I have lots of ideas and never realize them.
I have lots of goals and never achieve them.
I am incredibly envious of people I know that are super focused, highly productive and just seem to do it all the right way while I flail around like a fish in a rowboat gasping for air.
I’ve tried to get better and continue to, but it’s rough and slow going.
So dark side out of the way, I want to introduce you to two of the most powerful tools I use every day and they’ve helped quite a bit.
1) The Text Notepad
I use “notepad.exe” on my laptop, but you can use whatever you want.
I tried them all, evernote, virtual sickies, tasks in google calendar, etc etc. None of that worked nearly as well as my notepad.exe blank text file.
What’s the structure?
Simple, I type the date at the top and then I have a list of stuff to do.
Every morning before I do ANYTHING, I crack that baby open and spend at least 10-15 minutes planning out what I want to do.
I order it first by “thing I want to do least.”
That’s different than the most important thing method or the easiest thing first method or many other methods. The reason I order it this way is because stuff I HATE doing tends to occupy huge amounts of brain power while it ISN’T being done. This is usually mundane and unpleasant work. You KNOW you have to collect that tax information. You KNOW you have to send that rejection email. You KNOW you have to have that unpleasant conversation with that person.
We delay those things for a long time and while we delay them they act as a tax on EVERYTHING else. So I try to kill those first.
Next on the list is stuff that is time critical/easily actionable. There is sometimes overlap between stuff I dislike and easy/critical/annoying things (say, buying airline tickets or sending meeting notes). I also like to “chunk” those things together so that I spend 30 minutes on things like responding to meeting invites (or cancelling them), planning a trip, typing up interview feedback, and so on.
Then I try to pick one (or maybe two) things that require more focused energy and should be the major contributors of value for the day. This is something like finishing a presentation. If you’re an engineer/artist/etc and not a “manager” it’s stuff like finishing a feature or completing a piece of art. It’s important that the end result is “finished” in some way. I’ve also found that limiting how many I allow myself to do reduces distraction, switching cost, anxiety and many other things that dramatically reduce my effectiveness. I allow myself the freedom to NOT do most things on most days.
And finally is the “fluffy” stuff. Things like “test out that new game engine” or “try to visualize that data in an interesting way” or “read those cool HBR articles people have been sending around.” I tend to find those things to be the most fun to work on and they can act as “rewards” instead of “distractions” if I leave them till the end.
OK. On to tool #2
2) The 30 Minute Timer
Again, I’ve tried lots of high tech solutions here.
My favorite. Go to Google.com and type in “30 minute timer.”
That’s it. Away you go.
I try to put tasks into chunks and spend 30 minutes on them. I try to do NOTHING else. I try to forbid myself from reading news, email, text messages, etc. I try to shut it all down except the window that I need for the thing I’m doing and the timer window.
I commit to making EVERY task be 30 minutes long. This is weird, but the reason I do it is because I found myself wasting a lot of time trying to “guess” how long things would take. Worse, my guesses were both totally wrong and usually irrelevant. By taking out the time and energy required to estimate things I actually make much more progress and am much less likely to procrastinate doing the task to begin with. Even writing this blog post was done in 30 minute increments… although it took about 5 of them.
If I finish early, I either take the next chunk of tasks or I take a break.
If it takes longer I quickly decide if I want to commit another 30 minutes or not.
It is AMAZING what can be done in 30 minutes if I remove all distractions and just focus.
It’s also amazing how much better the day is when I start by getting those horrible things I hate doing out of the way. It’s sort of like being in a room that is clean and organized vs being in a room that you are dreading to clean and organize. Same room, different feeling. So my approach is to clean the room, THEN do the work.
So that’s it!
I’m happy to write about things like how to write tasks in a way that makes them actionable, how to segment things into time chunks, how to fight distractions, etc. if there’s interest.
Please let me know what you’ve tried to increase your focus and productivity.