Books: Self-Discipline by Numbers or by Focusing Your Efforts?

Management Today, September 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

Books: Self-Discipline by Numbers or by Focusing Your Efforts?


A brace of books on time management, but Henry Stewart eschews 100 hard and fast rules in favour of a working week of four hours that proves you really can have it all.

We all want to be more efficient, and both these books claim to help you do that. By following Cut to the Chase, you should be able to get more work done in your day. However, The 4-Hour Workweek has a more radical approach, promising that you can 'achieve more by doing less'.

Cut to the Chase is nicely packaged for the business book market. It includes a lot of ideas that have been published elsewhere, but set out as 100 rules. It is eminently readable: you can dip in or read it all in a reasonable train journey.

Note that these are rules, not guidelines. Start the day with 20 minutes of planning (rule 5), spend the last 10 minutes reviewing and planning for the next day before carefully planning your personal life for the evening (rule 98).

It is clear that nothing should be left to chance. 'Every second counts' (rule 21) and 'visualise a stopwatch ticking away in your head' (rule 3). Make sure you 'Explode out of the blocks' with a healthy breakfast and a good workout. Avoid dropping in on people for a chat, as this wastes their time and yours (rule 34).

In the past, this book would have made me feel inadequate: my work life should be as rigidly planned as this. Now I'm not so sure. My approach is less tidy, and one of the best books I've read this year, A Perfect Mess, by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman (Little, Brown), puts forward the strong counter-intuitive argument that 'a little disorder makes systems more effective'.

Inevitably, there are useful tips in Stuart Levine's book. I like Rule 77, that you should state your conclusion first. The author suggests looking at your most recent report and finding the first time in it that you made clear what your point was. If it was later than the second paragraph, it was too late. Leaving the conclusion to the end is 'a bad habit we all picked up at school'.

I also like the 120-second meetings concept (rule 48). Don't feel always that you have to chat; people often appreciate you dropping by, getting to the point and moving on. Although, because you mustn't interrupt people (remember rule 34), you must make an arrangement by phone first - which just seems to interrupt them twice.

Overall, the book was frustrating and I found an intriguing alternative on a friend's bookshelf in Facebook. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss explains how you really can have it all. He moved from a stressed-out small businessman to a member of what he calls the 'new rich'. He permanently tours the world, putting in just four hours a week at a nearby internet cafe or on his mobile.

One thing lacking in Levine's book is any serious attempt to deal with e-mail. We love e-mail and we hate it. We believe it makes us more efficient, but also know it is one of the greatest threats to our productivity. Ferriss suggests you check e-mail only twice a day (at 11 and 4) and make sure you have one of your two key tasks completed before your first look. What a simple yet truly liberating idea!

The key to the approach is a combination of two theories: Pareto's Law, where we achieve 80% of our desired outcome with 20% of our time and effort, and Parkinson's, which states that work grows to fill the time available. Ferriss analysed his time and ruthlessly cut out the 80% of his effort that had little effect. To stop Parkinson's Law taking effect, he simply cut back the time he made available for work. His advice: 'Identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to income, and schedule them with very short and clear deadlines.'

Ferriss' business is selling vitamins to sportspeople. He found he could cut out 95% of requests by allowing his resellers to spend dollars 100 to solve any customer problem as they saw fit (where can you drop the need for your approval? …

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