Halloween’s just around the corner, the weather has turned remarkably colder here in London and the theatres are full of this season’s scary movies. The clocks went back this weekend and we’re aware that we’ll be commuting in the dark for the next five months or so.
It’s a somewhat sinister time of year, this. A time when we face unpleasant realities. Making it through to spring is going to involve some preparation and a bit of courage.
It’s like that when it comes to optimizing the way we work. It’s really not for the faint of heart. If you want to achieve stress-free productivity you’ll need to stare down some demons.
Demon One: Dodgy Prioritization – the modern world provides us with so many inputs that being busy is usually not a challenge. There’s always something to do: email, tweets, social networking updates, texts, corporate drive-bys (aka people dropping by your cubicle for a chat). Not to mention your own creative ideas that are ripe for following up.
The challenging question is: which of these inputs are worthy of your attention right now? That email that just arrived, seen in the context of everything else you might be doing, is it the best thing to focus on? It’s “work”, sure, and it gives you a feeling of accomplishment to do it. But are you allowing it to keep you from more important things? You might spend the whole day being hugely busy, but reach the end of it and have the distinct feeling that you really haven’t achieved much.
So how do you vanquish this particular monster? A framework from GTD® can be very helpful here: begin by being sure you have a complete inventory or list of the things you could be doing right now. Then consider how much time you have available (you’ll naturally make different choices if you have three minutes free versus three hours). Next, how much mental horsepower do you have to draw on? Having used that framework to filter your choices, you’ll likely have a manageable subset to choose from. Now just trust your gut to pick the one that represents your highest priority.
Demon Two: Internal Distraction – How many things are you committed to? What are they all? Don’t know? That will cause you a bit of psychological stress, because when you start to work on something a part of your brain will say: hold on, there’s this other thing that just occurred to me that you haven’t considered. That’s internal distraction, and it can be just as debilitating as the external kind.
Want to sort out this dark corner? Begin by getting everything out of your head. Take your collection tool of choice, digital or pen-and-paper, and get down all of the things you need to do something about. Don’t leave anything out – small stuff, big stuff, and, yes, scary stuff all belong there. By the time you’re done it may have taken you anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or more.
When we do this exercise in coaching and seminars people often tell us that it’s quite daunting being face to face with all of the things that need doing. But don’t make this just a one-off activity. Make it a practice to get things out of your head once they have your attention.
Once you’ve got things down, apply the thinking framework we call the GTD® Fundamental Process. Use this to address everything that came out of your head as well as the digital inputs in your life, such as email. Ask yourself for each thing: what’s the very next physical, visible action I will take to move this forward? And what is the outcome that I will achieve that will mean that this is completely off my mind? Put the answers to these questions in your trusted organizational system so you’ll be reminded when you want to be, and you’ll have slain the beast.
Demon Three: Our Limitations – ultimately we have to come face-to-face with the fact that we are not going to get everything done. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I can tell you that this can be a hard realization. The unrealistic part of me says I should be able to take on whatever commitments I like and get them all done to the same immaculate level of completion. Unreal, I know, but somehow tenacious.
We’ll need to make hard choices, renegotiate our commitments, and accept that certain things will need to be relegated to the back burner, or not done at all.
By accepting that we are limited, we can look forward to a more human reality: we’ll be able to look back on our day and say that, given everything that the world threw at us, we made the best use of our time, focus, and attention that we could.
And that’s an idea powerful enough to slay a monster.
Image Credit: quantumwhisper.com