Eliminate, automate, delegate, procrastinate


It seems humans have a tendency to equate productivity with the quantity of stuff we get done or have to do. If I’m busy (have a lot of things to do), it’s because I’m important or valuable to those around me. If I get a lot of those things done, it’s because I’m productive (see Productivity and agility article). With this as our premise, let’s dive in.


Section titled Eliminate

We’re going to start in a top-down mode.

Principle: You can only truly say “yes” to one thing at a time.

The debate on multitasking rages on. However, in general, humans (and computers) don’t multitask, we perform micro-context switches. I’m writing this article. Every time I think of something else or get interrupted by Siri reading a text message, my brain steps away from being focused on this article. I can’t actively listen to a podcast while writing this article because both activities engage the same portion of my brain. It might be easier for me to context switch if the podcast is related to the subject I’m writing about; however, listening to a group of people playing a game, while trying to write and speak what I’m typing doesn’t work well—something gets dropped.

Principle: When you say “yes” to one thing, you are simultaneously saying “no” to an infinite number of other things.

There are an infinite number of things you could try to do. I could set my apartment on fire, jump out the window, or decide to hold my breath. Of course, when we think of possibilities we often limit ourselves to things with relative high probability; the probability of doing the aforementioned is pretty low, so, it probably doesn’t come to mind in my list of possibilities. With that said, when I say “yes” to one thing, like writing this article, I’m simultaneously saying “no” to all the others; at least in the immediate.

The easiest way to eliminate something is to say “yes” to one thing. We are eliminating all the others, at least in the near-term.

Granted, when many of us think of elimination it’s more along the lines of: This thing is on my list, how can I get rid of it. Some of that will be covered in the next section.

In the meantime, sometimes priorities and time will eliminate things. If you wanted to go to a concert on Tuesday and didn’t, well, chances are that item could be removed as “overcome by events” in the language of project management.

We often attach a lot of emotional weight to our list of things to do though and elimination can be difficult.


Section titled Automate

Automation, in most cases, is a form of delegation really.

I’ve had friends who tell me about a terrible weekend where they spent all their time doing laundry. When we delve into it though, what they did was binge-watch something on television while their automated clothes washing machine did the laundry. My friend’s active participation was limited to setting up the machine to which they delegated the responsibility and automated the task.

If you have access to the Internet, chances are you have the privilege of a job and income. Further, chances are your check is direct deposited to your bank account. Not only that, various taxes, medical premiums, retirement contributions, and so on are taken out without your active participation. Finally, unless you’re using dial-up, chances are your connection to the Internet is, well, just on all the time; without your active participation.

What else in your life is automated? What else on your list should you automate? Are there things you should no longer automate?

The “should” part of those questions is important. It is possible to over-automate your life. Where you get in trouble with automation is when a cascade of failures occurs. One variable changes, an automated thing kicks off, which changes a variable for another automated thing, which changes a variable for another automated thing, and so on.

I’ve seen automated payments to credit cards turn into negative checking account balances, hundreds of dollars in fees, and having to explain why you can’t pay rent that month. (See also Knight Capital who took a pre-tax loss of 440 million USD when they accidentally didn’t perform a manual step that fed into a much large automated process.)

Therefore, when it comes to automation, I recommend making each automated thing discreet and terminal with a manual starting position. By discreet, I mean the automation has one job and does not spark off other automations. By terminal, I mean an event triggers them and they end in as few steps as possible. By manual starting position, I mean you actively knock over the first domino.

For example, when my direct deposit comes in from my paycheck, I don’t let my credit union do anything with that money, I have to actively participate. Prior to the deposit, taxes were paid (delegated to my employer, who has an automated process or has delegated it to someone or something else), I’ve made contributions to my employer-sponsored retirement account (delegated to my employer in the same way as my taxes), and so on. Once the money is in the account, I set up the dominoes using my spreadsheet and bookkeeping software. Once the plan is set, I start knocking over the first domino in each chain.

To take it a step further, when it comes to automation this can include decision making.

I pay off my credit cards every month; that decision has been made. However, I do not have autopay set up with my credit card providers. When I get paid, I submit the payment and move money into my expense account. With that said, many of my bills are automatically paid using the credit cards.


Section titled Delegate

As we discussed in the Automate section, automation is a form of delegation. Typically, when we think delegation, we limit it to asking (or paying) someone else to do the task for us. In this way delegation has a higher administrative and management cost.

I delegate storing my money to various banks, credit unions, brokers, and so on. As of this writing, I rent my domicile, therefore, all maintenance and repairs are delegated to the landlord; who, in turn, delegates them to various service providers the landlord pays.

And most modern literature on the subject of productivity revolves around creating systems of automation and delegation wherever and whenever possible. Specifically, the parts of your life you don’t enjoy actively participating in.


Section titled Procrastinate

The word procrastinate has a pretty bad rap in some circles. It’s a sign of laziness. Taking advantage of “the system.” And so on.

In this context, what we’re talking about is waiting until the opportune or last responsible moment to act.

You’ve looked at your list of things to do. You’ve eliminated what you can. You’ve automated what you feel comfortable with. You’ve delegated where possible.

What can you now wait to get done?

Note: Waiting for some other event, isn’t procrastinating. For example, I cannot file my taxes until I receive the tax forms from my employer, financial institutions, brokers, and so on. Now, if I have all of that, and I don’t automate or delegate filing to someone else, then I’m procrastinating.

The desire here is that I intentionally procrastinate, as opposed to avoid doing something because of psychological or physical concerns.

What you may find, while procrastinating on something, is the need to do it gets removed (eliminate) or you discover a service that allows you to automate or delegate it to someone or something else. Humans have survived this long in no small part because we are constantly looking for and finding ways to offload things we don’t want to do to others who don’t mind it as much as we do.

With that said, sometimes you lack that privilege. If I’m wild camping in the woods, for example, I have to literally do my laundry, because I’m not taking my washing machine with me. Further, I may not even have a bucket, detergent, and so on.