How work gets done

I was reminded of my preparation in the months leading into my high school final exams this morning. I was keen to do my undergraduate studies in the National University of Singapore and the criteria for admission was a good score on these exams. With exams coming up in March, the key preparation months were between September and December. So, in those months, I went to bed around 630pm in the evening and woke up by 230am. This way, I got a good 3-4 hours of uninterrupted time every week day. It was a very consistent routine. I used to microwave some food, grab a quick meal and get to work. During this time, I played the exact same collection of songs on CD (we had just moved from cassettes to CDs) – so much so that I can still remember the rough order of those songs 10 years later.

Those months of effort definitely paid off. While they helped ensure I did do my undergraduate studies where I wanted (which, in turn, created a significant ripple effect), their long run effects, however, were that they taught me how work gets done.

I needed to get a chunk of work this morning before my classes started. And, as I needed uninterrupted time, I went to bed at 8 and woke up at 3 to get to work. Learning from that experience, I had my email and messengers switched off and, just for old times’ sake, played songs from my list from 10 years ago.

I’ve rinsed and repeated this process many many times over the years. And, this is a big reason why I do my best to wake up at 5am on most weekdays.

Growing up, I heard, and believed, various kinds of myths about top performance. I heard about people who could ace their exams without effort and solve problems in their sleep. Over time, I’ve learnt to consign those myths to the rubbish bin. The top performers I know combine focus, intensity and hard work incredibly well. If, over time, they need to work less to get a particular kind of task done, it is because they’ve worked so hard on it previously that they just know smarter ways to get it done in less time. We’ve all experienced that type of mastery.

It was in those preparation months that I learnt how to combine intensity and hard work. Focus (and, here, I refer to focus as a verb) took a lot longer to understand because I initially thought of intensity as the only kind of focus. However, the focus I’m referring to is that dynamic process that constantly evaluates what you should be focusing your intensity on.

The beauty about these three factors – focus (deciding what to focus on), intensity (focusing on it) and hard work (putting in the time) – is they are all learned. All we need to do is to learn how to work them in tandem and work hard to keep honing them over the course of our life.

The result is magic.