When I was studying English as a foreign language, I never really learned the difference between the word “efficient” and “effective” because they are translated into almost the same word in Chinese. A few months into my entrepreneurship journey, I realized that there is a huge difference! And surprisingly, it turns out that most people are just as confused as I was but unlike me, their problem is more than just an issue of translation.
Being efficient is about having many trifle things done. Being effective is about having the most important one or two things done so that the whole project can move forward.
It is a conscious choice between the “trifle many” and the “vital few” as described in the book The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less. This is a very important learning for me and has created a big impact on my overall productivity.
When I was working on a 9-to-5 corporate job, everything was scheduled for me and all I needed to do was to follow the routine and meet the deadline. I did not have any side hustle or other sources of income so I got really comfortable with just finishing whatever was required. That’s why when I transitioned to be an entrepreneur, I suddenly found myself on the one hand, with all the time in the world because there was no one was assigning me any tasks or deadlines. On the other hand, however, I felt like I had no time at all because from the very first minute I had to handle absolutely every single thing for the new venture and there were just too many of them… This dilemma came with no warning and it just seemed too impossible to manage.
Naturally, without any experience with juggling, I got caught up in the trap of trying to complete as many things as possible and as fast as possible. For a long time, I was having the illusion that I was being productive. However, even when I was able to get 100 things done in the day and feeling exhausted afterward, I always ended up feeling unproductive and frustrated over the other 100 things that still needed to be done. Now in retrospect, I know what happened. I was being efficient but not effective. I was dealing with the “to-do list” all the time, busy crossing one item after another but postponing facing the big and important ones because they look too difficult or take too much time. In fact, I was so obsessed with completing things for the sake of completing them that I would literally write something I just finished down on my list and cross it out immediately just to get the resulting dopamine release and the momentary joy of accomplishment. (Please tell me I’m not the only one!)
Now I have a much better understanding of the significance of being effective rather than efficient, I do a few things on a daily basis (assuming that I already know what tasks are more important than others):
- Find “The One Thing” for your day. This is an idea from the book The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Ask myself, if I can accomplish only one thing today and still call it a productive day, what would that “one thing” be. I also use tools like Chrome extension Momentum to keep me focused on that “one thing”.
- Put that “one thing” first at my most creative and productive hours of the day, which is usually the first few hours in the morning for me, and refuse to move on to other things until I am done with it.
- Block the time off on my calendar for that specific “one thing”. It is a very simple step but totally works! To borrow the saying “what gets measured gets done”, I believe that “what gets scheduled gets done.”
- Always plan the next day the night before. When I conclude my work that day, I plan for the next day by going through the whole process again before I go to sleep. I figure out my “one thing” and block a few hours off in the morning on my calendar. And the cycle goes on.
This not only helps to make sure that I have a truly productive day, it oftentimes also creates a pleasant side effect of automatically eliminating some of the to-do items because with the most important tasks accomplished, they are no longer necessary, which in turn makes me even more productive.
I hope this lesson resonates with those of you who are also chasing your own dreams and trying to get many things done. To borrow another idea from the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, “efficiency is for machines, effectiveness is for people.” So from now on, focus on effectiveness instead of efficiency and you will see the amazing results in no time 🙂