Is That the Best You Can Do?

“The good is the enemy of the best” is a common expression in time management. Recently I’ve been coming face-to-face with the realities of this expression.

Every day I receive emails with a variety of leads and recommendations — blog posts and online articles to check out, books to read, new online services to examine, … not to mention an abundance of feedback and questions.

At the beginning of the year, I could easily handle this input. I could follow up on every lead and personally reply to every email. That was a nice place to be for a while, but I knew I wanted this web site to reach more people, so it was only a matter of time before the input level overwhelmed my ability to handle it, regardless of the time management techniques I applied.

I could have managed a doubling or tripling of that input, but the reality was that this site experienced a 33x increase in traffic from January to November (36K to 1.2 million page views), and the volume of email has increased proportionately. That means if I was able to manage my email on 15 minutes per day in January (which is roughly accurate), it would take me 8 hours 15 minutes to handle my email in the same manner today. And if my traffic triples again, then we’re up to 24 hours and 45 minutes per day. It’s already increased another 25% in the past two weeks.

Even with the power of polyphasic sleep and a host of other time management techniques at my disposal, it’s obviously not a good use of my time to spend 8+ hours a day on email and on following up on the leads that come that way.

Blowing off email entirely certainly isn’t a good solution. There are definitely some great opportunities that come my way via email. So I needed a way to separate the critical email from the rest.

Years ago I setup server spam filters (via SpamAssassin) and a virus scanner (ClamAV), which eliminated nearly all virus and spam emails from my inbox. If I didn’t have these filters, I’d be getting thousands of virus/spam emails every day. I also use PocoMail for my email client, which makes it easy to setup filters to sort incoming email based on its content. I have several inboxes, so my email is pre-sorted into convenient piles much like a personal assistant would do. For example, all notification-style emails get dumped into appropriate folders and are automatically marked as read, so I don’t even need to look at them unless there’s a problem. My personal email from family goes into a different folder than contact email from this site. This gives me a convenient overview of how many of each type of email I need to handle. Then I go through each inbox one by one.

At this point I’m still able to read every piece of email in a reasonable period of time, but I no longer have the capacity to follow up on every lead or respond to each email personally.

At first I tried to come up with some general rules to help me decide how to handle each email. But that didn’t work too well because every email is different, and sometimes it’s just a subtle factor that makes it worth following up to read an article or typing a quick response.

I’m not concerned about the times when I can respond to an email in 30 seconds or less. I’m not so anal as to stress over a few minutes a day. The emails that require intelligent decision-making are those where I may have to spend time following up to read an online article, checking out a web site or online service, or doing something else that’s going to take minutes or maybe even hours.

In those cases I’ve found it very helpful to ask myself this one question: Is that the best you can do?

I ask myself, “Is it very likely that following up on this is the best use of my time?” I already have a to-do list with enough projects to keep me busy for years. So when in doubt, I bring up the top items on that list with a keystroke and ask myself if it’s worth delaying those things which I’m certain will be a great use of my time to pursue something which might or might not be.

The nice thing about email leads is that they can provide a great bang-per-buck because they’re the result of personal recommendations. They’re already been pre-filtered by other human beings. A few minutes of follow up to read an online article could give me a great new idea that I can apply right away. But because I can’t follow up on every lead I’m sent, I have to make a decision on which ones I’m going to chase and which I won’t. Asking this question has helped me make these decisions more easily.

In 90% of cases, it’s clear that while following up on a lead might be a good use of my time, it can’t possibly be the best. This is often the case when it comes to reading lengthy news articles. They’re often informative and interesting but usually not actionable. So if I don’t read them, I may not be as up-to-date on the latest extravagances of corporate America, but that won’t hurt me as much as missing an opportunity like polyphasic sleep.

Here are some variations on this question that I ask myself when I get stuck:

  • What difference will this make in 5 years? In 20 years?
  • How much time is this likely to take?
  • Would it help me to take 30 seconds to ask for more info in order to determine whether it’s worthwhile to follow up?
  • Who sent me this? What kinds of leads has this person sent me in the past?
  • How many times have I been sent this same lead?
  • Did the person offer a clear and compelling reason why I should follow this lead?
  • Is there a reasonable chance I’ll experience a major quantum leap as a result of following up on this lead?
  • Would I be willing to skip a meal to follow up on this? For an insanely great opportunity, I would.

I still slip quite a bit, but I find that this approach helps me stay focused without being overwhelmed. I’m usually able to keep my email down to about 30 minutes per day and still have time to follow up on leads that look like they have a lot of potential.

Leads don’t just come via email either. The original lead that introduced me to polyphasic sleep came via my RSS subscriptions. It took me a few hours to completely follow up on that lead and research the topic, but it was one of the most worthwhile leads I ever followed. I can afford to follow a lot of worthless leads if it means hitting one of these jackpots every now and then.

I receive many good — even great — leads each and every day. But I only have time to really follow up on a fraction of them. So I’ve had to raise my standards higher and higher. It’s usually pretty easy to tell if an article is going to be worth reading, and if I make a mistake one way or the other, it’s probably not a big deal. But what about a book that someone tells me changed their live forever? Or a new online service that people tell me is revolutionary? Or the latest must-have productivity software? It would be nice if everyone agreed on the same things. But unfortunately they don’t.

I can’t sign up for every cool new service or try every piece of cool software. At some point I’ll hit diminishing returns from spending too much time trying to increase productivity instead of actually working productively. So if I’m checking out a new online service, I might browse the site for a couple minutes, and if I can’t see evidence of immediate and tangible benefits for signing up, I don’t bother with it. There are quite a number of online services that look novel and interesting and even helpful, but they fail to pass my “best” test.

An example of an online service which I consider one of my “best” choices is I use this service all the time to rent DVDs, especially personal development DVDs, and it saves me a lot of time. I couldn’t be happier with it, and I haven’t been to Blockbuster since (and their “no late fees” policy that often forces the best picks to be out of stock). In fact, I like Netflix so much that I joined their affiliate program and added their link to my sidebar. This is a service I feel great about recommending to others.

One of the reasons it’s so important to me to find those really outstanding leads is that I’m able to share them via this blog with hundreds of thousands of people around the world. I certainly feel the responsibility of that. By doing my best to triage intelligently, it helps me spend more time bringing the very best opportunities for personal development to your attention, such as the possibilities of polyphasic sleep, which dozens of people are now trying as a result of my public logs. Certainly not everyone will succeed with polyphasic sleep, but if just a handful of people do, that’s still a major positive impact — several lifetimes of added productivity. It’s about as close as I’ve been able to come to saving lives.

If you aren’t getting a flood of external leads coming into your life each day, it doesn’t mean you aren’t facing a similar situation — you can still go out and create our own leads. I think the problem is more obvious when the leads come to you, but there’s still the issue of good vs. best when you seek out your own leads. For example, can you say the book you’re reading right now is the best one you could possibly read at this time? Or can you already identify a better book? Is your physical workout the best one you can think of? Or are you capable of moving to something better? Is your job the best one you could hope for? Or can you already identify a better one? Is your office layout the best you can imagine? Or can you make one small change to make it better?

Maybe we don’t know what the best is, but we can usually identify something better. And if you’re doing something good at the expense of something better, then you’re making a productivity mistake. Why read a good book when you can read a better one? Why do a good workout when you can do a better one? Why work at a good job when you can enjoy a better one?

This is easier said than done. I know how tough it is to stay focused on the best and to relinquish the good. Why do we hold ourselves back from the best and settle for the good? Fear. We fear what it will be like to live on the edge of the best. Just imagine what it would feel like to be reading the very best book, doing the best workout, eating the best food, having the best job, enjoying the best relationship, living in the best house, driving the best car, having the best friends, living the best life.

You might find this image unsettling. Perhaps you don’t think you can have the best. Why not? When you think you can’t have the best, you become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You settle for the good even when something better is staring you in the face. You’ll begin to embrace better only when you feel you deserve the best. Allow yourself to want the best, even if you don’t think you can get it. Even if you don’t get the best, you can certainly have better than good.

Relatively speaking, if you’re holding something that’s just good while something better is easily within your grasp, then you’re good isn’t really good at all. Your good is actually just fair… maybe even bad. You think you have a B, but you’ve really settled for a C, D, or F. Settling for the good is what everyone does. It’s just average. B is better. A is best. If you want the best, you must at least lift you standards to embrace better.

Can you eat better food today than you did yesterday? Can you read better material today than you did yesterday? Can you perform better at your job today than you did yesterday? Can you do a better workout today than you did yesterday? Can you tell your kids a better bedtime story today than you did yesterday? Can you give your significant other a better hug today than you did yesterday?

Yes? Great. Now go do it!