David Allen’s second book, Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life, has a lot of helpful points.
One chapter in there is called “the better you get, the better you’d better get.” Very provocative, and very true.
His point is that as you become more efficient and effective and produce more with less effort, “it graduates your responsibilities and your attraction to bigger problems and opportunities — automatically. Hang on. Increasing your effectiveness is not the easy path, though it is by far the most rewarding” (p. 124).
In other words, as you become more effective, more room is created to do things and so you automatically start to take on more and tackle more difficult opportunities. So, in turn, you have to become even more effective to handle those.
That is so interesting and could be pondered in great detail. It echoes a principle that exists in many areas. For example, a few years ago I was reading a book on energy, The Bottomless Well. It made the point that increased energy efficiency has not decreased energy usage but rather increased it.
For example, as computers become more energy efficient, we don’t keep using them to do the same amount of work we did before. Rather, over time we begin to do more with them, thus using more energy overall. “Efficiency increases consumption. It makes what we ultimately consume cheaper, and lower price almost always increases consumption. To curb energy consumption, you have to lower efficiency, not raise it. But nobody, it seems, is in favor of that. [And rightly so!]” (p. 123).
So this is the interesting paradox: If you want to do less, you should actually become less efficient and less effective. But that’s clearly not the right path. That is the path of lethargy, and it is not virtuous. (And you’ll only be doing “less” in the sense of less output — your effort to get that smaller output will be much higher.)
Instead, as you become more effective, you need to in turn increase your effectiveness even more in order to handle the greater responsibilities that you will naturally be tackling. And you will need to become even better at prioritizing and determining what, out of all the new opportunities before you, is best to focus on. As Allen writes, “this is not the easy path. But it is the most rewarding.”