A creative, productive person has a motor. Much like a car or scooter, that person is driven by his or her motor — driven to do, to make, to create, to find fun things to do with the kids, to build a media room in the basement, to learn French, to pursue innovative carrer goals, or to plant a flower garden.
The problem is that sometimes the motor won’t shut off and you get more ideas than you have time or attention to achieve right now. Many people put these on a “Someday/Maybe” list of goals to consider for another day. I think a list such as that is organized clutter. The someday list can cause a lot of guilt. So, instead I put my own spin on this type of list.
Someday/Maybe is a tenent of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. He refers to it as (I’m paraphrasing), a way to capture the projects you’d like to complete in the future, lest they continue to nag at your thoughts. Additionally (critically, even), those items should be a part of your weekly review. Every seven days, ask yourself, “Is it time to move on any of these things?”
My problem is, the answer is always “No,” and that fantastical trip to Japan remains untouched, emphasizing my inaction for another week. Here’s what’s worse: noticing the pattern, I add items that I know I won’t act on, consciously or not. The someday list is my personal waiting room.
I’ve no doubt that it’s important to have long-term goals, even those whose only benefit is dining in an out-of-the-way noodle house. However, there must be a better way to keep track of them and taking action.
A few years ago, I attended Macworld | iWorld in San Francisco (it was still called Macworld Expo back then). One of the highlights was hearing Merlin Mann speak. He said, among other things, that one should take a good, hard look at the Someday/Maybe list. Ask yourself, “Will I ever do this?” If the answer is no, ditch the item completely. Will I ever become fluent in Japanese? It’s highly unlikely. Off it goes. But will I ever travel to Japan? That item is much more likely, so it stays.
While understandable, culling the improbable has a “crush your dreams” vibe that bothers many people. “Spend a month in Japan” is a huge project, but there’s a little more likelihood I’ll achieve it than learning an entire language.
Before ditching that trip all together, let’s consider how it can remain on the list of things I’d like to do without any of the guilt.
Years ago, I worked as a special needs teacher in a residential school for children with Autism and other developmental delays. I taught in a classroom and eventually supervised a group home with 8 students and a staff of 12 teachers. We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.
ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement to change behavior. One method is called chaining, or breaking a complex task into several simple ones that can be taught in succession and, when successfully performed sequentially, comprise the original task. I never guessed that training would be so influential in my everyday life.
In GTD, “visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps. In breaking down the project, two things happen.
First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project completely. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggested. If I have an increase in interest that will suggest motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.
The Research List
What’s really happening here is I’m turning the someday list into research tasks. Therefore, I’ll suggest changing the name from Someday/Maybe to Research. It sounds more pro-active and suggests something to do other than sit and wait until I get around to it “someday.”
I’m not going to tell you to ditch your Someday/Maybe list completely. Again, let’s not crush those dreams. However, I will say be very honest with yourself and consider:
- Is this list a dumping ground for the unachievable?
- Am I dropping things here that are too unpleasant to consider for some reason?
- Is there a way to actually make progress on this?
- What is the first tiny baby step I can actually do?
Figure out the answers to these questions and get moving. Avoid the clutter and guilt of a Someday/Maybe list and start working toward these projects in the present.
I watched an incredible tennis match recently. On Centre Court at Wimbledon, the number two player in the world, Rafael Nadal, was in a heated battle with Lukas Rosol, a player ranked 100 and not very well known. Nadal, though being tested, was expected to not only win, but to do so in his usual commanding style. In the end, Rosol stunned everyone when he turned the tables and won. In the post-match interview, Nadal said, “I just played an inspired opponent.” Rosol, who also thought that he wouldn’t win, said that he just didn’t want to lose poorly. As a result, he was extremely motivated, focused, and played in a way that far exceeded even his expectations.
But, what happens when your focus and motivation seem to desert you? Even the most well-intentioned and commited person has days when he or she doesn’t feel motivated to do much of anything. Tasks (whether the plan is to take care of some long delayed “fix-its” around the house or complete an important project) can seem daunting, boring, or you just might feel like doing something else. Rather than focus on the things you shouldn’t do (like procrastinate), a better strategy would be to set your sights on things you can do until your motivation returns.
When you feel like putting your important goals on the back burner, consider:
- Making a list and short-term plan. The first step is to create a list because that will get everything out of your head. Writing down the things you need to do (or entering them in your smart phone or a text file on your computer) will help you to categorize and prioritize your tasks, and, ultimately, create a short-term plan for that day. This temporary plan can help you to get moving, keep you focused, and allow you to include other activities you want to do.
- Think of the end result. Thinking about the long list of things that you have to do probably won’t give you the needed push to get stuff done, but thinking about how amazing or proud you’ll feel when you accomplish even the smallest of goals, just might be all you need to jump start your productivity. To remind yourself of that amazing feeling, think back to a time when you did your best work. While you’re at it, look back at the steps you took to reach your goals to see if you can do something similar to turn your current situation around.
- Go ahead and do something else … for a short while and then come back to your project or task. When you’re feeling stuck in lack-of-motivation land, you may need a change of scenery, a bite to eat, or perhaps a jog around the neighborhood to get your juices flowing. In fact, exercising can improve your mood and help you focus and work efficiently. The New York Times recently reported that:
In humans, exercise improves what scientists call “executive function,” the set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions. Executive function includes basic functions like processing speed, response speed and working memory, the type used to remember a house number while walking from the car to a party.
- Start with the easiest thing first. As you look at your list, pick the thing that is the easiest to complete because you’ll be able to get it done quickly. You probably won’t need (much) help doing these types of tasks and you can cross them off your list immediately. When you get things done, you’re likely to be motivated to do more. Sometimes, turning your to do items into a game (how much can you accomplish in 10 minutes) or trying to beat your personal best (can you do more than what you did the day before) can also push you forward.
- Phone a friend. Still feeling like putting your work plans aside? You’ll probably benefit from calling in reinforcements, literally. Having someone else encourage you or check-in with you can be very motivating. Sometimes, all it takes is a different perspective, a friendly nudge, or even a little healthy competition to get you moving.
Or, maybe you just need a body double. Judith Kohlberg, the author of Conquering Chronic Disorganization and ADD Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, describes a body double as a person who “… functions as an anchor. The presence of a human anchor focuses another person and makes it possible … to ignore distractions.”
Though the body double (or accountability partner) is present while you work and not actively involved with what you’re doing (and quiet), they still help you to get things done by staying on task. If you think this would be too distracting, use a timer to keep you on track. When it goes off, you will be released from that task so that you can do something else.
There will always be days when you don’t feel like working. It helps to come up with a few strategies that can put you in the frame of mind to work productively (like a quiet room, clear desk, co-working, etc.). Test out some of the suggestions from today’s post to see if they’ll work for you. Usually, once you get started, you’ll be inspired to keep going. And, you just might end up having more spectacular days like Lukas Rosol did this past June.
When I was in grade school, I would often daydream. I’d stare out the classroom window and imagine myself running through the sprinklers or going to the beach. Sometimes, my teacher would tap me on the shoulder or call my name (loudly) to get my attention. When I became part of the workforce, I didn’t daydream as much, but there were certainly times when I found it difficult to stay focused while at work.
Now that I primarily work from home, I’ve discovered that while I can be very productive and get things done, my energies can sometimes be directed at the things I shouldn’t be doing. Unwashed laundry can be distracting to me. Dirty dishes in the sink and a carpet that needs vacuuming also can cause my mind to wander. It may be hard to imagine I’d rather clean than do work-work, but chores are things I actually enjoy doing.
So, to help keep my attention where it needs to be, I follow these simple steps:
- As much as possible, take care of distractions before working. Since I have the need to clean, I make sure I do it each night before bed. The dishes are washed, the pillows on the sofa are fluffed, all the chairs are pushed under the dining table, everything is put back where it belongs, and the counters are cleared before I go to bed so I won’t think about them the next day while working. If you are distracted by disorder or something that can be completed ahead of time, take care of these items each night before heading to bed.
- Work at your best time. I’m a rock star in the morning hours. I often say that I can solve the world’s problems at 6 a.m. While this is an exaggeration, I know that I’m most productive in the early hours of the day. Knowing when you are most productive and clear-headed can go a long way in helping you to focus on your work. For a couple weeks, track what you do over the course of the day and when you get the most stuff done. Then, structure your schedule so you can do the work that requires the greatest amount of focus during the times when you are at your best.
- Work at a table or desk. To ensure that I continue working productively over the course of the work day, I need to sit at an organized desk (or table) and in a sturdy chair. My brain equates these two things with work. If I sit on the sofa, I can still get things done, but it’s too comfortalbe and too close to the television (which can be a bright, shiny, HUGE distraction). Work in a place that feels like you should be doing work there.
- Keep your to-do list visible. My to-do list is my map for the day. It tells me what to do and when to do it. And, each time I cross something off my list, I’m motivated to keep working. If I don’t have my list in front of me, it would be very easy to start working on something that’s not a priority. It’s a good idea to start each day by reviewing your to-do list or creating one so you start your day with a clear understanding of where you’re going.
- Add deadlines to your task list. I’m deadline driven. Without deadlines, I meander in my thoughts and actions. I get a thrill from turning in a project on time and this feeling intensifies when I deliver ahead of schedule. When I begin working on a task or project, I keep due dates at the top of mind by writing them on my to do list. You can also use a calendar, a stop watch, or any other device that will help you to reach goals by specific times.
- Keep email notifications turned off. My emails are filtered through Outlook and for a very long time, I used to keep the audible and visual notifications active. This became too distracting as I would often stop to read my messages whenever the little red “new mail” indicator would appear. Since email comes in at random times, it was virtually impossible to work during any time block without interruptions. Now, I check e-mail when on a schedule or whenever I take a break. I know not every job allows for this, but if yours does, turn that notification off when you need to focus.
- Have water and healthful snacks close by. The downside of being productive for me is that I forget to eat. To avoid this, I keep a bottle of water and select a few brain-fueling snacks at the start of the workday to nosh on instead of going hungry. Other folks who work from home often find that having an entire pantry of food nearby results in them constantly snacking on whatever is in the house. If this sounds like you, selecting your snacks at the start of the day will keep you from taking excessive breaks to the kitchen.
- Take breaks and stretch. When I come back from a quick break, I find that I’m able to think more clearly and sustain my productivity. I pause several times throughout the day, and I also stretch or do a few yoga poses (like standing forward bend). This helps me re-set my mind and body and gets me ready to sit through another working time block. At least once an hour you should move a little to keep you at your best.
Working at home has many rewards but is not without challenges. By thinking through (and testing) the steps that complement your personality and work style, you can create a system that lets you face your challenges, push distractions aside, and maintain focus on important tasks. Those of you who telecommute full time, part time, or even occasionally, what would you add to this list? Share your suggestions in the comments.
There are many things I want to do and I’ve been known to multitask (as recently as last week!). When time seems elusive, it can be easy to get caught in the trap of doing too many things at once.
Fortunately, I have a simple, three step process that helps me focus on one thing at a time and to be more realistic about how much I can actually accomplish.
Here it is:
- Write a short, specific list
- Create a realistic and reasonable plan
- Select a reward
One of the reasons this process works for me is because I enjoy writing to-do lists, and I usually get more done when I hand write them. I like apps like Toodledo (especially since I can set reminders), but I love crossing tasks off on a paper list. Like Erin, sometimes I put things I’ve already done on my list just so I can put a line through them.
Now that I have spring cleaning on my mind, I’ve created a list for my latest project: organizing the outside of my home. As a new mom, I put more effort in (trying to) keep the inside of my home organized, and there are times that I forget about the outdoor chores. But, now that this is back on my radar, I took a look inside our shed. It has been a bit neglected because we were so focused on the impending arrival of a certain little person. Needless to say, it needs some attention. As I looked around the yard, I also noticed a few other things that were crying out for a some tender loving care.
So, my first step was to make a list of some (not all) of the things I wanted work on. There are several helpful spring cleaning checklists that I could use, however, in this case, I decided to make a short list based on:
- Things I think are important (i.e., need fixing and will make me happy).
- The amont of time it will take for me to complete them.
The short list
Whenever I make a list, I include the top three things needed to complete each task. When I complete a step, I cross it off and move on to the next one until all tasks have been taken care of. I have also used “One Thing” notepads by PrettyBitter.com.
- Re-organize the shed
- Remove obvious trash and recyclables
- Re-organize shelves (keep like items together)
- Sweep and annihilate cobwebs
- Add plants to pots at entry way
- Buy potting soil
- Buy perennials with color (perennials take less time to maintain)
- Plant flowers and water them
The reasonable plan
- I intend to finish all tasks by the end of June. I find that when I have a deadline, the likelihood of finishing my project is high. Without one, I can turn into a waffler.
- I will work in 15-30 minute time blocks three days every week. I would like to work my plan every day, but I doubt I’d be successful at that. Short organizing sessions will give me enough time to get some chores done and still let me do other (unrelated) things.
- I will pick one thing to focus on each day. By focusing on one item, I can keep feelings of overwhelm at bay.
- I will ask for help. When there’s a second person, 15-30 minutes will double, I’d probably get more done, and finish my chores sooner.
- I will think of a nice reward when my project is complete.
The amazing reward
I get little bursts of joy each time I cross something off my list, and I get the personal satisfaction of actually finishing what I set out to do. But, when I choose a fabulous way to pat myself on the back, that helps me get through my list because I have something amazing to look forward to. I think a manicure and a massage are in my near future.