Self-Discipline: Industry

Industry is working hard. In contrast to hard work, being industrious doesn’t necessarily mean doing work that’s challenging or difficult. It simply means putting in the time. You can be industrious doing easy work or hard work.

Imagine you have a baby. You’ll spend a lot of time changing diapers. But that isn’t really hard work — it’s just a matter of doing it over and over many times each day.

In life there are many tasks that aren’t necessarily difficult, but they collectively require a significant time investment. If you don’t discipline yourself to stay on top of them, they can make a big mess of your life. Just think of all the little things you need to do: shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, taxes, paying bills, home maintenance, childcare, etc. And this is just for home — if you include work the list grows even longer. These things may not reach your A-list for importance, but they still need to be done.

Self-discipline requires that you develop the capacity to put in the time where it’s needed. A lot of messes are created when we refuse to put in the time to do what needs to be done — and to do it correctly. Such messes range from a messy desk or cluttered email inbox all the way down to an Enron or Worldcom. Big mess or small mess — take your pick. Either way a significant contributing factor is the refusal to do what needs to be done.

Sometimes it’s clear what needs to be done. Sometimes it isn’t clear at all. But ignoring the mess won’t help no matter what. If you don’t know what needs to be done, the first step is to figure it out. This may require you to seek out information and educate yourself. In order to launch this blog last year, I had to figure out how to do it. I took time to educate myself by reading other blogs and evaluating various blogging tools. It wasn’t difficult for me, but it required a significant time investment.

Sometimes we allow little annoyances to linger a bit too long. In January my wife and I bought a new house. But it was only last weekend we finally unpacked the last box. We did most of the unpacking in the first few weeks after the move, but a couple boxes were shoved into a corner, and neither one of us wanted to unpack them. Why? We didn’t know where to put the stuff they contained. It seemed simplest to just ignore the problem and hope the boxes would magically unpack themselves. Finally we got them unpacked last weekend and took care of a few other home repairs that had been on the back burner as well.

It wasn’t difficult or costly to do these things. It was simply a matter of time to get them done. It didn’t require much skill or brainpower. All we had to do was just accept that they needed to be done, take a few minutes to figure out how to do them, and then do them.

Put in the Time

There are many problems in life where the solution is largely a brainless time investment. If your email inbox is overloaded, this is not a challenging problem. Believe me — there are bigger challenges in life than handling old correspondence. I guarantee you have the brainpower to handle it. Getting your email inbox to empty is purely a matter of time. Maybe it will take you several hours to do it. If it’s worth several hours to get it done, then put in the time. Maybe enjoy some relaxing music as you do. Otherwise just hit Ctrl-A followed by Delete, and be done with it.

How many problems do you have on your to do list right now that can be solved with the simple application of industry? Sometimes you don’t need to be particularly creative or clever about it — a brute force solution will do. But it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of wishing that a brute force solution wasn’t necessary. It’s tedious. It’s boring. It’s not that important anyway. And yet it still needs to be done.

By all means if you can find a way to avoid a time-consuming solution and find a faster or better way to bypass or eliminate the problem, take advantage of it. Delegate it, delete it — do whatever you can to remove the time burden. But if you know it’s something that won’t get done except via your personal time investment, like the ornery boxes in my home that refused to self-unpack, then just accept it and get it off your plate. Don’t complain. Don’t whine. Just do it.

Develop Your Personal Productivity

Disciplining yourself to be industrious allows you to squeeze more value out of your time. Time is a constant, but your personal productivity is not. Some people will use the hours of their day far more efficiently than others. It’s amazing that people will spend extra money to buy a faster computer or a fuel efficient car, but they’ll barely pay any attention to their personal capacity. Your personal productivity will do a lot more for you than a computer or a car in the long run. Give an industrious programmer a 10-year old computer, and s/he’ll get much more done with it over the course of a year than a lazy programmer with state of the art technology.

Despite all the technology and gadgets we have available that can potentially make us more efficient, your personal productivity is still your greatest bottleneck. Don’t look to technology to make you more productive. If you don’t consider yourself productive without technology, you won’t be productive with it — it will only serve to mask your bad habits. But if you’re already industrious without technology, it can help you become even more so. Think of technology as a force multiplier — it multiplies what you already are.

If you want to make better use of your time, I recommend you begin with the approach in this article:
Triple Your Personal Productivity

The basic idea behind the article is to first measure your current level of productivity (the article explains how to do this via time logging), measure your current “efficiency ratio,” and then gradually ramp it up.

I first wrote that article in 2000, and I’ve continually come back to this