I'll spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” I love the idea behind this Abraham Lincoln quote, but how can I apply it to setting up my todo list? That's what we're getting into in this post.
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At the start of each day, I often ask myself how best to channel my attention and energy to make the best use of limited time. This typically looks like reviewing a list of things I could do, and then choosing the handful of tasks that "make the cut." Sometimes tasks make the cut because they have deadlines, but when that's the not the case, I've found tremendous value in considering leverage when choosing tasks.
All work falls on a spectrum of leverage
If you've ever had to train somebody new to a job, then you'll know what I mean. Teaching someone how to do a task that you can do in your sleep usually takes more work than just doing the task yourself.
Once the person is trained however, they can do that task instead of you, leaving you free to spend your time on other things. That return on investment makes the heavy lift of training worth the effort.
The more value a task produces, the higher it's leverage. Recognizing the leverage value of work allows you to get more deliberate and intentional about how you choose which work to do on any given day.
Three kinds of work
I like to classify work into one of three segments on the leverage spectrum: single serving, limited, and everlasting.
Single serving work only delivers a single instance of value. In our tree chopping example, this would include each swing of the axe. The portion of wood cut out from the trunk represents the single instance of value that the axe swing produces.
Next we have limited value work. This is work that yields a several instances of value, but that eventually runs out. Sharpening the axe is a limited value task. It allows each axe swing to be more effective and easier to perform, thereby reducing the overall time and effort needed to eventually fell the tree. The axe will eventually get dull however, so the value is limited, it doesn't last forever.
Finally we have everlasting value work, which as the name implies, delivers value forever. In terms of chopping down a tree, this might look like writing down the procedure for how to sharpen the axe, and illustrating the most effective technique for how to make the cuts. The task of documenting this information only happens once, but it can be applied infinitely many times to cut down any number of trees.
How they relate
When you start to look at work this way, you begin to notice something. Higher leverage work usually makes lower leverage work easier to to do
Single serving work is usually repetitive and kind of boring, but that's also what makes it so great for optimization. And optimization is precisely what limited and everlasting work is best for.
When I was first building my running habit, I found that constantly making little decisions added up to a fair amount of friction when trying to get out the door. Figuring out how far I needed to go and which route to take could easily be just high enough of a barrier to keep me in bed on a cold morning.
That all changed the day I finally sat down and spent a few hours creating a running plan. I laid out what every run needed to look like for the next 9 months, and once that was done, all I ever had to do was look at the plan and execute. No more decision making, or wondering if I was doing the right thing on any given day.
Making the running plan was a great example of limited leverage work. The outcome gave me value for 9 months, and made the single serving work of doing each run much easier to do.
Single serving work is all that counts
This brings us to our final point: when it comes to building a compounding system that transforms your life, single serving work is the only thing that counts.
Going back to my running example, all the reading and planning in the world wouldn't do me a lick of good if I didn't actually get the runs in. Consistently building mileage, day after day, was the only thing that counted in terms of becoming a stronger runner. Same with cutting down the tree. Until you actually swing the axe, all the sharpening in the world doesn't matter.
High leverage work can be sexy and fun to do. It's often the world of research, tool building, and planning. But it's also a fantastic way to procrastinate. Pro tip: A good way to think of procrastination to think of it as the time between single serving tasks.
The four ideas covered here are connected and together form the secret behind getting more done less effort: tapping into leverage. Recognizing that all work falls on a spectrum of leverage opens up the ability to classify it. You can then make wise decisions about how to spend your attention and energy by balancing the fact that limited and everlasting work makes single serving work easier to do, but always keeping in mind that when it comes to compounding results, the single serving work is all that matters.
Do you have a personal example of high leverage work making your life easier? If so, I'd love to hear about it! Please leave a comment about whether the work was limited value or everlasting, and the kind of single serving work it streamlined. I'm sure you'll inspire me and others, and who knows, you may very well make a difference our lives.
Single serving work is the unsung hero of any compounding system, but how do you keep your spirits high when failure starts to enter the picture? Be sure to check out this post to see how.
In case you’d like to see a spoken version of this essay, be sure to check out this post on YouTube.