Why “Top 5 tips for…” don’t work

Top5_ListYou’ve probably seen the blog posts or received the e-mails: 5 ways to improve your time management; 10 things to improve your project management performance etc. The most recent I received was titled “The 12 things successful people do before breakfast”.

All of these play upon the modern desire for the ‘quick fix’, the pain killer, the easy way out. The reality is there are no silver bullets or quick routes to success or improvement. Behind every successful business man or woman and every successful project manager, are years of experience and learning

Whilst you can’t short cut the route to being experienced, you can shorten the route. In fact, most successful business people and project managers do just that. How? By learning. By learning from their mistakes and by learning from others.

So what can we take from these blog posts and e-mails on improving? Can we learn from them? If we simply try and mimic what they suggest, we’ll get a short term improvement at best. That’s because our long term performance is based on our habits and these are based on how we see ourselves.

So let’s take a typical ‘tip’: improve your time management by using prioritised lists. Great. So we list out our to dos, prioritise them and away we go. A week later, productivity hasn’t really improved. Maybe we’ve ticked off an extra item or two from the top priorities, but nothing much has really changed. Why not?

Nothing much has changed because we haven’t understood what is driving our priorities. Look back at that week and we’d find that we were distracted by e-mails, by phone calls, by invitations and by other people’s priorities. Unless you truly understand your priorities and are prepared to manage yourself in accordance with them, you won’t be successful. You took the ‘pill’ of prioritising your tasks, but the underlying problem, other people’s priorities driving your work, came back.

So are all the blog posts and e-mails just false hope and ultimately useless. Are they just trying to sell us a $97 instant solution to our problems that only makes somebody else get rich quick. Yes, if you just take them at face value. In themselves, none of the suggestions are bad. In fact many are good, but won’t work in isolation. They will work as part of a much broader change to how you work and, more importantly, how you see things.

For example, the blog post I quoted on “The 12 things successful people do before breakfast”. All 12 items talked about getting up early and doing stuff. Some were about exercising, some about getting quality quiet time to focus on an important project. Some were about connecting with important people in their busy lives. None mentioned the need to get a good night’s sleep before getting up early! So don’t force yourself out of bed at 5:30am thinking you’ll be more productive if you went to bed at midnight! Some people might be able to do that because we all need differing amounts of sleep. You might even be very productive for the first couple of hours, but then tail off dramatically for the rest of the day.

Simply copying the tip won’t work. You have to change your sleep pattern for it to be effective. That requires a change in attitude that needs to be driven by some underlying values. If your day is busy with interruptions that you can’t avoid (some jobs really are like that) but you need that quite time to complete a project or to study for that qualification, and it is important enough to you, then maybe you can change your sleep pattern. You’ll need to go to bed earlier and forgo late nights out, late night tv etc. but if the underlying driver is important enough, you can decide to do it.

It’s not the getting up early that makes people successful, it’s what they do with the quality time it gives them that determines their success.

So copying the endless “Top 5 tips for….” e-mails will not make you successful. To be successful you need to have clear long term objectives and understand how your day to day activities support you in achieving your objectives. With that clear map in mind, you can evaluate new ideas, new tips from the blog posts or e-mails, or books or your colleagues experiences, and decide whether they will help you on your journey. The important thing is that you are in control. You are making the decisions, based on your core values and not being driven by other people’s priorities.

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