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My Productivity Hack: Build Ladders, Not Staircases

How to stop spinning your wheels and reach your goal faster. Have you ever put in lots of effort towards your goal and realized that it seems to be moving further away?


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Primal Dhillon

3 years ago | 7 min read

Many times I have sat up past midnight, spending all my emotional energy and time on a task, without making progress.

I did not realize that the biggest chunk of my time went into frolicking around the task or tinkering at it, as I shied away from tackling the core. I then carried around me an air of disappointment as if I had been wronged.

I allowed my mind to work in a strange manner. One time when I wanted to set up an extra TV in the basement, I spent the whole day slogging there without success. I had some fear about my ability to mount a TV on a wall but I felt that the priority was to clean and organize the basement for me to watch TV there.

I visualized a perfectly neat and clean basement and went into overdrive… I went into so much detail that I started organizing old extra pencils inside boxes by color! I then moved on to other “important” tasks — organizing and untangling thread spools, trinkets, give away clothes, etc.

This happened even though deep down, I kind of knew that I would probably never use any of this stuff in my life and most likely would either give it away or throw it out.

Eventually, I got tired, distracted, and went to bed exhausted. I felt I had worked immensely hard. But did I work on my goal? The TV sat in a corner for months as I did not get a chance to dedicate another agonizing day to sort the remaining stuff.

In my mind, I had to have every step perfectly done before I could work on setting up the TV.

Root Causes

How and when did unsorted pencils inside a labeled box become a pre-requisite for setting up the TV? Why could I not focus on my goal and why do incidental tasks often suck my energy?

A lot of reflection and numerous discussions with my closest, friendliest, and fiercest critics (for which I am grateful) made me realize three root causes.

Lack of clarity about prioritization

Choosing between goals

I mistakenly thought that prioritization meant identifying what my number one goal was while tightly holding on to all my other millions of goals.

I then spent time and effort on getting them all done. I dedicated a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy to remind myself of my top priority.

These reminders allowed me to engage in my distraction and I did not realize that I was actually jeopardizing my priority. The whole process was emotionally draining, I knew what I had to do but I had no energy to tackle it.

I wanted it all. I wanted to keep unnecessary everyday goals exactly the same even when I had lofty goals that needed my laser focus. I did not want to sacrifice anything from my day.

I have now learned that this is not what it means to prioritize.

Prioritization means that some things will need to drop from one’s plate, not that one gets an extra goal accomplished as a freebie just because one put it first.

Prioritizing means to choose one thing at the expense of another.

Choosing within the goal

Even when I was able to prioritize a task I got lost in the subparts. Within the task, I did not proactively prioritize and thought that every aspect of the goal deserved equal effort or focus. For example, if I were writing an essay, I would spend equal amounts of time working on the content, as I would in choosing the font or selecting the subtitles.

Efficiency means getting the most done in the least time and the best way of doing that is to let go of some parameters.

Getting stuck on perfection

My mindset of making one part perfect before I could move on to the next part became a barrier to getting things done. I would keep on writing and editing the same paragraph for hours because deep down I was afraid of putting it out there. The process of editing felt like low risk compared to publishing.

Perfection implies that all scenarios will be covered and all possibilities will be taken care of. This becomes an academic exercise far removed from reality and with no real implications except for a fake sense of idealism.

In fact, beating about the bush leads you to engage with distractions and gives you a false sense of safety, a fake cocoon, that only delays the final outcome.

You don’t have to make perfect decisions and you don’t have to do a perfect job. You just have to make good decisions and you just have to do a good job.

The difference in the outcome of a perfect job compared to a good job is not too much but the difference in the input is huge.

Confusion between effort with output

My input used to be much more than my output. I would get happy looking at the amount of effort I put in without measuring what the outcome was. I conveniently forgot that efficiency is the ratio of output over input.

Efficiency = Output/Input

The lower the input, the higher the output.

I confused the hours spent working with real progress towards the goal.
I did not realize that merely engaging in a process for long hours does not equal getting an end product.

A mirage of progress was created by me. I was spending my precious resources on doing frivolous parts of the task and not dealing with the core. It was like spinning my wheels and trying to live up to a mental image of spinning them in perfection.

Liberation through my staircase method

Recently, one thing that has helped me change my method of working is what I call the “Staircase Method.”

Don’t get into the trap of perfecting step 1 before going to step 2 (Image by author)
Don’t get into the trap of perfecting step 1 before going to step 2 (Image by author)

Imagine your goal is to be a point in the sky that you’re trying to climb to. One way to reach that is by constructing a staircase: setting the foundation and then laying the steps down one by one.

Now, you can diligently construct each step one at a time and make sure it is marbled, polished, and intricately decorated before you go to the next. And every time you lay down a step, you can spend hours cleaning it and perfecting it.

You may convince yourself that you are moving one step closer to your goal.

But you are actually confusing effort spent with the progress made.

The worst part is that when one has 2–3 goals that one is trying to reach, like a goal in your professional career, another in your social life, and a health goal, then one is always jumping from one unfinished staircase to another.

In situations like these, I would end up going to bed wondering why I felt stuck and directionless even though I had put in so much effort. I would not be able to contextualize that a specific step was just one in a series that I needed to create. I would lose track of the goal and make myself delusional about the progress meanwhile I would be putting in tons of effort without getting the proportional output.

Sometimes goals change. Then when one has to abandon the half-built beautiful marble staircase that one was so invested in feels like torture.

This is when I realized that instead of painstakingly trying to build staircases, I should be building quick ladders.

My productivity hack is to choose to build quick ladders instead of marble staircases, whenever I can.
A ladder is a much more efficient way of reaching your goal (Image by author)
A ladder is a much more efficient way of reaching your goal (Image by author)

Many times, the ladder is better:

  • It can quickly be constructed from the sticks lying around you. It doesn’t require you to plan out space for a staircase, collect the marble, and shape it. It allows you to be scrappy and creative and to lean into your pool of strengths. It lets you be agile and use your creativity to figure out how to build yourself a support system that will get you to your goal.
  • It is moveable and transferrable. So if goals change, you can just reposition your ladder.
  • If one rung breaks, you can usually just climb over it. The ladder is more resilient.
  • The time you use to construct and clean a step on the staircase is the same time that you can use to create another rung on the ladder.
  • It requires less maintenance.
  • It helps you see the big picture and brings your focus back to just getting the job done.

This imagery has allowed me proactively avoid getting lost in irrelevant details.

Just like how I spent an afternoon organizing colored pencils in my basement, we often get stuck on our own staircases because we allow ourselves to be distracted and bothered by the little things.

The marble staircase or the scrappy ladder is just the means — it is not an end in itself. Why not have quick, efficient means to reach the same goal?

To reach your goals faster, build quick ladders, not elaborate staircases.

Get excited to climb your new ladder!

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Primal Dhillon


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