The Criteria For Choosing One Thing to Do

Image of one glowing light bulb in a group of unlit bulbs

In the past, I've talked about the need to identify a unitary goal in order to be more productive. A unitary goal is: ONE thing you are trying to do. You cannot be nimble if you are trying to achieve a twofer (accomplish two things at once) or if you are vague on your goal. A clear, unitary goal is the means of focusing your effort.

But how do you do that?

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (which I recommended here), approaches this problem by asking a series of questions to narrow your list of options:

a) What is the physical context? Delete any items that can't be done in the physical context. So, errands can be done when you're going out, but not when you are at your desk. Calls can be made almost any time, but not if you're stuck without a landline or cell service. A face-to-face meeting with someone can only be made when you're physically in the same place.

b) How much time do you have? If it's a short time, delete any items that can't be done in that amount of time. If it's a long time, delete any short items that are not burningly urgent. You don't want to use up a big block of time on little stuff unless you absolutely have to.

c) What are your mental and physical resources? Are you tired or energized? Relaxed or tense? Upset or calm? Delete any tasks that require resources you just don't have. You can't do hard thinking or hard physical labor when you're exhausted.

Seriously consider deleting any task that is not a good match to your mental and physical state, unless it so important and urgent it's worth the loss of efficiency. If you do your email when you're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you'll use up that creative time on stuff that doesn't need it. If you try to do a creative task when you're feeling a little tired and tense, you'll have to work harder at self-motivation, which takes time.

Presumably you have a much shorter list now. Maybe you can simply prioritize by looking at the list. But what if you can't?

In this situation, what you can do is brainstorm criteria for selecting the one goal to focus on now.

Here's a way to brainstorm criteria: Look at each item and say to yourself, "I would choose this item if...." then see what comes up after the "if." This brings up issues that are hovering in the background. Here are some ways you might finish that sentence:

"I would choose this one if I knew I could really finish it in the time."

"I would choose this one if I were most focused on making money."

"I would choose this one if I really stuck to my plan for the week."

The corresponding criteria are:

  • doability
  • dollar payoff
  • integrity

Now you have a list that can be weighed abstractly to decide which is most important. And the most important is the one thing to do right now.

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