I’ve always been a productivity junkie. While other people get their high off drugs or gambling, I get mine off “doing things.”
Even in my early twenties, when partying all weekend was the norm, I would find little pockets in the day to accomplish little tasks. I’d do a little room cleaning here. Some dishes there. Squeeze in a quick trip to the grocery store before a night out.
My roommates must’ve thought I had a problem. But I didn’t care. I loved feeling productive all the time.
However, there was one issue. Despite my productive habits, my career was stagnant. I had spent nearly two years in an entry-level position I hated and was making barely enough to cover rent in my Allston apartment.
I worked hard in my job but I was missing something. I had to get to the bottom of it.
Discovering the Levels
One Saturday afternoon in late September, I had plans to meet my friend Melanie for a drink in Back Bay.
I checked my watch and saw I still had thirty minutes until I had to leave. Scanning my apartment, I saw that dirty dishes were starting to pile up. Then a moment later, my phone alarm went off. My clothes were ready at the laundromat.
I took a deep breath and decided I could do both. Laundry AND dishes in thirty minutes. I grabbed my keys and sprinted out the door to grab my laundry.
Thirty-five minutes later I sat on the subway smiling.
I had folded all my laundry and did the dishes with a few minutes to spare. As the subway car rolled to Back Bay, I felt accomplished. I had finished my productive tasks for the day and was ready for a night out with my friends.
At the bar that afternoon, I told Melanie about my accomplishments and she laughed at my hustle to get it all done.
I asked her about her day and found out that she too had been hustling. But she hadn’t been doing chores. She had spent five hours studying for the GMAT.
The GMAT? That sounded intense.
“Why are you studying for the GMAT?” I asked naively.
Melanie smiled. “I want to get my MBA. I think I want to help run a company one day.”
I almost choked on my drink. I had spent my Saturday afternoon doing chores to keep my life together, while she was studying up to RUN A COMPANY.
Suddenly, I felt incredibly inferior. I moved uncomfortably in my chair.
Melanie sensed my unease and made a comment. “You know you could spend your Saturday studying up on something too.”
I blinked. Studying up on something… on a Saturday? I couldn’t muster a reply.
She went on. “I used to spend my Saturdays just like you. I’d do all my chores for the week and then hang out with friends.”
I nodded and took a sip of my Blue Moon.
“But then I realized, while those chores felt productive, they weren’t actually helping me get towards any of my goals.” Melanie sipped her sangria. “I was spending all this energy on the weekend simply maintaining my life rather than pushing it forward. That’s when I realized I had to change things up.”
I held up my hand and interjected. “So you’re saying doing chores is NOT productive?”
She smiled again. She could see she had hit a nerve. “I think the question you need to ask yourself is, ‘what are you being productive towards?’ If your goal is to tidy up your apartment then I suppose you are being productive. But I know you have bigger goals than that.” She winked at me.
I sat back in my chair and took this in. My mind jumped back to my unfulfilling job. Was I doing everything I could to get out of it? No. Perhaps I could use my dirty dishes time for that.
I had to ask the obvious question. “So if you’re spending your downtime studying then when are you doing chores?”
Melanie thought for a moment and then answered. “I like to think there are two different levels of productivity. Level 1, for me, is studying for my GMAT to advance my career. Level 2 is maintaining my current lifestyle by completing necessary chores and exercising. So on a typical weekend, I’ll start on Level 1 and then move to Level 2. But I never skip Level 1. That’s the key.”
I gulped down the rest of my Blue Moon. This was more than I’d bargained for at a Saturday afternoon happy hour.
“I think I need to find my Level 1.” I said in a daze.
“Yup!” Melanie shouted. “Once you find your Level 1 and commit to working towards it each week you’ll see your career take off. Nothing’s helped me more.”
Melanie finished her Sangria and we walked out of the bar into the brisk late September air.
Implementing the Levels
From that day forward I never thought about productivity the same. I realized that if I wanted to be successful I had to focus on Level 1.
That next week I determined that my Level 1 task would be studying for the Series 7 exam. The next weekend, I spent Saturday morning studying the material BEFORE I went onto my normal chores.
Eventually, this studying habit helped me pass the exam and get a promotion. But more importantly, it helped me change my entire approach to productivity. I now work on things each weekend that produce exponential returns before moving to life maintenance.
You too can separate your tasks into Level 1 and Level 2. Take out a piece of paper and draw a line in the middle. Level 1 tasks go on the left and Level 2 tasks on the right.
Start making Level 1 your priority and you’ll create an unbelievable velocity towards your goals.