Archive | Time Management

What’s the value of planning?

You have probably heard the saying, “no plan survives contact with reality.” There’s a lot of truth in this–so what’s the value of planning?

Planning pays off before you take action, while you are taking action, and after you have taken action.

The most obvious benefit of planning is that it helps you anticipate possible contingencies, so you can avoid avoidable problems and take advantage of advantageous opportunities. If you take the time to predict how your day or your project will unfold, you are much more likely to bring to bear all of the information you know that is relevant to getting your tasks done.

For example, toward the end of planning my day today, I noticed a package I needed to mail. I had scheduled a shopping trip for 7 p.m. If I scheduled it earlier, I could ship that package on the same trip. After noticing this fact, I looked to see if I could move the shopping trip to an earlier time slot. As I re-examined my plan, I realized that my objective for my 12 noon timeslot was unrealistic. I was unlikely to complete it today, because it required responses from others. I changed my objective for today to simply reach out to the other people–leaving time to go on the errands during that timeslot.

All of this planning took less than 10 minutes. But as a result, I have more realistic expectations for the day, and I will have fewer things on my mind at the end of today.

The simple act of planning helps you see risks and opportunities that you wouldn’t see otherwise. This change to my plan occurred because I happened to spot the package that was ready for shipping. Knowing I was scheduled to do errands after dinner, I immediately wondered if I could ship the package on the same trip. I saw an opportunity–and then thought it through.

You may be thinking, “Fine, but what happens when the plan falls apart in a few minutes or a few hours?” I confess that it’s only recently that I have seen the true value of the plan when you need to adjust your course.

And you often will need to adjust.

When you plan, you use information you already have to predict the future. But when you take steps toward your goals, the future unfolds in much more detail. You learn much more about the actual challenge–today, here now–than you could have possibly anticipated.

For example, yesterday I sat down to write an article on a different topic. The article fell apart when I tried to write it. My plan had been to draft the article in 1 hour. But halfway through the time, it was clear that I was not going to meet that objective.

So what was the use of my plan?

In such a situation, you may be tempted to ignore your plan and just choose your next action ad hoc. In the past, I probably would have just doubled down on the newsletter and put in a couple of more hours–maybe with success, maybe not. I would have forgotten about my plan and tried to “just do it.”

What I recommend in these situations is that you make a conscious decision about whether to follow your plan or not. Yesterday, I decided to put in the full hour to see if the topic was salvageable. When I saw no progress by that time, I decided to continue with my planned activities, and regroup today to write an article on a different topic. I consciously re-planned (in just a couple of minutes).

As a result of that trivial amount of re-planning, I had my eyes open for a better newsletter topic. When I discussed planning in a one-on-one consult last night, I realized it was a great topic. At the end of the consult, I outlined this newsletter in about 30 seconds, knowing I could draft it today.

In other words, I don’t recommend blindly following the plan, I recommend working the plan. As needed, make a conscious decision about how you are changing the plan.

Why? Because you put in your best thinking about what to do. If you are tempted to deviate from your plan, your best thinking deserves at least a hearing. Taking a couple of minutes to decide how to change your plan ensures that you don’t miss some obvious complication that you already thought of. Get the benefit of that forethought–don’t just throw it away.

There’s an emotional benefit, too. You will feel proud of the change, instead of vaguely guilty that you aren’t following your plan.

When things don’t work out the way you planned, treat it as a red flag signalling a need to do a little more thinking. Your expectations were mistaken. This is a huge learning opportunity–a great chance to discover mistaken premises. By taking the time to think through your change in plan, you address the issue head on, and learn what you need to learn.

For example, when I re-evaluated what I was doing yesterday, I realized that part of the problem was that I was distracted. I had started doing the family laundry the night before, and I was finishing it up that morning. Because of the laundry, I was having trouble concentrating fully on the writing. (This is one reason I decided to give the topic a full hour attempt–to make sure the problem was not just distraction.)

I’ve always thought of laundry as something that I can do on the side of almost any work. But yesterday, because I consciously thought about what was going wrong, I saw the truth. In the future, I’ll do my best to finish the laundry the night before, or start back on it after my writing time, which requires a high degree of concentration.

This leads me to the lasting value of planning and re-planning as needed. When you work the plan, you really learn what works and what doesn’t. You become self-aware of more of the obstacles to being productive. This can only help you be a better planner in the future.

Because let’s face it–having things go according to plan is much more satisfying than the alternative. When the plan falls apart, your stress goes up. When life goes according to plan, you feel calm and in control. By planning–and working the plan–you get better at planning, and you reap both the intellectual and emotional rewards of that.

I finished drafting this article just as my timer sounded the end of my planned hour for it. Hurrah! My satisfaction is that much more positive, because I finished as planned.

April 8, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Have a Default Break Start

In one of the references to last week’s newsletter, I mentioned an idiosyncratic practice of mine: reading one paragraph of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction at the start of a break during the workday.

This is an example of a highly tailored tactic to help with a problem that many people have: breaks take over the work day. Let me explain why this tactic works for me, and then how you could find a corresponding tactic that works for you.

I created this tactic because I wanted some way to be more intentional in my breaks. I was finding that my breaks were going on too long. I’d read a bit of the newspaper, and suddenly discover I’d spent 20 minutes reading–far longer than I intended.

I tried to make a highly self-aware decision about what to do at the beginning of the break–but that just didn’t work. At the start of a break, I would be a little tired, and so I couldn’t count on having the mental energy to make a good decision from scratch. I decided I needed a default activity–something that is a no-brainer for me–that could help guide me to use my time better.

Reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand’s nonfiction turned out to be perfect for this purpose. It’s short and easy, but it demands attention. One of four things would happen:

  1. If the effort to concentrate on her words felt wrenching, I was too tired to read a paragraph. This meant that I needed rest–probably an actual nap–not the newspaper, not a fiction break, not food. When I am too tired to concentrate, I am at risk of wasting a lot of time. If I were to start any other kind of break, I would lack the energy to monitor it appropriately, and likely it would not revive me sufficiently to go back to work. The absolute best thing for me to do in such a situation is to lie down and close my eyes. Reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand turned out to be a good test of whether I was in that risky state.
  2. If the writing was absorbing, I would continue to read Ayn Rand for my break. I re-read the Ayn Rand corpus regularly. I always have a new insight. The challenge is to find a time when I have the mental energy to pay attention to her words. Reading one paragraph of Ayn Rand turned out to be a good test of whether I was up to reading more.
  3. If after reading a paragraph, I was interested in doing something else, I would do that. Maybe it would be reading the newspaper, maybe reading a different nonfiction book, maybe taking a walk. Knowing I had passed the basic concentration test, I could be confident that the break wouldn’t get out of hand.
  4. If I was too distracted to read a paragraph, then there was something preying on my mind. I needed to journal about the issue. Any other kind of break could easily turn into an escape.

As I said, this tactic is highly idiosyncratic. Unless you are a devoted student of Ayn Rand, it would not be appropriate. But you could find your own default activity for the beginning of a break. Here are the requirements:

  1. It needs to be extremely short–less than 2 minutes.
  2. It needs to be something you are almost always interested in doing.
  3. It needs to be something mentally stimulating without being addictive–so you would not be tempted to spend the rest of the day on it.

Here are some ideas (other than reading): doing a specific stretch, exercise, or meditation, doing a 2-minute emotional check-in.

What I don’t recommend are: checking email, neatening your desk, or any other activity that can draw you in and kill your break!

This is a great tactic for me, that helps me stay on top of my breaks much better. Ironically, I had dropped it somewhere along the way and forgotten about it. In next week’s newsletter I’ll share how I reinstated it, using another tactic which helps me keep top issues top of mind: the manifesto.

December 21, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Developing a Daily Planning Sheet

In the Thinking Lab, I offer a self-study course called, “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure.” The goal of the course is to help you get a basic system in place to keep you productive. The basic system consists of only three things:

1. A daily planning session (15 minutes per day)
2. A weekly planning session (20-30 minutes once per week)
3. A way to keep track of time

Implicit in the system is a fourth element:

4. A set of benchmarks and other metrics for measuring success

The reason to develop a system is to help you automatize new policies and practices for your own productivity. You can’t change habits with just an intention. You need a system in place to remind you of your goals, values, and intentions, to help you track progress, and to help you troubleshoot problems.

In the course, I give an example of a daily planning sheet that I use to implement my system in a very simple, efficient way. My daily planning sheet is just a piece of paper that I print each week. It has designated areas to track goals, benchmarks, and work. Here’s what the two sides of this week’s sheet looks like today (Friday morning):

Daily Planning Sheet

Most of the time, my planning sheet is folded up, so that I am just looking at the goals and today’s tracking notes. There is also a little piece of paper with my self-care list, which is normally slipped inside the fold. Here’s what it looks like today:

Goals and Tracking Notes

I’m not expecting you to read my sheet. Actually, I’d rather you didn’t, since one of the goals I’m tracking is my weight. 🙂 I’m sharing my sheet, because a Thinking Lab member asked me to talk more about how my particular sheet evolved, so that he could figure out what to put on his.

So, you need to understand that my complex sheet evolved gradually over 15 years, starting when I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2002 and first attempted to develop a productivity system.

My top takeaway from my 15 years of experimentation is twofold: the system has to be dead easy to use, and you need to be convinced that every second you spend using it pays off. That’s why I recommend starting with a very simple system (just listing goals and tracking time).

My sheet is jam packed with items, but each little bit came online at a different time. Looking it over, there is way too much to discuss in detail, so I’ll just explain the 7 functional areas:

1. Page One Benchmarks: I track all kinds of productivity items like how much time I worked on my book and how many emails were left in my inbox at the end of the day. I fill out the benchmarks every day as part of my daily 15 minutes of planning.

These are all on the front page (top left in the first picture). 15 years ago I kept track of only 4-8 items, which I would write in at the bottom of my weekly calendar. The current list reflects my current projects and priorities.

Most people, when they think about being productive, have a list of things they’d like to do daily or most days. Tracking the most important ones as benchmarks helps you do them more consistently.

Two pieces of advice: First, it’s important to limit the number of things you track. I’m maxed out. In fact, I use this paper to stop me from adding items. I have to take something off if I put something on. If in doubt, track less.

Second, notice your reactions to the items you track. If you feel bored or indifferent to them, why are you tracking this item? If you feel guilty about not doing something, that’s a warning bell to rethink how it relates to your priorities. I adjust my benchmarks incrementally during the year as I shift goals, automatize habits, or take on new campaigns for self-improvement.

2. Little bitty sheet of self-care: This is the extra sheet that shows up in the 2nd picture with today’s sheet open to tracking the day. Maybe 5 years ago, I decided I needed one number to include information on a lot of topics that added up to whether I have a good day or not. The little piece of paper has 15 items on it–everything from playing my flute to exercising to staying on top of admin fits in here–and each day I just go through and check off which ones I did the previous day. I record the number on the front page with other benchmarks.

This list changes every year or so. Usually I upgrade the items. When “house made nice” became easy, I upgraded that item to be “house and office made nice.” Sometimes I take something off the list, because I don’t need to track it. For example, I used to track whether I got 7 hours of sleep a night, but I always stay in bed for 7 hours these days. Exceptions are so rare that it’s not an issue I need to track anymore.

I tote up my self-care number every day as part of my daily planning. I’ve observed that whenever I’ve had a “good” day, I score 10 points or more. These day I try to score 10–sometimes doing a couple of more things on my list to help turn a mediocre day into a good one.

3. Page One & Two Lead/Lag Indicators: There are two yellow boxes with “leading indicators” and “lagging indicators.” I have been developing this section in the last two years based on what I learned from the book The Twelve Week Year.

This is an advanced technique involving weekly benchmarks tied to my quarterly goals (which you might notice at the top of the front page). I calculate my indicators at the end of the week during my weekly planning session, which is why these boxes are all empty. In the end, I get an overall percentage success for activities under my control, and a percentage of results achieved.

This is an example of having read about an interesting productivity technique, and then having taken steps to implement it into my life. When I read the book, I didn’t change everything I was doing. But I did modify my sheet to try out this particular technique. This particular area of the sheet is still a work in progress for me. I’m still figuring out the right lead and lag indicators.

4. Page Two Weekly Goals: On the second page (top right), I list my goals for the week, so I can look at them every day. I fill this out as part of my weekly planning session. As you can see from the picture, I check off items and I add items during the week.

Long ago, I just had lists of big goals and projects, and plans for the day. I didn’t set goals for the week. But about 10 years ago I wanted to see more progress, so I started specifically listing goals for the week. About 5 years ago I started using the Noun Verb Date format, which I got from my coach, David Newman.

In setting goals for the week, I take advantage of the small amount of space. If I can’t fit the week’s goals into the space available, I know that I have too many goals for the week.

5. Inside: Completions & Incompletions: On the inside of the sheet, I use the folds to divide the paper into four columns. The first column is devoted to recording completions at the end of each day. Reviewing what you’ve accomplished is a good way to keep focused on positives.

The top of the second column is for recording incompletions at the end of the week. An incompletion is anything that I had intended to get done but didn’t complete by the end of the week. Recording incompletions is important: it helps you confront the undone, and accept it as a fact needing consideration.

I got the idea of recording completions and incompletions from a book called Attracting Perfect Customers, which I read about 9 years ago. The book also recommended that you date and sign your list–which is something I have done regularly ever since.

Going back, the earliest daily planning sheet I can find quickly is from the week of September 19-25, 2009, and on the inside is the list of completions and incompletions, signed by me.

Completions

(I notice it has only 4 daily benchmarks–a good place to start!)

This is an example of a practice that has stayed unchanged since I adopted it all those years ago. The ritual of listing completions and incompletions, and then signing off on the week, helps me to celebrate victories and mourn failures, and then start with a fresh slate for the new week.

6. Lessons Learned: The third column on the inside is “Lessons Learned.” I am always thinking about my experiences and reaching new conclusions. Once a day I add one-sentence “lessons learned” to the third column of the sheet. Writing down lessons learned helps me remember them and commit to action on them.

This is an example of an innovation–something I added to my process to solve a problem. I got frustrated with having great insights and then forgetting them. It seemed like I had to relearn lessons that I had learned. So, to help myself remember them, I started writing them down.

When I first decided to do this, I wrote detailed comments every day in a weekly engagement calendar. I did this religiously for a year, and then concluded it was just too much work to keep up. So I simplified it. I added a column to my daily planning sheet for capturing just top lessons learned.

7. Time tracking: The rightmost column of both sides of the paper are for time tracking. I use the Pomodoro Technique, a fairly simple way to keep track of time on tasks. Each 25-minute increment of concentrated time is one Pomodoro. I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique since late 2009, when my friend, Rohit Gupta, sent me a link to it and asked me what I thought of it. I tried it out and thought it was terrific.

If you look closely, you can see that on the September, 2009 daily planning sheet I had been making “to do” lists for the day and checking off boxes. When I read about the Pomodoro Technique, just a month or after this, I reallocated that space on my sheet for keeping track of Pomodoros, as you see on today’s sheet.

* * *

The moral of this story is not to go make yourself a complicated daily planning sheet with 18 gazillion things to track. The moral is: find your own simple way to keep track of your work and self-improvement goals, in a way that makes sense to you and doesn’t take a lot of time. As you learn new methods, you can add to it. Start simple, grow into complexity.

The purpose of a sheet like this is to support you as you change habits, learn new processes, and grow your skills. I love my little sheet, because it helps me keep my values and goals top of mind every day, it helps me see what I can do each day to move forward in my life, and it helps me see clearly where I might want to make changes. I hope my story inspires you to develop a sheet or a system that works for you as well as this one works for me.

* * *

Here are links to the resources mentioned in the article:

  • “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure” is a class available in the Thinking Lab.
  • Getting Things Done was recommended by me here.
  • The Twelve Week Year was discussed by me here.
  • Attracting Perfect Customers is by Stacey Hall and Jan Brogniez. Note: I found the exercises in this book to be very valuable, but I disagree with the theory.
  •  The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo was recommended by me here.

 

December 18, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Using “Small Moves” as Leading Indicators

In recent years, I’ve incorporated ideas from The Twelve Week Year (by Brian Moran) into my routines, and found them very  helpful.

My top takeaway from this book is the idea of setting quarterly goals rather than annual or monthly goals. When you set goals you intend to accomplish in 12 weeks, every week matters. It’s easier to stay focused on them and get them done. The 13th week of the quarter is used for reflection and planning.

The second crucial takeaway from this book is the idea of setting “leading” indicators.

When you set a goal, you also need to set metrics to tell whether you are on track for completing it. For example, I’m writing a book, and a standard metric would be pages written in a day, or chapters written in a month.

The problem with most metrics is that they are “lagging” indicators. They are backward looking. They tell you what happened in the past. If you don’t get the number of pages written in the time allotted, you know you failed. The poor performance on the metric just makes that explicit.

What is needed to keep on track is leading indicators. These are metrics that predict whether or not you will succeed.

So, for example, for working on the book, that might be hours spent during the week writing. If all that is needed to finish the book is to put in sufficient hours, then hours will predict your eventual success on the book.

If you get low scores on leading indicators, you know you haven’t been putting in the effort where it needs to go.

On the other hand, if you get high scores on your leading indicators, but you don’t actually accomplish the goals on schedule, it turns out that you don’t actually know what exactly is needed to achieve the goal.

For example, I learned that I need about twice as much time writing during the week to make the kind of progress on the book that I want to make (About 20 hours a week rather than 12.)

The trick is to figure out the leading indicators that in fact predict success. After having used the “12-week year” method for about six months, I can tell you that it’s not so easy. Time on task is not always a good leading indicator!

What’s helped me to set “leading indicators” better is the ideas from Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold. Her book is on habit change. Her thesis is that you should change habits by finding the small action to focus on that will make it easy to change a whole pattern. So, for example, to get more organized, she set up a routine of always putting the keys in exactly one place. That anchored many other small actions, making her whole day smoother. By focusing on crucial small actions, she was able to make significant changes in her routines.

I applied this idea to my productivity. My “lagging” indicator for productivity is the number of “pomodoros” (concentrated 25-minute segments) that I work each week.

Sometimes I do well, sometimes not so much. Looking it over, I decided that the biggest problem was that when I was tired or having trouble, my breaks would drag on too long. I would slip  down a slope of reading “one more page” in the newspaper, or watching “one more show” on TV, or reading “one more chapter” in a novel.

Since I am also trying to root out the duty premise, forcing myself to go back to work was not an option. At these moments, I was not willing to end the break. But I needed some way to change the dynamic of the break.

I came up with a simple change. Before I read any page of the newspaper, or watch any show, or read any chapter in a novel, I first read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Then when I get to the end of the page or chapter or program, I need to read another paragraph of Ayn Rand to continue.

Reading Ayn Rand is also a break–but a more intellectually stimulating one.

If I’m tired, one paragraph is about all I’m good for, and I usually realize I need a nap, not a pleasure break. That’s a much more effective use of time.

Usually I read a lot more than one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Sometimes that becomes my entire break, and I go back to work. Sometimes I take the pleasure break when I finish, but it has a different quality. I’m more energized for it, and it’s always shorter. I never get into the vicious cycle of “not feeling like” getting back to work.

Now, my leading indicator for productivity is: do I read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand before any of these three “break” activities? This turns out to be an excellent predictor of my actual work.

This particular intervention works for me, but it is idiosyncratic. It’s just an example a small concrete action I took to take to change a pattern.

The moral of the story is: if you are not achieving a goal on the time scale you have set, trace back to find the pattern of failure. See if you can find some small action to break that pattern. Then turn that new action into a metric–a leading indicator of whether you will achieve your goal on schedule.

 

July 11, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Admit You Have No Plan

In a one-on-one coaching call a few months ago, Roger (not his real name) reported that he was being pulled off course into doing unimportant work. I asked him if he was taking a few minutes to plan the day in the morning.

We had previously discussed how to plan the day in 10 minutes. First you identify the top 3 things you need to finish today. Then you look at your calendar and see how to fit them in. If they don’t fit in, you need to change your expectations or change your plan.

For example, this morning I realized I was tight on time for some urgent work, so I arranged to walk during a phone appointment to squeeze my exercise in, and I postponed a routine check-in with an assistant to a less busy day. I also gave up on getting a particular item done today.

When I asked Roger whether he was planning the day, he became thoughtful. He said he’d found planning the day very useful, but he hadn’t been doing it recently. Why not? Probably because his top priorities were not so clear. Likely, this made planning the day a little off-putting, so he was tempted to jump into clearing email or the like. Once distracted, he never got around to prioritizing and planning.

This is a great example of a difficulty holding context. As soon as we discussed the situation, Roger was convinced that planning the day would solve his problem. He was sure he could figure out his priorities if he tried. He just needed some way to make sure he remembered how important it was to do it. He needed to keep that value context activated.

Here’s a great way to do that: Mark off a part of the whiteboard near your desk for the plan for the day. Put the date at the top, and the plan below. On any day, as soon as you notice that the information is out of date, erase it, write the new date, and “No Plan.” Like this:

No Plan

Alan Lakein says, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” If you know how helpful daily planning is, seeing “No Plan” on that whiteboard puts you in instant conflict. It reminds  you that  you haven’t identified how to achieve your top priorities today.

Roger and I both implemented this idea. Here’s how my plan evolved Monday:

Monday - No Plan

Monday - No Plan

Notice I didn’t plan the day first thing. I prepared a Thinking Lab class instead. I know that when the muse is with me, it’s better to do concentrated thinking. If I look at my to-do list too early, I destroy the creative process.

Jumping into creative work sometimes led me to forget to plan my day. Now that my whiteboard says “No Plan,” it doesn’t.

As an aside, notice that on this day, my initial beliefs about my priorities were all wrong. When I took 10 minutes to plan the day, I figured out what they really were.

If you don’t plan the day as often as you wish, I highly recommend this strategy. You can buy a little 8×10″ whiteboard to prop up on your desk. It will give you a visual reminder of how important it is to plan your day.

The key that makes the whole thing work? When first you see it’s out of date, erase yesterday’s material, write today’s date, and admit you have no plan.

July 6, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Real Value of Small Steps

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The importance of taking small steps is well known. It’s the most likely advice you’ll get if you’re bogging down on something. “Try taking a small step.”

And yet, I have often found this advice unhelpful. I’m sure that is partly because I break down tasks into smaller steps all the time–almost automatically–so I don’t normally need to be reminded about this.

But when I have bogged down or gotten stuck–and did need some advice–smaller steps themselves rarely seemed to help.

For example, in the past I’ve tried to take a “smaller step” in writing and had it backfire. I recall one time I was having trouble getting my head around a chapter, so I decided to review some notes from previous days. Though this seemed like a very small step, somehow it was not a good next step, and my head was spinning after 15 minutes. I needed to take a nap to recover normal mental functioning after that allegedly “small step.”

Moreover, I’ve often found that small steps didn’t help me when the task was not motivating. When you resist doing some unpleasant task you think you “should” be doing, a small step is supposed to get you “over the hump” so you’ll do the unpleasant task. But I would see this as manipulative–which made me resist taking the small step!

In these kinds of cases, even if you carve out small steps, you wind up slogging forward, forcing yourself to pick up one foot after another. That is the kind of struggle and strain that I am opposed to on principle.

But on the other hand, there is something very important about taking small steps, and I think I finally understand the true reason why small steps can help you when work is bogging down–and why it didn’t help in those cases.

Small steps reinforce your freedom of choice–if you are only committing to the small step. Once you’ve taken it, you get to choose freely again whether you will continue or not. No harm, no foul if you don’t.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean. A male friend of mine doesn’t like to shave. But every day, when he confronts the choice to shave, and doesn’t want to, he asks himself if he’d be willing to just do a quick electric shave for 20 seconds so he doesn’t look unkempt. More than 99% of the time, he is willing to do that. Usually, at 20 seconds, he wants to spend a little more time finishing off his shave. But he knows he is free to stop, and perhaps 3% of the time, he does stop. In this way, he has a good shave almost every day, without ever forcing himself to do something he doesn’t want to do. Even though he doesn’t like shaving.

Here’s a more complicated example. I mentioned I had had some problems with writer’s block recently. I had deep resistance to writing newsletters. I dealt with it by giving myself total freedom of choice.

I realized that I couldn’t diagnose the problem unless I tried to write an article. I had 10 possible article topics, all of which I felt blocked on. I decided to pick one and start working on it, to help me understand the obstacle.

But because I was afraid I would force myself to write the article, I had to promise myself that I was only doing the work to figure out what the conflict was. I did not actually have to write the article.

Over two days, I spent 4 1/2 hours of concentrated time working on that article. Every time I felt strain, I switched from my writing notebook to my journal. And after figuring out the immediate problem, I didn’t want to go back to writing. So, I promised myself, again, that I was just doing this to understand the block. I did not have to finish the article.

With this method, I was able to work steadily, willingly, on something I was willing to do (figure out the source of the block) without doing what I was not willing to do (write the article). I did figure out the source of the block, and the next day I wrote an article on a completely different topic using what I’d learned. (I never did finish that test article, and probably never will.)

This advice complements the microresolution literature. (See Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold.) For example, I have recently made a microresolution that I will turn on an exercise DVD every morning. I am not making a commitment to exercise every morning, just turn on an exercise DVD, knowing that I can then choose freely to exercise or not. Likely, I will.

Small steps like these are the means of helping you retain your sense of ownership and control of the task when it is not going well. They permit you to choose freely to challenge conflict as you go, rather than force yourself through the conflict.

As a result, you can use small steps to do unpleasant tasks without feeling like you’re making yourself do them–and without manipulating yourself.

A small, small step in a good direction–with no commitment beyond it–can help you out of inertia. A small step loaded with good intentions for the future will not.

This is a deep change in perspective for me. For years, I have been looking for some method that will guarantee I follow through in the future on an intention I set now. But that is on a mistaken premise. That is taking habit as the model for action.

It is true that when an activity becomes highly automatized (habitual), you need only initiate the first step, and the later steps follow unthinkingly. This is how you can shower and dress in 11 minutes flat, or deal cards while carrying on a conversation, or mow the grass with the same route every time.

But most productive activities (such as writing) require significant volitional control. You cannot succeed on autopilot.

And volition only controls this moment. You can choose only now, so you can choose only your next step.

And when you acknowledge that–when you allow that you can stop shaving, or stop writing, or stop exercising should you so choose–you eliminate all of the artificial conflict created by “duties” and “shoulds” and “musts.” You replace them with a sense of freedom and control over your own actions.

That–the reaffirmation of your own agency–is the motivational value of small steps.

 

July 4, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting Distracted? Try a Time Log

Many time-management books recommend you do a detailed “time log” to find out how you really use your time. They recommend you keep a record of every activity, with 15-minute precision.

These have always struck me as a little compulsive, without much obvious benefit. I thought keeping track of my activity with that much detail would really bog me down. So, I’ve resisted doing them.

But a book I read (The One-Life Solution by Henry Cloud) persuaded me to try one for a few days. I didn’t learn too much new about where I spent my time. But much to my surprise, I learned that a time log can boost productivity.

For example, at the time I wrote in 2.5 hour blocks. Because I was being meticulous to note interruptions (to eat or play with the cats), I also noticed how far I was through my time block. One day I noticed I had only 30 minutes left, and I wasn’t close to finishing what I needed to do. Another time, I would have been caught by surprise and I probably would have messed up the day’s schedule. But because I was monitoring the time, I noticed the problem while it was brewing, so  I was able to do a few minutes of “thinking on paper” about how to best use the remaining 30 minutes. No problem! The day went as planned.

In another case, I noticed that I did a few 5-minute side activities in a row, when I was supposed to be starting a new task. I did a couple of minutes of “thinking on paper” about how to get started, and was able to dig into the new task with no more foot-dragging. The transition was quicker and easier than usual.

Just by doing a time log, I became more aware of distractions and floundering while they were occurring. When I notice a problem, I am motivated to fix it. So, doing a time log actually helped me be more productive.

Here’s how I did it (so it wasn’t too intrusive): I kept a pad of paper with me, and every time I changed activities I updated it. I wrote down the new time on a fresh line, and wrote in (or corrected) what I had been doing in the previous chunk of time.

I had to correct it sometimes, because I would write down what I intended to do. It turns out I didn’t always follow my intentions immediately. I would finish feeding the cats, and mark the time “8:30: Start writing,” but then I’d realize I needed to do one other chore before starting writing. That was eye-opening, too.

So, I do not recommend doing a time log to find out where you spend your time. Doing a time log changes how you spend your time.

Instead, I recommend doing a time log to help you monitor your time as a special review. Done only occasionally, this can help you find the holes in your productivity and renew your focus on getting things done.

 

 

September 10, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Align Strategic Decisions with Long-Term Priorities

Marcia Yudkin is a veritable sage who has taught me many things about marketing and writing. She’s given me permission to share this article from her “Marketing Minute” which concretizes the need to align strategic decisions with your long-term priorities. Mr. South does not see the implications of his choices.

In “The Millionaire Next Door,” Thomas Stanley and William
Danko contrast wastrel “Dr. South,” who spent more than 60
hours to get the best deal on a $65,000 Porsche, and frugal
“Dr. North,” who spent just a few hours six years ago to buy
a three-year-old Mercedes for $35,000. “Dr. North” spends
30 hours a month on his investments, compared to four hours
a month for “Dr. South.”

Although both men earn roughly the same as medical
specialists, the Norths have a net worth more than 18 times
that of the Souths. Such is the impact of strategic
decisions.

In marketing, what do you spend your time and resources on?
Like “Dr. South,” are you researching and bargaining hard
on expenses that feed your ego and make you look impressive?
Or like “Dr. North,” do you focus more on your long-term
sustainability?

To be a quietly well-heeled “Dr. North” in marketing, make
sure you are serving customers who can and will stick with you,
and that you’re doing your utmost to keep them happy.

Marcia Yudkin is the author of 6 Steps to Free Publicity, Marketing for Introverts and many other books and ebooks. She helps entrepreneurs and business owners attract ideal clients, turn their knowledge into products and earn what they deserve. Sign up for her free weekly ezine, the Marketing Minute, at www.yudkin.com.

 

 

July 16, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Avoiding Setbacks When You Add a Weekly Commitment

When you are on a program of continuous improvement, you are often adding  some new activity to your weekly schedule, or improving the existing one. But by continually raising the bar you create a hazard: the increased potential for failure!

Here are a few things that can help you add a weekly commitment without so many setbacks.

1) Before you add a new activity to your life, make sure it’s important enough to push out some other activity.

This is true even if you’re just adding 15 minutes a day for journaling (an excellent activity to add). It is rather hard to make 15 minutes consistently. You already have morning, noon, and evening routines, which are timed to get you to work or home or sleep on schedule. You will need to cut out something: maybe reading the paper, or maybe late-night TV or surfing the web, or maybe a leisurely meal.

If there is nothing you would remove to make space for the new activity, it’s better not to commit. The new activity is not important enough for you.

2) Plan it for a suitable time block.

All times are not created equal. You will have more energy at some times, less at others.

If you’re adding recreation—maybe you want to see more movies—you can probably schedule it for an evening when you’re less energetic. But if you’re trying to start a business on the side, you will need some high-energy time for it—most likely in the early morning, or in the morning on weekends. (Unless you’re a night-owl. Then you might choose go to the matinee, and work on your startup at night.)

3) Set a physical reminder so you don’t forget to follow through.

Routines have inertia. One activity triggers the next. You will need to make a special effort to break the routine. You can’t count on remembering, you need a physical reminder.

One way to do this is to set an alarm. For example, you can set an alarm to go off 30 minutes before your usual bedtime to remind you to plan the next day.

Another way to do this is to create a physical reminder. It could be a note. Or maybe you pack your gym bag and leave it at the foot of your bed the night before, so you remember your intention when you wake up the next morning.

Don’t assume you’ll remember to follow through. If you don’t take proactive steps to remember the new activity, you will forget. The routine run as usual.

4) Plan for contingencies.

Things will go wrong. They always do. The key to following through is to adapt the commitment rather than drop it. And it is much easier to adapt if you’ve thought through various scenarios in advance.

For example, suppose you are running late, and do not have an hour to go to the gym as planned. You have only half an hour. There are a dozen ways to adjust. You could exercise at  home with a video instead. You could cut back the workout at the gym. You could reschedule work so you have the full hour at the gym. The key to creating a new routine is to do something not nothing. Any form of exercise will help reinforce your intention to go to the gym.

Problems are inevitable when you are breaking routines. If you think ahead for what you’ll change, when you’ll change it, how you’ll remember, and what to do when things go wrong, you have a much better chance of success.

 

June 25, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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