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Are you a list maker? I sure am, in fact, I’m constantly finding little post-it notes in my pockets or in the car with to do lists. It feels more efficient writing things down, whether it’s a shopping list, an organized list broken down by section, or just a brain dump of things I don’t want to forget.
It’s nice at the end of a day to check off the completed things, but doesn’t it seem that there’s always a few that couldn’t get done? Part of the reason we don’t get things done is that we get caught up doing things we shouldn’t be doing.
The problem with to-do lists is that they only address things we should do. I’ve never heard of carrying around a to don’t list but if I were to jot down some of the things that get in the way of my to-do list, here are some of the things I’d add to it.
1. Stop Expecting to Be Perfect
It’s no coincidence that the most rapid growth period in our lives is when we’re an infant. Whether it’s walking, crawling or eating from a spoon, we progress so rapidly because we’re permitted to fail all day long. It’ll be a few years before we’re indoctrinated with the notion that failure is always bad.
Henry Ford wasn’t an instant success. Ford Motor Company was his third attempt at manufacturing cars. Steven Spielberg was rejected three times for admission to the film school at USC.
Tom Peters, co-author of In Search of Excellence is a big proponent of getting out of the eternal planning stages and taking some action. He’s credited with the concept of Ready, Fire, Aim and says, ‘While I’m no enemy of planning … I am an enemy of overly elaborate planning processes. I am a firm (almost ‘religious’) believer in the power of ‘gettin’ goin’.’
Failure in your own life isn’t necessarily a signal that you’re on the wrong path. You’re just using the wrong method. So, whether you’re learning tennis or starting your own company, expect failure. Learn from it, apply your experience and grow from it.
To quote Tom Peters again, ‘He who tries the most stuff the fastest wins.’
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2. Stop Saying Yes When You Want to Say No
Steve Jobs was talking about the focus required to get things done – not just things, but the right things when he said, “Innovation is saying no to 1000 things.”
How many times have you said yes to something and immediately regretted it? Or hesitatingly agreed to help a colleague at the expense of your own commitments. I’ve done this and then immediately thought about the last time when I promised myself I’d try to set some reasonable boundaries.
We’re all social animals and collaborating with others can be a great way to learn and grow. But not having any boundaries can sabotage your own productivity. If people know you’ll always say yes, they’ll begin to expect it.
Sure, you want to be helpful but if you don’t value your own time, who will? Even if your own personal commitment isn’t work related, prioritizing your personal or family time is still vital to your own well-being.
Saying no can be tough, but if you do it right it’ll be less stressful for you and the other person.
When someone makes a request that you know you can’t accommodate, don’t be vague. Over apologizing and making a drawn-out excuse makes it harder for both of you.
Be quick and state that you have a commitment. If the situation applies, maybe there’s someone you can suggest who may be able to help. Or you can propose another date and time.
Being up front right away is less awkward. It lets the other person know immediately that they’ll need to make other plans. And it enables you to honor your own commitments and maintain control of your own schedule.
3. Stop Doubting Yourself Over Past Experiences
It’s normal to approach a new opportunity with a bit of apprehension. You’re stepping out of your comfort zone and you want things to work out. But it’s easy to let past experiences affect new opportunities – or worse, cause you to avoid new opportunities.
Being fired from a job doesn’t mean you’re unemployable. It may mean you’ve made a mistake and paid a price for it, but you’ll carry that experience to your next opportunity. Getting divorced doesn’t mean you’re not a suitable partner for someone else. Being a mediocre athlete in school doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a lifetime of fitness.
I’ve learned this first-hand. After being a back of the pack runner in high school, I returned to running in my twenties, but this time it wasn’t because I could say I was ‘on the team’. Nobody watched as I ran through the streets of Lincroft N.J. at 8:30 at night. The coach wasn’t waiting for me with his stopwatch as I arrived home. This time I was doing it for myself.
Over the next five years, I was able to complete several marathons, shattering my notion that I was a back of the pack athlete. Some athletes have awards to show for their glory days and then barely break a sweat for the rest of their life.
My reward was attempting something again that had taken root in my mind as an unsuccessful experience – this time for different reasons. And in the process, I gained over 30 years of finding new challenges and meeting them in hundreds of races.
Just because you’ve had a bad experience in some area of your life doesn’t mean it won’t work out again if you approach it at another time, from another angle, or with a different attitude.
4. Stop Multitasking at the Expense of Living in the Moment
Raising pre-teen kids can be pretty illuminating about human nature. From birth, until they’re bitten by technology and succumb to the onslaught of stimuli from all directions, they live totally in the moment. Whatever they’re doing, they’re all in. Whether it’s a wild pillow fight or a skinned knee, their reactions are full-throated and honest. They’re not physically present but mentally somewhere else.
After my kids lost their mother to leukemia at ages 10 and 7, I’d often hear them outside laughing while they played basketball or rode bikes. I’d be in the house mired in my thoughts, replaying conversations, worrying about paying the bills, putting food on the table and raising two kids. “How can they be laughing and carrying on as if they didn’t have a care in the world”, I’d wonder.
When they’d coax me outside to join them I noticed a change. Suddenly I too would be laughing at someone’s crazy shot and I’d come back in rejuvenated. Things seemed ok, and I’d realize that it’s these moments that we let slip by when we’re trying to focus on yesterday, tomorrow and six things today.
I’m not sure if it’s a self-preservation mechanism or just an intrinsic ability to live in the moment. But kids can teach us that focusing on what’s in front of us right now enables us to make better connections and relieve stress. It prevents us from letting life pass us by while we’re grasping at shiny objects.
Think about your day. Are you constantly doing multiple things simultaneously? What would happen if you arranged your schedule so you could devote your full attention to some of those activities? Or if you left your phone home for two hours when you go out to dinner?
5. Stop Living Without a Plan
Where did you go on your last real vacation? Was it to another state, an island, a cruise or maybe visiting family? How much time did you spend planning it? You probably had to book a hotel, plan your route, plan various activities and figure out how you’ll pay for it. And that doesn’t count all the time you thought about a trip before you decided on a destination.
Now, compare that to the time you’ve thought about where you’ll be in five years. Or ten years. What will you be doing five years from now? Will you be living where you are now? Will you be doing the same work? If not, how will it be different, and what will you need to be doing to move in that direction?
Michael Hyatt, in his article 7 Reasons Why You Need a Written Life Plan Document explains why he thinks it’s important to create a life plan for yourself.
“A life plan will help you clarify your most important priorities. Your boss has a set of priorities for you. So does your spouse. Perhaps others do, too. But what about you? Do you have a list? What is important to you?”
He goes on to say that having a life plan will help you to define your values. It’ll help you to define a roadmap to accomplish what matters most to you. A life plan doesn’t need to be complicated. You can probably write it on one page.
But once you sit down and give some thought to what you want to do before you leave this life, you may be inclined to give some serious thought about what you’re doing this week or this month. Does it coincide with what matters to you, and what direction you want to take?
When people don’t have any sort of plan and then realize their days are numbered, they tend to have more regrets. Sure, sometimes things out of our control change the trajectory of our life. We meet someone or separate from someone, or maybe a new career direction develops. But without having any plan, the weeks and months slip away. Life happens to us and we spend it reacting rather than taking control.
Living in the moment and having a life plan shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Thinking about your path in life and devising a plan gives you the peace of mind to live in the moment, knowing the next decade isn’t going to slip through your fingers.
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6. Stop Doing Small Value Tasks
Think about your daily routine. Is there something you do repeatedly that you could practically do with your eyes closed?
Suppose I cut lawns for a living. How many could I do in a day, maybe 6 at $50 each? So, I can make $300 a day or I could hire someone for $200 while I pocket $100, and spend most of my day finding more customers. And maybe next month I’ll make $900 a day for 18 lawns, pocketing $600.
The idea is figuring out the tasks that bring you the most value for your time. And then doing what you can to put more focus there. It can be tough relinquishing some control over what you do. We all have our own standards of quality and work ethic. You may excel at some things, but trying to master everything will earn you a living but probably won’t make you rich.
What is it that you’re particularly good at? What other tasks get in the way of you focusing more effort on them? Suppose you delegated some of them and focused more on your expertise?
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7. Stop Building in Interruptions
Our most valuable commodity isn’t the latest software, or employees or even money. It’s time. Whether you work for yourself or someone else, how you invest your hours determines your performance.
If your job involves creativity or ingenuity, then unless you carve out blocks of time where you can shut out all the so-called urgent matters you’ll wonder why you’re always rewriting the same things on tomorrow’s to-do list.
Some people favor the work 25 minutes/break 5 minutes method or the Kanban method. In my opinion, just scheduling blocks of uninterrupted time of at least one to three hours is the best way to formulate and idea and articulate it in a cohesive way. Doesn’t matter if you’re sitting at a desk, standing, pacing or propped up on pillows in bed.
Sure, you can’t always lock yourself in a room and shut out the world for hours at a time. We have families, partners or coworkers who need to be in touch. But that doesn’t mean we can’t schedule some blocks of time. Some work can be multitasked, but building in blocks of focused, uninterrupted time for the part that requires creative thought can be a huge help.
What if you said, “every Tuesday night from 8-11” or “every Thursday morning from 9-12, I’m going to shut off the TV, exit email, close all other tabs and work just one thing”. If you need to produce a blog post or a report of some kind on a certain day, try building in one or two blocks of uninterrupted time and see what happens to your productivity.
8. Stop Ignoring Time Off
People who know their days are numbered don’t usually regret the next project they won’t be able to finish. They regret not ever taking that trip to the Grand Canyon, or never having stood in the Sistine Chapel looking up at Michelangelo’s masterpiece. They regret that relationship they let slip through their fingers or not seeing their children grow up.
Is the notion that we work to live, not live to work 100% accurate? Earning money in order to pursue our passions seems healthy, but don’t we also need to live in order to bring life to our work? Unless we spend time engaged in our own passions, then what energy and life experience do we have to bring to work? If your day consists of spreadsheets, meetings, chores, eating and sleeping then you’ll wake up one day and wonder where the last decade went.
It doesn’t matter whether you write a blog or deliver bread for a living. We all engage in human interaction and we all bring our own spirit to whatever we do. If you’re feeling dull and uninspired in your work, it may not be work – but play that needs more focus.
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