We all have an absolute limit on time. If you add up the number of hours you are breathing during a given week, the total will be the same for every single living human being on the planet, whatever their occupation or personal situation: 168 hours per week. Remove the weekends, and that’s 120 hours. Get some sleep, and you’re left with at most 90 hours of awake time during the weekdays. Eat, shower, and do all the basic things human beings need to do on a daily basis, and get a maximum 80 hours per week to play with—that is, if you don’t have kids or other irreducible obligations.
So little time, and yet, we waste a lot of energy on low leverage tasks that leave us tired and dissatisfied. We confuse hard work for high-leverage work. These low leverate tasks don’t meaningfully contribute to our success, and they certainly don’t contribute to our well-being. Instead, how can we focus our time and energy on high-leverage activities that are both productive and good for the mind?
“Give me a lever and a place to stand and I shall move the earth.” — Archimedes.
Moving the needle
Unnecessary paperwork, long meetings, chasing down deliverables, fixing typos in an article… What do all of these activities have in common? They are tedious, frustrating, and very often avoidable.
Originating in the indicator of measuring instruments such as the speedometer, the expression “moving the needle” has become one of these overused bits of business jargon you will hear in many organisations. It is used to describe work with a noticeable impact. While it makes sense for a massive organisation to pursue many “needle-moving” activities, it can be exhaustive and counterproductive for an individual to follow such a strategy.
Instead of moving the needle, you want to operate the most efficient levers. Moving the needle may imply a corresponding level of hard work; which is not the case with high-leverage activities. This is the basic principle of leverage: using a lever amplifies your input to provide a greater output. Good levers work as energy multipliers.
High-leverage activities are energy multipliers
Based on skills, experience, network, and many other factors, everyone’s levers are different. What they have in common, when activated, is their ability to turn a relatively smaller amount of time and energy into outsized results. Not sure what such energy multipliers can look like? Here are ten examples of high-leverage activities you could experiment with:
- Automating part of your work
- Creating and publishing original content
- Joining a public speaking club
- Taking a writing workshop
- Mastering a critical tool
- Building metacognitive processes
- Learning a new language (including how to code)
- Looking for a great coach or a great mentor
- Pushing back on unnecessary (-ly long) meetings
- Investing in personal and professional relationships
You should obviously not aim to pursue all these activities at the same time, and many may not even be right for you. These are just for illustration purposes—what’s a high-leverage activity for someone may be a low-leverage activity for you. Instead of blindly choosing levers to activate in your life and work, reclaim your time and energy by identifying your own personal levers.
Clarifying your highest leverage activities
As investor George Soros wrote in his book The Age of Fallibility: “It is much easier to put existing resources to better use, than to develop resources where they do not exist.” High-leverage activities are not about making more time or using more energy; instead, the aim is to better optimise your resources to focus on work that goes beyond moving the needle. In order to identify these high-leverage activities, you need to reflect on how you allocate your resources.
- Document your daily activities. The first step is to get an idea of the way you currently spend your time and energy. We very often overestimate or underestimate the time we spend on certain activities. Time seems to contract when we’re having fun, and to expand for boring tasks. But time perception does not correlate with leverage. Spend a few days tracking how you spend your work days. You can even install a timer to help with accuracy.
- Highlight the tasks you are best suited for. Better yet: focus on the tasks only you can do. Because of your unique set of skills, interests, and connections, some tasks will be both easier and more enjoyable to you than to somebody else—as well as better performed by you in some cases. For instance, someone on your team may be better suited to create and design a business presentation; another team member may be the strongest person for cold emailing and conducting initial meetings; but you may be the best person for the final negotiation.
- Choose your levers. First, be selective. While high-leverage activities lead to outsized results compared to the time and energy investment, you still only have a limited number of hours available to you. Ideally, try to keep your list of high-leverage activities to 2-3 items at most. Then, make sure to commit to these levers: let your team know about your focus areas; delegate tasks you are not the best suited for; automate repetitive and energy-draining activities; hire contractors for what cannot be automated.
Remember: hard work is not necessarily high-leverage work. Do not measure your productivity based on time and energy—time in particular is not a measure of productivity. Focus on activities with oversized output compared to your input. Learn to delegate. Invest in yourself, your systems, and your relationships. While we all have an absolute limit on time, high-leverage activities can multiply our energy.