It’s Like Walking Across a Muddy Field
How to get rid of backlogs
I’ll Just Get the File Out
Conquer Procrastination for Ever
Expand Your Ideas the Easy Way!
From first idea to fully developed concept
I’m 90% Sure That …
Find out what you really mean when you say you’re 90% sure
When to say Yes, and when to say No
To Do Lists — How we hate them!
Tips on how to make your to-do list loveable
How to Get Any Project Up and Running
Putting First Things First
One Thing at a Time
Exercise complete control over your projects
An Easy Challenge
Plan your day’s work realistically
Do you really want your goals to come true?
Live better by monitoring your mental state
Keep Your Life Moving
The top 10 tips for keeping out of the rut
“Forget hard and fast rules and commandments of time management - how about some flexible principles which allow for the reality of interruptions, harness the fact that most of us work better with a cut-off point approaching, and let you modify your approach depending on your job situation, your current workload or even your daily mood? “
Kevin Burch, The Confidence Coach
The third type of no-list method I want to describe is to get on with your tasks without doing any writing at all. This is of course the method used by the vast majority of people in the world.
Doing it effectively is quite another matter though.
I described this method in detail in my book How to Make Your Dreams Come True (Hodder 2002). In it I showed how to arrive at clarity about your goals and keep progressing towards them. Most of what I say in Secrets of Productive People (Hodder 2015) is also relevant to this method.
I’m not going to repeat here what I said in either book. But here are a few practices which will make this method more productive for you:
The practice of daily journaling - however you do it - is one of the best for increasing clarity and motivation. There are many different methods, but far more important than the method you use is that you do it regularly every day.
Everything I’ve just said about journaling also applies to exercise, plus some. We all know about the health benefits of exercise, but one huge benefit of exercise from a productivity point of view is that if you learn to push yourself physically, you won’t have too much trouble with pushing yourself to do mere mental activity.
- Good habits and routines
To be successful at the “Just Do It” method requires training yourself in good habits and routines. The big danger with this method is that you will end up drifting. One of the most important habits to get into is to do things as soon as you can, preferably immediately. When you hear yourself saying “I’ll do that later”, take action to do it now!
Entry by Doing is a bit different from the Hammer as described in my post yesterday.
In the Hammer a short list of tasks is written (usually five or less) and then the tasks are done.
However in an Entry by Doing method a task can only be entered on the list by actually doing it there and then.
The simplest form of this is where you write the next task you are going to do and then doing it. You then write the next task you are going to do and do that. The effect of writing it down before you do it is to make you think about what you are going to do next rather than drift into it. It’s an aid to focus.
Once a task is on the list it can be re-entered if there is still work to be done. This can be used with a system like Autofocius or FVP to make an active list in which all the tasks are actually in the course of being done.
There are many different types of no-list methods. I won’t go quite so far as to say that they have an infinite variety, but there are all sorts of ways of approaching their design. Since there is no permanent list involved, switching from one method to another can be done without much of a problem.
Over the next few days I’m going to describe some of the main types of no-list method. I don’t claim that the list is exhausive, but I hope that it may spart some ideas in your own mind to experiment with.
First type of No-List method I’m going to describe is what I call a “Hammer”.
The main characteristic of a Hammer is that it concentrates on getting a task finished by constantly alternating with one or more other tasks until there is no more work to be done on the task - hammering it home in fact, hence the name.
The method I recommend in Secrets of Productive People is a Hammer. Five tasks are entered. Each is re-entered until it is finished and when the list is down to two tasks three more are entered.
I call this a 5/2 Hammer. The first figure refers to the number of tasks which are initially entered on the list and the second figure refers to the number of tasks at which the list is topped up to its original number.
Other Hammers include:
- The 2/1 Hammer in which two tasks alternate. When one is finished it is immediately replaced by another so there are always two tasks on the list. This is pretty much a brute force method for getting difficult tasks done.
- The 3/2 Hammer is rather more flexible than the 2/1 Hammer though nearly as effective.
- The x/0 Hammer in which a list of x tasks is reduced down to none, and then another list is written. This suffers from the last remaining task having nothing to alternate with at the end - so it’s not really a genuine Hammer, but can still be very effective.
You can experiment with various different lengths until you find the one that suits you best.
Tomorrow I’m going to describe a completely different type of No-List method.
Here’s a little game you can play to encourage yourself to do the stuff that really matters.
Write a list of the things you hope to have done by the end of the day. Make sure to identify how you will know when you have done each task.
Then allocate points to each task according to a table of values. You can make up your own table, but here’s one for starters:
The Current Initiative: minus 25 points if you don’t work on it.
Major Projects: plus 20 points each
Lesser Projects: plus 10 points each
Routine Tasks: plus 5 points each
Tasks not on the list: 0 points.
How you define the difference between Major, Lesser and Routine projects/tasks is up to you, but it’s important to be consistent. The Current Initiative is one project selected in advance - note that you score minus points for not doing it, rather than plus points for doing it. This is because the idea behind the Current Initiative is that you do some work on it every day until it is completed (according to your definition of “completed”).
At the end of the day add up the points for the tasks you have done (according to your definition of “done”) and record the total for the day.
Each day try to beat your best total so far.
I’ve compiled this list from my experiences of coaching many clients who owned small businesses or ran their own one-person business. And to that I must add my own experiences with my own business. Many of these points are transferable to people in other situations.
Of course this list is not comprehensive. There are many other mistakes to be made, but these are the ones I came across most often.
- Lacking focus
This is the number one mistake that small business owners make. It manifests itself in many ways. These include a lack of clarity about their goals, losing sight of the core business, not clearing the decks for action. and worst of all constantly chopping and changing what one is doing.
- Lacking perseverance
Failing to appreciate how much time it takes time to build a new business before it’s profitable, and consequently running out of finance and/or the motivation to continue.
- Failing to strategize
It’s very easy to get so immersed in the day-to-day work of the business that one doesn’t spend anything like enough time on making the decisions that are necessary to take the business forward.
- Poor delegation
One of the reasons for failing to strategize is poor delegation. Work that only you as owner and manager can do must take priority over work that someone else could do. Even in a one-person business a lot of the routine work can be outsourced.
- Not being on top of the figures
Knowing the day-to-day financial details of your business is essential. You cannot make decisions without the figures to back them up.
- Getting into a rut
Once the business reaches a certain level there is a tendency to carry on doing the same old thing in the same old way. Unfortunately the world moves on so fast these days that what may have made sense a couple of years ago no longer does.
- Blaming the customers
Everyone knows the saying The customer is always right, but it’s surprising how easy it is to forget it. It’s usually thought to apply to customer service, but in fact it applies to every aspect of your business. If people don’t like your product and don’t want to buy it, it’s not their fault - it’s yours. If they don’t respond to your advertising, it’s not their fault - it’s yours. If they criticise some aspect of your business, it’s not their fault - it’s yours.
I have often noticed how much the things I pay attention to before going to bed at night affect what I do when I get up in the morning. In fact it could almost be said that what sort of day I am going to have today was decided yesterday evening - and I don’t just mean when one wakes up with a hang-over!
Here are some of the things you can do in the late evening to increase your chances of having a productive day tomorrow.
- Look back over the list of what you did today. Is it the way you would have liked it to be? If not, what would have made it better?
- Ask yourself what do I want to have done by this time tomorrow?
- If you don’t have a fixed time for getting out of bed in the morning, decide what time you are going to get up
- Think through any special circumstances (meetings, visits, etc) you have, especially early in the day.
- Run through in your mind what you are going to do first thing.
So exactly how do you do anything?
You do it by applying sufficient regular focused attention. Let’s look at the parts of that.
You have to put the hours in. It takes time, and that means making time for it. It also means that time which should be allocated for it isn’t used for doing other stuff instead. It’s good practice at the beginning of each day to write a list of the most important things that you want to have done that day. Then check at the end of the day that you actually have done those things and take remedial action if you haven’t.
Decide what frequency is appropriate for the project and keep to it. Usually, but by no means always, daily is best. And usually, but not always, it’s best to do it early in the day.
Just generally messing around in an unfocused way achieves little. if you’re learning a skill you should be focusing on what needs practice . If you’re building something, focus on what needs doing next. As a general rule, get the skills right before you start applying them.
“Time management” isn’t really about managing time. It’s about managing your attention. Anything that you give your attention to will change and develop. But remember your attention is finite - allocate it carefully.
I’m sure you have been in the position of looking at a to-do list and deciding which item on it to do next. For example you might start the day with a list of tasks something like this
Take action on challenging but extremely worthwhile project
How do you go about deciding which task to do first? You may use a variety of techniques, but they usually boil down to finding an answer to the question “What do I want to do next?”
I’m not going to say that the fate of the world depends on your answer to that question, but the fate of your future most certainly does.
If you’re not careful at the end of the day your five task to-do list will look like this:
Take action on challenging but extremely worthwhile project
Sharpen more pencils
Check more email
Tidy In Tray
Check Facebook again
Buy more pencils to sharpen
Subscribe to more email lists
Subscribe to Instagram and check that as well as Facebook
Now is a good time to ask yourself Benjamin P. Hardy’s question “If you repeated today every day for the next year, realistically, where would you end up?”
You would have some very sharp pencils and absolutely no progress on the challenging but extremely worthwhile project.
What’s causing the problem? Well, basically it’s that when you ask yourself “What do I want to do next?” you’re asking the wrong question. When you ask a question like that, the answer will usually be “Whatever’s easiest” [see Note]. The result of that is that at the end of the day you will look at the list and say “The one thing I wanted to do today was to get moving on the project and I was just too busy to get round to it.”
So you didn’t do the one thing you wanted to do. That happened to me the other day with my book challenge
What is the right question to ask?
It’s “What do I want to have done?” or more specifically “What do I want to have done today?”
This focuses your attention on the end result of your day and how your actions, or lack of them, will effect it. Life is made up of an accumulation of days.
When you’ve got good habits established whatever’s easiest changes, because you have made it so that it’s easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.
And finally remember:
Short term question: What do I want to do?
Long term question: What do I want to have done?
I reminded you yesterday that the secret for advancing a project is to give it sufficient regular focused attention.
This all boils down to a matter of time. Most worthwhile things don’t happen quickly. You don’t become a great violinist overnight, or a great athlete, or even a good friend or a good employee. It takes time and persistent effort for things to come to fruition.
Even when something seems to happen in a flash, it’s usually due to good preparation over the years. As Seneca is reputed to have said (though he probably didn’t):
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Another saying, which this time I can attribute correctly because it’s mine, is:
Better to do a few things well than a lot of things badly.
In the latest edition of my newsletter, which went out yesterday, I give a simple exercise for focusing your mind before and after your working day. It helps you to concentrate on the relatively few things which are an absolute priority for you.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the better ordered you are in general the more projects you can take on. Most people make the mistake of taking too many projects on before they have brought order to what they are already doing.
Tomorrow: Short-term versus Long-Term Results
In my previous blog post I said that you can do anything provided that you are willing to pay the price - and that the price is all the other things you could have been doing instead.
To put it another way, the price is being willing to give the project enough time.
As I said in my book Secrets of Productive People the secret of advancing a project is to give it sufficient regular focused attention.
Time is the essence of providing this attention.
And now, an example of how not to do it!
On March 24th, I published an article called My Book Challenge Amended in which I said that I was giving up my idea of reading one book at a time. The reason I gave was that I wanted to read Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, but because it would take so long I was going to read it along with Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic and the third part of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.
What was the result of this decision? Well, I’ve just finished Rubicon, but I’ve read nothing at all of the other two books.
Now just see what has happened here. What I wanted to do was read a book (the Proust) which would take a considerable mental effort and a large investment of time. What I actually succeeded in doing was to read the easiest book on offer instead. I always went for this easy option rather than the two more demanding books.
The price of reading Rubicon was to have not read Proust. I would much prefered it to be the other way round. I’ve would have liked it to have been that the price of reading Proust was not to have read Rubicon.
Now if I’d decided to stick with my one book at a time rule I would have read quite a bit of the Proust, and none of Rubicon or Napoleon. But since it was the Proust I really wanted to read, that would not be a matter of too much concern.
This is how it works for us if we don’t identify clearly what it is that we want to go for, zero in on it and then devote our efforts to it as a priority.
Tomorrow: How to Do Anything - Part III
“The best way to think of what happens in DIT is that it’s a conveyor belt. You have your station on the conveyor belt where you do the work that comes down the line to you. If there is more work on the conveyor belt than you are capable of doing, you can’t keep up with it and the work will start to fall of the end of the belt…”
There’s a well known saying “You can do anything, but not everything”. I think it’s basically true, allowing for all the usual provisos about physical capacity, age, etc. Though these can sometimes prove less of an obstacle than expected.
Recently on this website I’ve tended to concentrate on the second half of this. I’ve spend a lot of time persuading people (including myself) that a huge list of everything is counter-productive. It’s a lesson that has to be rammed home over and over again - that trying to do everything is the best way to stop yourself from doing anything.
The no-list method is part of this effort to avoid the evils of over-commitment.
But what I have not emphasized much recently is the first part: “You can do anything.”
Well, ok, I’m never going to make myself into an opera singer or a rock start and to be honest I probably never had the talent for either. But then I never really wanted to be an opera singer or a rock star enough to become one.
How do I know I never wanted to be either?
Because I was unwilling to pay the price.
So let’s amend the statement to “You can do anything, provided you are prepared to pay the price.”
Part of the price is of course the things you won’t be able to do if you really do go for your goal.
I often used to say to my coaching clients, “At the end of each day what you haven’t done is the price you paid for what you have done. Was it worth it?”
If you’ve spent your day lying on the couch in front of the tv drinking six-packs of beer, that is your choice and it’s absolutely fine. But it doesn’t come without a price. The price is your health, your income, the respect of your friends and family, and the self-respect that comes from achieving worthwhile goals.
If you’ve spent your day in the office ticking trivial busywork tasks off your huge to do list, that doesn’t come without a price either. The price is that a project is stagnating for lack of attention, your work has become flabby, you miss out on promotion, etc.
Tomorrow: Part II - What happens when you pay the price?
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The benefits of reading something twice are well-known. On a second reading one understands more, remembers more and integrates more. This applies to just about any type of reading apart from the most ephemeral. It also applies to any length of reading from a multi-volume history to a short article or blog post.
There are many experts who say that there are more efficient ways of understanding and remembering written material. These include pre-questioning, note-taking, outlining and various other techniques. I’m not saying they are wrong, but my feeling is that re-reading is easier and less intellectually demanding and therefore more likely to get done. The best method is the one that you actually do.
The problem is that all these methods, including re-reading, take time and this time has to be found from the time you need for all the other books and articles you have to read. So how about if you could read a book for the first and second time in one go?
In fact there is a very simple technique for doing this, which I have found remarkably effective. All you need is two bookmarks (Book Darts are even better) or the electronic equivalent. Here’s how it works using Book Darts with a printed book:
- Put both Book Darts at the beginning of the book.
- Read for as long as you wish.
- Mark the place where you stop with one of the Book Darts.
- When you want to read some more, start from the beginning of the book again, read for as long as you wish and mark where you stop with the second Book Dart.
- The next time you read, start from the Book Dart which is nearest the beginning of the book, read for as long as you wish, and mark where you stop with that Book Dart.
- Continue reading as in 5 until you have got both Book Darts to the end of the book.
Note that it doesn’t matter how far you get in a reading session. It makes no difference whether you stop before or after the leading Book Mark. You always start reading from the Book Dart nearest the beginning of the book. Doing it this way ensures that every bit of the book gets read twice regardless of how long or short your individual reading sessions are.
How much longer does it take to read a book in this way? Not as long as you would think. Your first reading is more relaxed than normal reading because you are not struggling to understand and take in all the meaning in one go. The second reading is also more relaxed because you know what’s coming and your mind has had a bit of time to work on the material.
I’ve used this method to read dense material such as history books, classic novels, scripture, and works in foreign languages. I’ve also used it for instruction books, magazines and individual articles. It seems to work well with all of them.