I was at a dinner a couple of weeks ago sitting next to a high powered Washington executive when a young investment banker came up.
"How's it going?" the Exec said. The young banker excitedly said "It's going great. I haven't had a single day off work for the last 6 weeks. I've worked straight through, including every saturday and sunday."
"Excellent" says the Exec. "My staff never go home before midnight. The other night I said goodnight to them at 3am and they just laughed and said "do you mean goodmorning, boss?".
They then both looked at me expectantly. "Ooooh", I said "Well, erm, well, sometimes I do up to 2 hours of productive work a day. On a good day of course". Phew, just listening to these two was wearing me out.
You see, I discovered something interesting a few years ago. It turns out that a lot of what we do at work is a complete waste of time. I reckon that if you work for a large corporate then 60% of what you do makes no difference to anyone anywhere and if you work for a start-up it's more like 40%. Fortunately your corporate competitors probably waste 70% of their effort so your 60% of non-productive effort is pretty good going.
You can do lots and lots of this timewasting stuff in the hope that if you do lots of stuff then you are probably doing a bit more useful stuff. Or you can try to figure out what the useful stuff is and just not bother to do the rest. That's what I try to do.
My strategy is to try to do ONE really high impact thing each day. One critical decision, one cut through phone call, one killer email, one transforming conversation. I know in myself when I've done something that really makes a difference and once I've done it, I relax. Sure, I'll do a few other things but knowing that I've done that ONE BIG THING is enough for me to declare that day a good day's work, even if it only took me 5 minutes.
Mind you, this strategy doesn't work if you kid yourself about whether the thing you did really was a high impact thing. You need to sit down, look at your To Do list and see whether there is anything on it that will make a real difference. If there isn't then prepare yourself for redundancy! You can hid behind "being busy" for a while but it will catch up with you. Come on, is there really anything on your "To Do" list that makes a serious difference? Then, do it.
The other important thing to making this approach work is not to feel guilty, once you have done your ONE BIG THING. If your boss comes around the corner and you are relaxing with your feet on your desk, sipping a cup of cocoa, are you sure the ONE BIG THING is big enough to stop the top of his head blowing off? If it is, then sip away my friend, you've earned it.
I like to think of this strategy as a "Tai Chi" approach to business verses the standard hard-form Karate style of business. It's a soft power approach. If you enjoyed Chinese films in the old days, then you would have loved it when the muscle bound young man attacks the old, blind begger with his powerful karate blows and kicks, but the old man uses his relaxed, almost nonchalant tai chi style to block all the blows, whilst calmly eating a bowl of rice, before causing his over-enthusiastic opponent to punch himself in the head.
Actually the principle I am interested in is that of "Wu Wei", the art of doing things "without action". So, you run around if you want to, hustle, bustle, put those hours in, show those bosses that you've got what it takes. Me, I will think carefully about my objectives, I'll do my ONE BIG THING each day as effortlessly as possible and then I'll relax and cheer you on with my feet up. Good luck!