When to Take Advice -- Or Not

Monday, July 26, 2021

Recently, Cal Newport fielded the following question, which will resonate with fans of financial advice guru Dave Ramsey:

... I didn't know of a way to manage my time. There wasn't something simple like, "Start here on step one, and go to Step seven." I think a lot of people find themselves in what you may call time debt.

So my question is: If you had to set up a system like Dave Ramsey's Seven Baby Steps for Productivity, Learning How to Be a Productive Person, and Live the Deep Life, what would that look like?
I am unfamiliar with Ramsey, but would agree that the answer, as the program notes indicate, was indeed "epic." (Scroll down to Episode 112.)

In fact, it was epic enough that I had it transcribed via Otter so I could more easily refer to it in the future.

I was impressed in part, because although Newport admits his list is a first stab, it is a thoughtful first stab. I wanted that summary and I also wanted the example of how a master practitioner-teacher thinks about his advice for study.

First, I'll list the steps. If they pique your interest, I recommend listening to his full answer for reasons that will soon become apparent. (The notes at the link tell you exactly where to start. It's a little over a quarter hour, if I recall correctly.)

Newport's Baby Steps, as of July 8, are as follows:
  1. Time block plan.
  2. Set up task boards.
  3. Full capture.
  4. Weekly plan.
  5. Strict strategic plan.
  6. Automate and eliminate.
  7. Start taking some big swings.
I would not be surprised, if Newport chose to make an official list of this kind, were it to turn out to be identical to the above, or nearly so: This jibes with everything else I've read or heard of his.

What was really interesting, and I think will also be helpful to lots of people, were his rationales for each step being where it was in the sequence. There is the fact that the steps do build on each other, which may not be apparent to someone who is so disorganized that almost anything would be an improvement. And there is also the fact that there is such a wealth of advice that a beginner can become overwhelmed: It can help reduce the overwhelm to know that it's okay to focus on a few things first. On top of that, though, is why I am going on at length here: There are some things that can be counterproductive to try at an early stage.

Newport helpfully explains why, for example, one might not want to reduce his obligations per Step 6, too early in the game, although it could be very tempting. Here is the relevant part of his elaboration on automate and eliminate:
Image by JESHOOTS.COM, via Unsplash, license.
But if you come to eliminate too early -- If you've come to eliminate in a position of stress and overload before you have even started on these baby steps -- you're going to be lashing out and just trying to cancel things left and right and you're gonna be doing so from a position where you don't have much standing to do so.

[To] the people around you, the people who need you to do this work, [you] are not going to look great. Are you saying I'm too busy, I don't want to do it? If you're not delivered, [if] you're not shipping stuff, [if] you're not getting stuff done, you don't really have standing to tell [your boss] no. In fact, [your boss is going to think] I'm going to have to ride you now to really get stuff done. I'm going to bother you all the time and I'm going to want quick responses to my emails. It's gonna be very hard to eliminate successfully, when you're overwhelmed.
We all need more email and someone watching our every move while we try to work, right?

I didn't think so.

One thing I really appreciate about this discussion is the fact that Newport knows his audience: Lots of us develop an interest in productivity because these kinds of ideas and tricks are interesting and fun. Newport doesn't write them off altogether, but he puts them into perspective in a very helpful way.

We all come across people who are happy to hand out advice, but either seem more interested in having people do things in a certain way or don't truly understand the benefits and limitations of their own advice. This is definitely not the case with Newport, who is focused on helping people make better use of their time, and has thought deeply about it for quite some time.

I have always rankled at advice delivered like a set of commandments to be memorized and carried out willy-nilly. One owes it to oneself to look at all advice critically, of course, but perhaps a hopeful indication one is on the right track is when one hears something like, Don't just do what I say out of context: Understand what I am doing and be sure you are ready to apply the advice I am offering.

-- CAV

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