Guide to Work
“Human excellence is a state of mind.” – Socrates
It has often been said; unhappiness comes from people being afraid to go straight at things. And unless you were one of the few to win the genetic lottery of being born with a trust fund, work is a part of life. And it is something we can and should be able to optimize for.
Beyond living and surviving work, or as we will define work here, is any activity that requires focus, attention, and management of time. But work is so much more. It is something we do for both meaning and purpose in our life. And yet there is more to life than just work. So how do we not only figure out some kind of “balance” as the reality is that life is a wonderful and long journey, and wouldn’t it be great to have even just small wins along the way?
Surprisingly, the answer is both much simpler, and complex than you think. It entails taming our human nature through structure and understand to bring order to reactionary biology. And one of the most important parts of this “taming” is to have a plan of attack, with structure, alighted with the tools to allow you to focus when you need and have the rest of your time to enjoy life. Even better is that a plan focuses scattered thinking. And finishing tasks on your list fires off dopamine in the brain making you feel both rewarded and more motivated to continue.
So, what is it that holds us back? Why don’t we all have a plan of attack? Are there other hidden issues here? And what can we do? The following is Focused First’s guide to working and focusing better; we hope it helps you live a better life now. We will look at common challenges and impediments, then look at some tools and strategies we believe can make all the difference.
On a side note, before you can see improvements in work, you need to first ensure you have optimized your basic foundations for sleep and nutrition (coming soon). Now assuming, you have these foundations in place, let us consider first the common challenges we face, and then let us look at how to work better by first considering high performers.
1) Common Challenges To Work:
First, we need to understand the common challenges we face. We all have to deal with limited time, energy and willpower. The great news is that if your foundation is in place, then most of these issues are just in your head. Which means they are fixable! In fact, most of our problems come from distractions and bad habits.
The biggest one we all face is procrastination, and it is a bad habit. Sometimes, referred to as writer’s block – more good news is that writer’s block doesn’t exist! It is just procrastination.
So, then the next question is if procrastination is such a bad habit, why do we still do it, and why is it so prevalent? Like most things that hold us back, it is merely that in general, we don’t understand what procrastination is and its evolutionary biological purposes. Most people see it as a result of being lazy or having a poor work ethic, ineptness, and/or incompetence. When in reality, procrastination is a behavior meant to help us cope with stress and save energy. Whatever we are putting off is linked to something that is stressing us. We put off, not the task, but the pressure associated with the task.
Procrastination is a motivational problem. It is an issue that arises because you’re not working on things that intrinsically matter to you. In rare cases, it can be about anxiety or fear of failure, but far more often it stems from working on things that don’t excite you, engage you, or matter to you. That’s why finding a goal, direction, and meaning you can get behind is so important. If you love what you’re creating or contributing in the world, you’ll experience less procrastination. We will save diving into this for another post.
Beating procrastination takes practice, but it is really a simple process – stop overthinking, and just do it. One great option is something like the 5 second rule.
The 5 Second Rule:
“The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal you must count 5-4-3-2-1 and physically move or your brain will stop you.”
The idea that to change you must “feel” eager or “feel” motivated to act is complete garbage. The moment it’s time to assert yourself, you will not feel motivated. In fact, you won’t feel like doing anything at all. If you want to improve your life, you’ll need to get off your rear end and kick your butt. Discipline is everything. So just “Own It” – as Jocko Wilink’s motto goes “Discipline Equals Freedom.”
Multitasking is a myth. The human mind can only effectively focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking itself is a distraction. It is incompatible with the peak concentration states that are associated with high performance and quality work. When people multitask, they cannot focus entirely on the task at hand because their brain is still processing their last unfinished task.
This word “Busy”:
Before we dive into some good methods for creating structure and prioritizing, let us address an abused and grossly distorted word “busy.” Nowadays people wear busy like a badge of honor. But in reality, being busy is a form of laziness. Being busy is often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions. Busy is the result of lazy thinking, poor planning, and indiscriminate action. (Read more here)
Instead of falling into the traps of multitasking or just being busy, let us look at high performers, and what sets them apart. When you look at high performers’ day, 99% of the time you will see that they have systems built into their days that drive their success. The key is to work smarter not harder. This seems to be the prevailing wisdom and most effective way to work. So how do you do this? And how do we focus? Prioritization is critical, because if everything is important, nothing is important, and nothing will get done. Moreover, planning and structuring creates buckets/goals that are planned for, isolated, and empower you to focus and get results. Having a specific plan attached to your goals – knowing when and where you will do something can more than double the likelihood of achieving a challenging goal.
So now let us look at some tools to protect your time and space, to empower you to battle procrastination and avoidance, and make time so that you are not too busy to enjoy it and spend it with the people you love.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” – Pablo Picasso
Let us look at two good systems for organizing your life and day. One sets a weekly list of priorities and adjusts them on a daily basis. For some people, this works great, and for others, these lists are so large and ever-growing, that it makes more sense to make days with their buckets to allow for both variation and to juggle multiple complex projects.
Pareto’s 80/20 rule applies to both of these systems. 20% of the tasks will result in 80% of the desired outcomes. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to manage energy, not time. As energy will be the key source of staying productive.
Figuring out how to prioritize items.
A few other points to keep in mind:
– Know your goals for the day
– Develop an awareness when you are losing focus and energy to preempt triviality from occurring.
– Time is the most precious resource.
– Time is opportunity.
– Don’t do things you feel obligated to do.
– Don’t spend time with people you feel are pulling you down or wasting your time.
– Outsource tasks that literally are a waste of your time.
– Maximize your leisure time.
– Try to batch tasks that are similar and can be grouped
– 10 minutes – try and do it for just ten minutes and go from there. This jumpstarts challenging tasks.
– Change your scenery from time to time.
– Take breaks.
– Giving the brain time to rest, reset, and let things sink in.
– Best work is done when we are not stressed out.
The first step is to map out and prioritize a list of to-dos. You can use something like
ABCDE Priority list
A = Very important (that hour or day)
B = Important (not an A, but still negative consequences if not done)
C = Nice to do
D = Delegate anything you can delegate
E = Eliminate tasks you should forget or get rid of.
Just categorize tasks
– Immediate attention
– In progress
Use a system that makes sense for you.
Ongoing List Method
Start on Sunday or Monday. Use the first day of your week to reflect on what you have achieved and to review, create, update and adjust your to-do lists. The goal of the list is to prioritize, then identify and create blocks of time, at your peak of productivity, and to create distraction blackouts – find the perfect time, and block and black it out. For most people, a reasonable goal is 2-3 big items per day, at most. In fact, if you can focus for 2-3 hours a day, and knock out 2-3 things, then you are operating on the level of the most successful people. So focus on these, forget everything else, and watch your productivity skyrocket, and your stress levels go down.
Bucket List Method
The Bucket List works much the same, but instead of checklists, you set your daily goals into buckets that focus on an area for the day, and only work on that specific topic/area on that day. For instance, one bucket/day can be for writing blog posts, one for dealing with clients, one for social media, etc.
For whatever method you choose,
– Review your list the night before, then you can start your day prepared to hit the ground running
– Mix small, easy, larger, and tedious tasks.
– We have finite willpower, so ration wisely.
– For many people, they find that starting the day with easier tasks helps get small wins and keeps the momentum going.
The point is to create guides and clear goals that help you stay on task, bring clarity to what you need to focus on, and minimize stress and mitigate the risk of missing deadlines. An added benefit of these is it also allows for the much-needed time of reflection and insight into wins and your productivity and accompaniment for the previous days and weeks.
For whatever you use. There are some great tools to help keep you on track. Some people find using a pen and notepad work best for them. But for many other people, they have found the following tools to be complete game changers. We won’t dive into them in too much depth, but here are a few to check out.
For a free and easy to use solution for yourself and teams, we like
A more robust, though pricey solution is
Transitioning Between Tasks:
Much like the issue with multitasking, jumping from one test to the next can create stress, crossover, and prevent you from optimally focusing. According to the Brendon Burchard, a #1 New York Times best-selling author and world renown leading high performance coach, it is pivotal to master these transitions, release tension, and then set the new intention. To do this, his method is straightforward:
1) Close your eyes for the next minute or two.
2) Repeat the word release in your mind over and over. As you do, command your body to release all the tension in your shoulders, in your neck, in your face, in your jaw. Release the tension in your back and your legs. Release the tension in your mind and spirit.
3) When you feel you have released some of the tension, move to set your intention.
4) Think about what you want to feel and achieve in the next activity you’re about to take on when you open your eyes. Ask, “What energy do I want to bring into this next activity? How can I do this next activity with excellence? How can I enjoy the process?” (The questions can vary.)
(CLick here for a video on doing this for 20 minutes is the Release Meditations Technique (RMT).
The idea is to start with a productive and good morning routine. We won’t go into details, as we have covered this topic in depth here. But we highly recommend you create your own morning routine to minimize decision fatigue and start with a win!
How to Focus Better:
Now that you know what to do, you have the bandwidth to do it, how do you make the most of your windows of productivity? We will dive deep into focus hacking in the future. For now, let us just consider two major issues, perfectionism and breaks.
Perfection taken to an extreme degree has another name: Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Defeating perfectionist tendencies is one of the best things you can do to boost your productivity and get more done. More often than not, all you need to do is get the ball rolling. Try these to help you become more productive.
– Do first, edit and fine tune later. i.e. Take action now, reflect later.
– Prioritize output first, and quality second.
– Finish the task you’re doing, before double checking it and spending time editing and revising.
– Get started and plan to work just 10 minutes or finish a small part of the task.
– Know when to walk away and cut your losses.
The other side of the coin of focus is on creating windows that both optimize your energy and focus, but that also provide breaks for both your body and mind. While many people can power through work for hours, doing so burns you out, and leads to numerous health issues over time.
Everyone works effectively with different ranges of time. For some people, it is as short at 19-25 minutes and for others 45-55 minutes. This is often referred to as the Pomodoro technique. The idea is simple. Set a timer and turn off all distractions and focus on the task till the timer is done. After the time is up, get up take a break, do a little bit of mobility or light workout. Some people find doing a little weight lifting like doing a set of kettlebell swings helps out.
The main takeaway is to create decent but small chunks of time to blackout all distractions and focus on one thing, and key its success is working in breaks. Doing this will allow you to work more effectively, as well as taking care of your body, and stress levels.
A Few Additional Ideas to consider:
– In the long run, taking a deep dive with something like High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way.
– Learn when you are losing focus. Putting in all this structure is great, but sometimes, like with workout, you just need to stop, step away and do something else. We are not machines, and while structure and discipline are key to productivity, sometimes we also need to know when to step away to more quickly come back. For most situations, it is a marathon, and not a short sprint, so work accordingly.
– As you go through and work with your to-do lists, it can also be helpful to develop a don’t do list, to help you avoid activities and behaviors that prevent you from working effectively.
– Act like someone is watching over you when you are working.
– Learn how to say no when it matters most. (Read more in Tools of Titans at pages 384-398)
– Don’t believe everything you think.
– Be aware of the Endowment Bias – In psychology and behavioral economics, the endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion and related to the mere ownership effect in social psychology) is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.
– Also, consider new technologies. Google Suite of tools from email to calendar and to-dos is more powerful than ever. Also, for managing nonverbal communications, email is falling out of favor and tools such as Slack, which topic and focused channels keep the communications central and focused.
– Along the lines of technology, things like Fin.com offer digital Ai (artificial intelligence) solutions for automating processes. For instance, scheduling, and communicating in simple ways that an assistant can help with.
– While we will not dive into motivation, author Daniel Pink in his book Drive lists three elements to the motivation formula: autonomy, mastery, and purpose – for now here is a link if you want to know more, it’s important to keep in mind that this trio drives, engages, and stimulates us to do our best work.
– Here are some good resources to read on the 5-second rule
– Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist researching how we make decisions, claims that our emotional decision making is just as critical as our more rational and analytical decision making. In fact, if that part of your brain dedicated to gut reaction along with the emotions of punishment and reward (the prefrontal cortex and its orbitofrontal cortex) is damaged, you will get stuck making even the simplest decisions.
The link to procrastination is that you need to activate that part of your prefrontal cortex to get out of the cycle. And guess what happens to your prefrontal cortex when you’re stressed? That’s right, it pretty much shuts down!
We hope this guide, helps you work, and live better getting you Focused First!