How to Succeed By Really Trying

Doc's note: The key to keeping your mind sharp is learning. But procrastination – thanks to a lot of modern distractions – keeps many of us from succeeding.

In today's essay, Whitney Tilson discusses three of the biggest distractions today, and how to stay on the path of learning and success.

I wouldn't have gotten very far in my career if I'd taken the advice in Tim Ferriss' book, The 4-Hour Workweek. It's one of the dumbest books I've ever read.

It's filled with tips on how to earn more while working less. However, I agree with some of it. For example, of course you should try to be efficient with your time and delegate well.

But the overall message that you can get ahead only working four hours a week (or even four hours a day), is absolutely preposterous. It's not just bad advice, it's dangerous advice because anyone who follows it will likely see their career get derailed.

There's no substitute for hard work, especially early in your career. Trust me, you are far more likely to get ahead if you are the first into the office every morning and the last to leave. You will learn and accomplish more in 10 or 12 hours than in eight. You'll also send a powerful signal to your employer that you're a dedicated employee – and thus are more likely to get promoted.

I've never forgotten the line from a famous Hollywood executive (I think it was Peter Guber), who came to speak at Harvard Business School during my first year. He said: "I've gotten ahead by working half days. And you know what? It doesn't matter which 12 hours a day I work."

That's not hyperbole.

Do the math: 12 hours a day dedicated toward your job/career/study/learning leaves 12 hours a day for everything else: eight hours of sleep, one hour of exercise, and three hours of eating, socializing, relaxing, etc. Then on weekends, cut your work in half to six hours – and be sure to take some wonderful vacations.

But spending a lot of hours in the office or library isn't worth much if you're constantly distracted.

I'll admit to being very prone to distractions. As a kid, I loved video games. In high school, I played games like Asteroids and Pac-Man for hours. In college, I stopped studying to watch M*A*S*H every night. And I shudder to think of how much time I wasted when I worked at the Boston Consulting Group, binge-playing Risk on the company computers. It's a constant struggle for me to rein in these distractions – and it's getting exponentially harder...

Staying on track and focused is a bigger challenge today than at any time in history, thanks to these three notorious time-killers:

Distraction No. 1: Smartphones and Social Media

Our smartphones are the single-most pernicious distraction in society today. They buzz constantly with updates, text messages, and e-mails, making it a real challenge to get any work done. It even cost one woman her job...

A business-owner friend of mine employs two dozen people to package and ship products from his warehouse in Dallas. One of these workers, a young woman in her twenties, was constantly checking her phone. Exasperated, my friend approached her and asked her to put it away.

"There's work to do," he said.

"Well," she replied, clearly annoyed, "I do have a personal life."

"Not on my clock, you don't," he said. "I'm paying you by the hour to work, so put your phone away."

Ten minutes later, she pulled it out again.

My friend just pointed to the nearest exit and said, "There's the door. Get out. You're fired."

Smartphones are highly addictive, and I suspect this young woman is symbolic of a wider problem. Our brains have become used to the constant stimuli our smartphones bring us, and we're now like rats in a science experiment, mindlessly checking our phones over and over throughout the day. It's like getting little hits of dopamine to satisfy our cravings.

Distraction No. 2: Binge-Watching

It wasn't very long ago when there were only a dozen channels on TV, and you had to watch a show when it aired or miss it forever. But today, streaming video services like Netflix and YouTube have killed rental chains like Blockbuster and led millions of Americans to "cut the cord." Now we're in an era where an unlimited amount of the world's video entertainment is only a few swipes or clicks away.

And it's not all schlock. In many ways, it's a golden era for television, with thousands of hours of tremendously compelling content like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, and Game of Thrones available at low cost.

It's so easy to get hooked on one or more of these shows (I speak from personal experience) and waste ungodly amounts of precious time.

Distraction No. 3: Video Games

Modern video games like Fortnite, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft, and Call of Duty are wildly addictive, with their immersive plots, amazing graphics, and ability to play with friends (or strangers) all over the world.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, more than 150 million Americans play video games (60% of them do so daily), for an average of three hours per week.

I'm not one of them. I've deliberately never even tried them because I know how addicted I became to the primitive games of my youth, so I can't imagine what would happen if I started playing these vastly more entertaining and engaging games.

To be clear, I'm not saying that you shouldn't check your phone periodically, watch a few great shows, or play video games on occasion. But given how addictive all of these things are, you must be super careful not to let them suck up large amounts of time – time that could be much better spent building your knowledge and skills and getting ahead in your career.


Whitney Tilson

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