Life can be beautiful, inspiring or frustrating and overwhelming at times. I remember when I was getting my undergraduate degree: I felt behind since I switched majors 3 and a half years in, so I started taking ridiculous loads: instead of 15 units, I started taking 24 units of classes. My last semester jumped to 27 units.
This forced me to really figure out my time management, planning, and focus abilities. I was also working at the time: a full 40 hour a week job at a beer warehouse loading beer orders onto trucks to be shipped. Sometimes, I would just start thinking about the 800 pages I had to read, the fifteen page draft I needed to write, the time it would take to get back to Amarillo (30 minute drive) – an hour of sleep lost each day, and the test I had to take online that night. It was really overwhelming. So, to cheer my spirit, I developed a motto
The quickest way to lose hope, is to look up at the mountain!
Sometimes, just thinking about all the things I knew I had to do was dispiriting. So, I tried to break it down. What I was getting at is if I just kept my head down working on the next step I didn’t feel overwhelmed or stressed out. This turned into my mantra and became the core of my productivity.
Defining the Next Step
I love thinking and learning, so as such a person, I am incredibly vulnerable to analysis paralysis. A great example is this blog: I started reading about wordpress, learning about building contact forms, how to build a high traffic blog, how to monetize (yes, I will probably do this someday –to support my family and pay for the hosting), learning php, and tweaking all the hosting settings.
But I decided to stop that and focus on actually building the website. I decided I really wanted to build a blog and that the thing that excites me to the core of my being is talking about growth, overcoming hardship, love, and happiness. I decided I wanted to build a beautiful, high traffic blog that one day could be my legacy (or retirement). From there, I just worried about the next step. I had a fuzzy vision of the things I would need, but to keep me going I always had an action list of the next things I wanted to do. It looked like this:
From here, instead of being overwhelmed at all the work I needed to do, I just focused on what is the next most important thing I need to do. The beauty of this is you don’t have to know the exact path if you know the destination. At work, I often come across this idea by knowing that an idea is possible, but I haven’t come up with the exact method to solve the problem. But when you are are deciding the next thing, clarity matters.
Clarity of Purpose
Defining your why is critical: when you have deep heart and enthusiasm in what you are doing, your productivity and tolerance for hard and tedious tasks increase. It helps to have deep connection to your longterm goal. I’m very fond of 90 day targets because it gives you a good window to accomplish quite a few things, but not long enough that you feel like you are not moving towards your goal. My current 90 day goal is getting this blog to 1000 monthly users. I like to engage with my goal everyday so I have that goal written on my desk:
When I see this every time I’m in my home office, I remember why I set that goal: all the people I could inspire or encourage or help. It puts a smile on my face and encourages me to write — even after I’ve already worked a full day and commuted 90 minutes each way to work.
But what do you do if you don’t have clarity of purpose? Sometimes people call this passion, too. I strongly encourage you to stop what you are doing and start to explore. Don’t be afraid of being an amateur and don’t be afraid to fail. Think about what excites you. What is the thing that you can talk about for hours without running out of things to say? When you are not working and not spending time with your family, what is the thing you like to do? Do you not have one? That’s ok!
This is what exploring is about! When I was a fresh college grad, I had no idea what I wanted or what my why was. I knew I didn’t want to take calls forever. I also knew I really liked helping people. For me, I quickly learned that I could be kind to those around me if I learned more about everything, so I grew that skill. I kept learning things. And sharing them. And learning. And sharing.
Eventually, I realized that the act of learning and sharing itself was what I really love. If that had not been my thing, I would have kept looking and trying different things. I consider myself extremely fortunate because by chasing the thing I loved, I was able to get promoted into a role I loved (From a call center taker to a call center analyst). I’m keenly aware paths are often not so neat in life.
Connect to Your Goal
Don’t be afraid to say no, if find yourself stuck in something you no longer feel connected or truly believe in. Your most critical resource is your time: I find often people are stuck in the “I started, so I have to finish” mode, but take a moment and reflect. Is this thing your doing making you happy? It is still a critical part of who you want to be? If you found that this thing isn’t for you, then don’t be afraid to say no.
This definitely happened a few times in college: if I saw a super long, tedious, time consuming paper and it was 10% of the grade, I just didn’t do it. I told the professor that I thought my time was more valuable and I could learn more by reading than doing that paper. I still got an -A !
You are your best judge: you know what works well for you and what does not. For example, since I was a music major, I can never listen to music and work on something else. It distracts me! I start humming and listening to the sub-melodies and often stop whatever the thing I was trying to multi-task on. Over time, I discovered that I work really well in long, uninterrupted blocks of time. I learned that it takes at least 15 minutes to enter flow (a state of connection and pure productivity to your work). So, I listen to myself and constantly try to learn what works for me and what does not.
Beware of Bright Shiny Objects (BSOs)
The other side if this is you need to know what you’re big focus is and what is not. My wife loves to call the things that are not urgent or critical – Bright Shiny Objects: they are the things not directly related to your main goal, but distract your attention away from what you need to do.
To avoid BSOs, it’s helpful to know what your top things are you want to accomplish. I start out each day with my top 3 things I want to get done that day. When someone instant messages me on slack or send me an email or visits me I ask myself, “It this a BSO and does this need to be dealt with now?”. If I can defer (or delegate when appropriate), I do. Having resistance to distractions (and being able to focus!) is a critical skill to get the large things done you want to accomplish.
In my weekly planning, I often map out what are the most important things and what is the next thing I need to do for each of those things. This has been the core ability that allowed me to always take on a ton of work and still come out able to complete it all (and my incredibly supportive wife!).
Was this helpful? Would you like a series on goals broken down step by step? Let me know in the comments or feel free to contact me.