Episode 159: How to Have Impact With Less Effort

What criteria do you use when prioritising the tasks on your to-do list? Do you just put them in the order you get them? Maybe you pick the ones that seem the most urgent? And what about the fact that you’ll never get everything done?

In this quick dip episode, we talk about the reality of our limits. In a high-stress job, getting everything done in one day is nearly impossible. And that’s okay! What’s important is putting your focus where you can be most effective. You may have heard of the urgent-important matrix for prioritising, but we’re taking it up a notch using the impact-effort matrix. We will teach you how to define the impact you want to create and acknowledge the reality of the effort needed to make that impact.

Prioritising your work might require completely different criteria than you’d think…

Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:

  1. Learn why prioritising your tasks based on impact and effort can help you be more effective.
  2. Discover how to direct your focus towards things that are easier to do.
  3. Understand that you have limited time and energy. Don’t waste them on things that won’t make you happy or don’t make much of an impact.

Episode Highlights

[00:30] Know Your Limits so You Can Focus

  • Most professionals buy into the idea that things worth doing require hard work and a lot of time.
  • There are too many things to do and too many opportunities.
  • If we’re doing too many things, we won’t be effective.
  • Learn to accept your limits, both in terms of your time and energy. Start prioritising what’s essential, and you’ll be in your zone of genius.

‘I learned very early on not to try and force stuff that I thought was a good idea, but no one else wants to do. That is just a lot of effort, has very low impact. But let’s go with what feels easy, what people are wanting, what people are responding to. Then quite frankly, it’s much more joyful for me as well.’ – Click Here to Tweet This

[03:41] What to Focus On

‘You will find that if you are focusing on things that are easy, they often feel joyful, because you are ending up working in your zone of genius, things that you know how to do, you can do well and you’re enjoying.’ – Click Here to Tweet This

  • Your zone of genius will be different from other people’s.
  • People tend to procrastinate when the only tasks they focus on are the difficult ones.
  • Hard tasks stick in your mind and make you feel guilty if they’re incomplete.
  • We may always want to do something ‘right’ or consider several options before choosing.
  • Sometimes, prioritising the most straightforward answer is your best choice.

‘I think that often the universe gives you the thing that you need at the time that you need it.’ – Click Here to Tweet This

[05:30] Define Your Impact

  • Refrain from falling into the trap of comparison. Your zone of genius will be different from other people’s.
  • When you keep focusing on difficult things, you tend to procrastinate.
  • They will also stick in your mind and make you feel guilty.
  • We may always want to do something ‘right’ or consider several options before choosing.
  • Sometimes, the most straightforward answer is your best choice.

‘Think about what impact you’re looking for. So the second way of doing this is to work out for you. What does effort mean? Because quite a lot of the time, I think things are really high effort, when actually it’s because I don’t know how to do it.’ – Click Here to Tweet This

[08:30] The Reality of Effort

  • Things requiring a lot of effort might require asking different questions.
  • The key to completing those tasks is asking ‘Who?’ instead of how to do it.
  • Remember, you don’t need to do everything.

[09:48] The Effort Impact Matrix

  • The urgent, important matrix is good but tends to pile tasks in the not-urgent but important quadrant.
  • The effort impact matrix is similar to the urgent, important matrix, but it takes a different approach to prioritising.
  • There will be four quadrants: high impact-high effort, high impact-low effort, low impact-high effort, and low impact-low impact.

[10:57] #1 High Impact and High Effort Tasks

  • High-impact and high-effort tasks require reflection. Since they take time, you must discern what you want to focus on.
  • Once you know what to focus on, break the big tasks into smaller tasks.
  • Remember to consider how much you can accomplish by consistently doing small tasks.

‘We overestimate the things that we can learn quickly. But we underestimate just quite how much impact and quite how much we can get done over a long period of time.’ – Click Here to Tweet This

[12:41] #2 High Impact and Low Effort Tasks

  • High-impact and low-effort tasks are quick wins! Do them as soon as possible.
  • Often, these are the tasks we put off.
  • Rachel recommends working on these tasks every day.

[13:18] #3 & #4 Low Impact and High Effort Tasks

  • It’s generally best to do away with low-impact tasks. Consider delegating them to other people if they’re important.
  • Learn to question if you need to do these tasks.
  • Low-impact and low-effort tasks are typically fillers. You can do them between other tasks.

[14:08] Rethink Your Prioritising

  • Think of tasks as a river of opportunities and obligations rather than a bucket list.
  • Remember, it would be best if you had time to work on big projects. You won’t have the time if you’re trying to do everything.
  • Finally, with any task, ask yourself these two questions: how can we make this easy, and how can we make this joyful?

Enjoy This Podcast?

In today’s high-stress work environment, you may feel like a frog in boiling water. The pan has heated up so slowly that you didn’t notice the feeling of stress and overwhelm becoming the norm. You may feel that it is impossible to survive AND thrive in your work.

Frogs generally have only two options — stay and be boiled alive or jump out of the pan. Fortunately, you are not a frog. You have many more options, choices and control than you think. Prioritising your tasks better can be the key to thriving at work!

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Rachel Morris: This is a You are Not a Frog Quick Dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energised and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You are Not a Frog wherever you get your podcasts.

This Quick Dip episode, I’m going to talk about how to have more impact with less effort, and I’m going to think about how we can actually prioritise our work, so we’re doing the things that are really important and get us where we want to be much, much quicker. I don’t know about you, but I have grown up thinking that if something’s worth doing, you’ve got to slog away at it, and things take a lot of hard work and a lot of time.

A lot of us have this inbuilt perfectionism, is everything has to be absolutely brilliant, and we can’t possibly make a mistake. But the problem is we’re coming up against is that there is just too much to do. There are too many opportunities. There’s too much demands on our time, not enough resources. We’re going to have to prioritise what we spend our focus and our attention on. I always think our focus is a bit like a garden hose.

You can get the nozzle and direct it to one area, and it will be really effective at shifting sands or shifting dirt off an area of a patio if you’ve just directed that nozzle. If you got your garden hose on a sort of sprinkler where you go and water your flowers and you don’t want it to have a lot of power — so same amount of water, but spraying out all sorts of different holes — then there’s no way you’re going to be able to shift a little bit of dirt off the patio and our time, our attention, our focus is just like that.

If we’re doing too many different things, we will be completely ineffective and have a really, really low impact. So the only way to be successful to have an impact is to limit our focus onto a few things. The good news is that this will also make us happier, and I will explain why in a minute. You see the conventional thinking that everything that’s worth doing needs to be difficult is gonna kill us because it means that we very quickly become overwhelmed with lots of stuff that is really, really hard work.

Even though we like to think we are superhuman, we still only have 24 hours in the day. Even superheroes can’t be in more than one place at once, and unless you’re Hermione Granger and you’ve got a Time-Turner, you are limited by your time. You’re limited by the fact you need to rest. It’s feeling that we’ve got really hard stuff that we have to get done just causes us stress and overwhelm.

Lots of our projects can just feel like we’re trying to push a massive boulder up a hill. Things are really slow. We’re trying to make stuff happen that is just not working. I learned this lesson in my teaching and training, and I learned very early on not to try and force stuff that I thought was a good idea, but no one else wants to do. That is just a lot of effort has very low impact. But let’s go with what feels easy, what people are wanting, what people are responding to.

Then quite frankly, it’s much more joyful for me as well. You will find that if you are focusing on things that are easy, they often feel joyful, because you are ending up working in your zone of genius, things that you know how to do, you can do well and you’re enjoying. These zones of genius are different for different people, and we often fall into the trap of thinking that just because that person is doing it, I need to be doing it as well.

Just because it’s having a big impact for them, it’s going to have the same impact for me. Then we start to layer upon ourselves the stress of, ‘Well, I ought to be doing that, I ought to I should do.’ As we talked about several times on this podcast, the oughts and the shoulds and the musts are what’s going to kill us.

Now, the other risk of focusing a lot on things that feel like they’re very difficult, they’re really hard work is that we tend to procrastinate. We tend to put them off because we know they’re a lot of hard work. We might not even know how to start them. We might not know how to do them, and so they never actually get done anyway. But what they do is they stay in your brain, like a sort of ticker tape of reminders of things that you ought to be doing, but you haven’t done them and why haven’t you done them and this is really important.

That just creates mental clutter, and a complete lack of clarity. We feel guilty. We end up feeling really guilty about these, all these unfinished projects and things that are too much effort, but we feel we can’t let them go. So this is why focusing on stuff that feels effortless is a really effective way to work. I don’t know about you, but I have often subscribed to the fact that I’ve got to do things the right way.

I’ve got to get 10 different quotes before I accept that quote. Or I should really explore my options before I look at the thing that’s right in front of me. I think that often the universe gives you the thing that you need at the time that you need it. I’m not saying just jump at any opportunity that presents itself just because it’s there. But often, the path that seems simple and easy is absolutely the best one for you, and it’s your invitation to follow it.

So how do we do this? How do we work out what we should be focusing on? How do we know what’s going to be impactful? What will be effortful or effortless? Well, first of all, we need to define for ourselves, what do we mean by impact. What impact do I want? Now, I love the story of the Greek fisherman. Now, it’s been told many different ways in many different times. This is my take on it.

There’s a Greek fisherman, and he loves fishing. He’s got his fishing boat. He’s really good at it. When he comes in from work, he sits on the quay, drinking sangria and playing chess with his friends. Now, one day, a businessman comes along and says to me, ‘You’ve got a brilliant setup here. You really know what you’re doing. I’ll tell you what, I’m going to give you some money to invest in more fishing boats. Then you can get other people to go out and do the fishing for you. You’ll get loads more fish. You’ll get loads more income. You’ll make a load of profit.’

The fisherman just says to him, ‘Well, why do I want to make profit?’ The businessman said, ‘Well, so that you can invest in even more boats.’ The fisherman says, ‘Well, why do I want to invest in even more boats?’ The businessman says, ‘Well, so that you can have more of a profit, and one day, you’ll be really rich so that you can just retire.’ The fisherman said to him, ‘Well, what is it that I will do when I retire?’

The businessman said, ‘Well, you’ll be able to sit on the quay playing chess and drinking sangria.’ The fisherman says, ‘That’s what I’m already doing. I’ll pass on all those boats. Thank you.’ I think sometimes we do stuff to grow businesses, or to make our practices even better, or grow this or grow that without realising that actually what we’re doing now is great, and we love it. So growth is not always the answer to things.

What if we were measuring impact by how happy our staff were, by how happy we felt, by how resilient we are? I talked before on the podcast about Steven’s question, and Steven was a coach at the Cambridge University Rowing Club. He used to say that everything needed to be geared towards one question. All the decisions that were made by the people in the boat club, whether they bought new equipment, whether they hired physios, how much training they did, what they ate, everything needed to be able to give the answer to this question.

The question was, ‘Will it make our boat go faster?’ Which means that they stopped doing quite a few things. They started doing other things. But that question of will it make the boat go faster is really important when you’re thinking about actually, what is it that you want to have an impact in right now? Maybe it’s, will it make me happier at work, or will this improve my relationship with my partner or my family? Will this give me more free time?

In that case, the impact that you’re aiming towards is going to be very, very different to will this help me see even more patients? Or will this help me get a massive promotion, so I have to work even harder? So think about what impact you’re looking for. So the second way of doing this is to work out for you, what does effort mean? Because quite a lot of the time, I think things are really high effort, when actually it’s because I don’t know how to do it.

I’ve often put off projects because I don’t know how to start. I don’t know what to do. I’m really unsure about it. Sometimes we ask the wrong question. Sometimes we ask how can I do this, rather than who can do this. Sometimes it’s much, much easier to get somebody else to do those things that either you don’t know how to do or that are monotonous for you and aren’t a chore for you.

I’m not going to talk about delegation now. But for me, the mantra who not how has been so, so helpful personally, because I don’t mind working hard on something that I love, something that’s in my zone of genius. I’ve worked really hard on this podcast. It’s been a long time recording it and editing it, and I love it. It’s effortful, but it feels to me quite effortless, because I love it, because I know that I know what I’m doing, and because I have delegated some of the bits that I don’t know how to do very well to other people.

There’s a whole team behind the processing of these podcast episodes. So if something is high effort to you, just because you don’t know how to do it, or you don’t like doing it, then think about how you can get somebody else to do it. Then what you can do is put all of this into an effort-impact matrix. I love this and it’s been really helpful for me and working out what I should focus my attention on.

So you will have heard me talking about the urgent-important grid, and this is a really good system of working out those things that we are not getting to because we’re spending so long firefighting the urgent stuff. I love this model, but the problem is, we do tend to end up with quite a lot of stuff in that quadrant, which is stuff that is not urgent, but is really important. We know we’ve got to get to all of this stuff, but we don’t quite know what order we should get to it.

We sometimes have difficulty in prioritising and working out, which one should I be focusing on right now, which one is going to move the needle the most on the things I need that needle moving on. So the effort-impact matrix is a way of taking all that stuff that’s very important that you can’t just get rid of, and putting it into a matrix to further analyse what you’re going to do with it.

So you’ve got two axes, as usual. You’ve got one that is high effort, low effort, and then you’ve got one axis that is high impact, low impact. So you’ll end up with four boxes again. You’ll end up with stuff, which is first of all, high impact and high effort. Now, these are things that are your big projects. These are things that will have a massive impact as you go forward, but they are quite effortful. They will take quite a bit of work.

These are things that you really need to think about which ones I do, which ones I don’t do, so work out which ones are going to have a high impact for you. Then the thing to do is break them down into small tasks, what small actions go with this project, what small things can I get done on a weekly basis or even a daily basis. You might want to have another listen to Robbie Swale’s podcast, when he talks about how to change your life in just 12 minutes a week.

He talks about the story of the hare and the tortoise, and he also gave a quote that really stuck with me. Somebody said that we overestimate the things that we can learn quickly, but we underestimate just quite how much impact and quite how much we can get done over a long period of time. So if you are just doing small actions regularly, you’ll see that actually over a course of time, you will have managed to do quite a lot.

I mean, I think about this podcast. I’ve been recording it every week, pretty much since September 2019, a little bit every week, and now we’ve got this massive bank of podcast episodes. That has come over time. So break these down into little actions, and don’t underestimate what you can get done over a period of time.So that’s your big projects. Those are things that are quite a lot of effort and quite impactful.

Then you’ve got your quadrant, which is low effort but big impact. So these are your quick wins. If they’re low effort and they’re going to have a big impact, uh, then just do it now. Often, these are things that we’ve just been putting off, maybe sending an email to someone or arranging a coffee or picking up the phone and talking to somebody, just having that difficult conversation. Maybe feels a little bit more effortful, but actually they might have a huge impact, so these are your quick wins. Work out a couple of quick wins that you can do every single day, and you’ll soon spot that things really start to shift for you.

What about that stuff that’s not actually very impactful? Well, I would probably say, you’ve got enough stuff to do to even bother considering doing any of that stuff below the line in the low impact quadrants. But if you’ve got some stuff that does need to be done, it’s that question, ‘Who? Not how.’ Because those stuff that are high effort, but low impact, those are hard, hard slogs. You really need to be questioning to yourself, ‘Do I need to do this at all? If I do need to do this, can I get some help? Can I get somebody else to do it? How can I get this done as quickly as possible?’

Then finally, you’ve got your low effort, low impact. Those are your filler tasks. Those are things probably you shouldn’t be doing really, but you could maybe fit them in in between things.

If you use Post-Its on this grid that you’ve created, you’ll be able to just move stuff around and go, ‘Well, I think that’s gonna have a bit more impact than that. Maybe that’s slightly less.’ You’ll be able to see very visually, which things are going to be really helpful to do and which things you think, ‘Actually you know what we can put that aside for now.’

I know that people find it really difficult to cross things off your to-do lists, but how about having a back burner list, stuff that you think you may get to eventually, but it’s on the list. You don’t need to feel guilty about it, and you’ll get to it if you can. If you think back to one of the Quick Dip episodes I did about thinking differently about your to-do list, all these things you need to think of as a river of opportunities and obligations, rather than a bucket of things you absolutely have to do.

So use the effort-impact matrix to work out what sorts of things are going to have the highest impact for you and how much effort you can have put into them and plan your time accordingly. Because finally, that is what you need to do. Those big projects, you need to put some time aside for them. You need to do some time blocking that I’ve talked about before. You need to do them regularly.

So once again, we have put this all into our You are Not a Frog workbook for this episode. We’ll give you an effort-impact matrix which you can use to work out what sort of things you need to be putting your full focus on, what sort of things you need to be prioritising, so work through that.

Can I encourage you that when you do see these things that are going to have a big impact, you ask yourself these final two questions. For this I’ve got Dr. Caroline Walker, the Joyful Doctor, my colleague in Permission to Thrive to thank for this because she always says to me, ‘Rachel, how can we make this easy? How can we make this joyful?’ If you look at stuff from that point of view, easy and joyful, then you’ll do a better job, and you’ll be happier at work which we know will make you more productive or make you successful.

If you want to find out more about this — lots and lots of people have been writing about this — so check out the book Effortless by Greg McEwan. Download the workbook so you can do this for yourself and share this episode with a friend if it’s been helpful. See you in another episode.