The rules of effectiveness

In reality, it takes more than just reading and knowing to become effective. Effectiveness is about control over your time and your impact.

When Peter Drucker was asked to participate in a study of geniuses, he politely declined.

A famous happiness and creativity researcher was in the process of writing a book on the commonalities of people who had achieved culture-disrupting success in their domain. The final study included 91 participants from different fields, including 14 Nobel Prize winners.

When Drucker received the invitation to participate, however, he simply said that one of the reasons for his accomplishments was that he was very deliberate about where his time went.

As fascinating as such a study would be, it would mean that he would have to interrupt his own schedule to do something that didn’t align with his creative goals and personal objectives.

It makes sense, too. Drucker is considered the father of modern management theory, and at the foundation of his work was his belief that success in anything began with effectiveness.

Long before the modern productivity movement, Drucker laid out his own ideas about what it means to get the most out of yourself. Many of them are counterintuitive to much of the gospel preached today, and most of them are timeless in their relevance and application.

Regardless of whether your goal is to change the world or to simply build better habits, you need to know how to manage yourself to get the most out of the limited time that you have.

Being effective is about successfully aligning behavior with your intentions. It’s harder than it sounds, but with some of Drucker’s principles, we can see how it can be accomplished by:

  • Designing the practice, not the person
  • Embracing purposeful abandonment
  • Switching from exploring to exploiting

Before you make an external impact, you have to first learn to manage your orientation.

Design the practice, not the person

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to get themselves to change their behavior to align with whatever it is they want is that they try to first change the person.

The line of thinking is that if I want to be thinner, I have to become someone who weighs 10 pounds less. If I want to write more, I have to be someone who will one day write a novel.

It presumes that an identity change is possible once a decision has been made to change.

The problem is that this kind of thinking overlooks the fact that it’s rarely a sudden change in a person that produces a result, but more generally, it’s a practice or an accompanying system that slowly changes the identity of the person over a long, sustained period of time.

In his many years studying different companies, one of the things that Peter Drucker realized was that it’s almost never an individual employee’s fault that something isn’t getting done as it should. Quite often, it’s the general practice or a system that is faulty in some hidden way.

If the communication in a department is bad, it’s often due to a lack of strong infrastructure. If someone isn’t performing as they should, it’s usually due to poor expectations and incentives.

Similarly, most of the time, when you want to improve your effectiveness but are struggling to do so, it’s not because you lack willpower or discipline or that you’re not someone who is suitable for a particular task, but it’s that your practice isn’t designed for optimal performance.

If you want to exercise more, you need a system that begins consistently at a set time, and you need to know beforehand what you’re going to do. Same thing if you want to write more.

System design and good organization are better solutions than ambiguous identity changes.

Embrace purposeful abandonment

The modern productivity craze that’s taken over the world was actually predicted by Drucker.

He knew that many workplaces were poorly designed for most knowledge work and that one of the differentiating competitive advantages for organizations in the 21st century would be to figure out how they can get the most out of their employees while keeping them happy.

One way, however, in which we’ve completely diverged from Drucker’s idea of effectiveness is how we actually think about the idea of productivity and its role in the working world.

The current connotation we associate with productivity has to do with efficiency and output. The focus is on doing more, and it’s on ensuring we can squeeze in as much as possible.

Drucker’s idea of effectiveness was actually to remove. It was to prune the unnecessary distractions and to direct focus onto only the few things that really mattered. Rather than more applications, tools, projects, and work, he wanted less. In his own words:

I have yet to see an executive, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance.”

If you actually look at the results that you’re aiming at and break them down, you’ll realize that most of the commitments that you’ve taken on could easily be ignored without any harm.

It’s really easy to convince ourselves that something is worth doing or that something needs our attention without thinking it through. A lot of the time, extra commitments add little value and steal away more time than they’re worth. They misallocate focus on the unnecessary.

It’s worth periodically setting aside some time to look at your to-do list or your tasks and commitments to see which of them you can intentionally abandon to make your life easier.

Switch from exploring to exploiting

By default, on a day to day basis, most organizations focus on solving problems. Similarly, most people spend the majority of their time looking for weaknesses or reacting to issues.

If a problem or a weakness is a bottleneck that is holding back everything else in the operation of a company or in your life, then it makes sense that this is the case.

However, much of the time, these problems and weaknesses eat up more time than they should, and the cost of not solving them is rarely disastrous. They’re needless tangents of exploration. We move from one small thing to another, but we don’t commit to the big stuff.

Progress isn’t made in the maintenance of the status quo by reacting to issues. It occurs when you build up the courage to exploit a perceived risk that hides an opportunity. It’s only when you do something different that hasn’t been done and dedicate yourself to its cause.

Drucker consistently observed that the managers of companies that succeeded over time were very good at asking themselves what the highest impact thing they could be working on was and then allocating their resources in that direction, in spite of the short-term cost.

While many such opportunities initially appear as risks, over the long-term, not taking them is actually riskier because of their potential payoff. Quite often, these opportunities also tend to either make the competing problems obsolete or they create a new way to solve them.

As valuable as it is to look out for issues to solve to sustain what you have already built, true effectiveness comes from using your strengths to further focus in on high-impact avenues.

Always exploring for different fires to put out rarely produces a result that compounds on itself. The only way that occurs is when you choose a new path and exploit it until it builds out.

All you need to know

In any domain, many factors combine to determine a person’s ability to succeed, but there is almost no field in which you can thrive over a long period of time without being effective.

Before the modern definition of productivity, the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker gave us a better way to think about our ability to get results in any field of work.

Here are three takeaways worth holding onto:

I. Design the practice, not the person. Effectiveness begins with the person, but changing ourselves isn’t the best way to create behavior that will get us what we want. The system in which the person operates is a far better predictor of a result than someone’s internal intentions. Align incentives and organize your commitments.

II. Embrace purposeful abandonment. Most productivity advice focuses on more. More efficiency, more output, and more tools. That’s generally counterproductive. There are many things we all do that don’t need to be done to begin with. Routinely reflect on your goals and audit how well your tasks and commitments align with direction.

III. Switch from exploring to exploiting. True effectiveness doesn’t come from solving minor problems or reflecting on personal weaknesses to either maintain or slightly improve the status quo. It’s a product of exploiting hidden opportunities that otherwise appear as risks. Always choose the high-impact avenue when allocating your time.

In reality, it takes more than just reading and knowing to become effective. It’s a lifelong process, and it requires long-term dedication. The good thing is that it’s often worth it.

Effectiveness is about control over your time and your impact. It’s universally crucial.

Want to think and live smarter? Zat Rana publishes a free weekly newsletter for 30,000+ readers at Design Luck.