How to Find the Problems that are Really Holding You Back

Some inefficiencies waste more of our potential than others.

Energy is the capacity to do work. It’s stored in electrical, chemical, thermal, gravitational, nuclear, or mechanical form and transformed by machines into another form. It’s never a perfect transformation. Some of the potential is lost to inefficiency—friction, heat, vibration, noise, wear.

In a Freshman Physics class, you often model things using a spherical cow of uniform density in a vacuum (they’re also frictionless, inert, of a neutral charge…). You are taught to ignore the inefficiencies so you can focus on the larger principles.

We often make the same simplifications when we plan. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that things aren’t going to go as planned. Sound familiar? It happens because your planning model is off.

The simplest way to get more done is to remove the inefficiencies. Let more of that potential be transformed into useful work.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Daxiao Productions

When we lay out the year ahead of us, there’s a lot of potential. (525,600 minutes, but please don’t plan your year down to the minute.)

We have 168 hours in the week. We have wild dreams and ambitious goals that spur us onward. We plan, prepare, and eliminate the nonessential.

Then our day seldom goes as planned. Meetings start late and run long. Traffic is worse than we anticipated. We’re not excited about what we’re doing and we drag our feet. Whatever the cause, at the end of the day, we wish we could have done more.

In The Goal, Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox present the following thought problem: given a scout troop on a hike, how do you make the troop go faster?

The key is to identify the signal problem that’s holding you back: put the slowest scout in front. Now that the slowest scout is setting the pace, anything you do to help them go faster will raise the pace for the entire troop automatically.

You can increase your working efficiency the same way. Figure out what’s slowing you down the most. What’s holding you back? If you could change any one thing about your work—about your life—what would make the biggest difference to the results you’re getting?

Focus your efforts and improve that thing. Once that’s no longer your biggest problem, shift your focus and attack the new biggest problem.

Improving your productivity is about identifying and solving your pain points. Yours. It’s called personal productivity for a reason. You can read all the productivity blogs and self-help books and motivational speakers you want, but if you don’t take the time to figure out what your problems are, you can’t solve the problems that are holding you back. You’ll make improvements and get marginally better, but it’s not going to be transformational. Your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

There’s nothing wrong with planning your day, setting goals for your year, or designing your life using spherical cows. It lets you cut through the analysis paralysis and develop a plan. Your plan won’t be perfect—no plan ever is. Get started. Discover the real problems you need to solve. As you fix the things that are really holding you back, you’ll start to make real progress.

Question: What’s slowing you down the most? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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