If your goal is happiness and meaning in your work, you must make room for the work that matters to you.
Pre-pandemic, focus was hard to come by. I used to be all over the place. Checking email here, texting a friend there, catching a glimpse of the TV here, checking the fridge over there. I still do that sometimes, but not as much these days. I was always in consuming-mode, with a little productivity sprinkled in here and there.
I could never get anything meaningful done. I didn’t have focus.
But with all this “free-time” bestowed upon us in recent months, I began to find a flow. I was able to explore my mind with a newfound clarity, through deep work and deep thought.
I posted this screenshot on Twitter yesterday, from a project that I’m currently working on. It’s something I repeat to myself every morning. It’s my way of centering myself, decluttering, and simplifying. It allows me to focus on work that matters:
I’m very sensitive to my surrounding environment. I don’t know if there is a word for that, but if I’m going to focus on good, meaningful work, I need my work area to be uncluttered, I need good lighting, I need as few distractions as possible. I’m even really particular about the type of table and the colors of the walls. If any of these isn’t quite right, I tend not to be as focused. (You think I’m bad? Look up Peyton Manning.)
I don’t normally care about what my surroundings look or feel like, but when I’m creating, I can be over-the-top particular. The point is to reduce the friction. To free the mind of unnecessary distraction.
You might not feel like these particularities matter. But I think we can both agree that finding ways to get more meaningful work done is a worthy endeavor.
If obsessing over the quality of table you work on is not on your list of priorities, here are 10 of the most important tactics I’ve used to clear my mind, clear my time, and make room for work that matters.
In reverse order:
#10: Write MITs the night before, do them first thing in the morning. MITs, or Most Important Tasks for each day, should be your only focus until they are finished. I usually set three of them. Do them first, because if you let them sit, trust me on this, the day’s distractions will swallow them up.
Aim to get all three MITs done before you focus on anything else. If you can do that, the rest of your day is gravy!
#9: The Pareto Principle. We’ve all heard of the 80/20 principle, but do we all implement it? I create my MITs based off of this principle. Through deep examination of your daily work/creative priorities, you’ll begin to find the 20% of tasks that yield 80% of your desired results. It’s not an exact science, but it is a very reliable rule of thumb. Try it!
#8: Reduce inputs. Make a list of all of the information you receive and consume on a daily basis. Edit this list down mercilessly. Again, use the 80/20 rule to identify the 20% of information you need and get rid of the other 80%. Ask yourself if any of this information is necessary for you to receive regularly. Most of the time, the answer is “no.” Ruthlessly removing time-consuming information will free up more time to do what is meaningful to you—like achieving your goals.
#7: External mess = Internal mess. Remove all of the inessential items from your desk that don’t help you achieve your goal. Having papers and post-its and stacks of books piled on your desk will only add chaos. A simple, clean setup allows for a mind at ease and a more effective approach to your work.
#6: Parkinson’s Law. This is a lesser known hack, but it is just as effective. It’s one of the reasons why I find the 9-5 workday arbitrary and impractical.
Remember in high school, when the teacher assigned you a huge paper to write, due in two weeks? Do you remember ever getting to work on it in the first week? Probably not. Parkinson’s Law states that work will expand relative to the time made available for its completion. Another way to think of it: water in a container. The water will always continue to spread until it hits the side walls of the container. Your work is the water. Your time is the container.
If you give yourself a week to build a shed, you’ll do it in a week. If you give yourself two days to build the shed, you will do it in two days. Start experimenting with your deadlines. You’ll find that most things don’t actually take as long as you think.
#5: Avoid meetings. Making enough room for the work that matters most to you requires removing time-sucking activities like meetings. If they want a meeting, suggest a phone call. If they want a phone call, suggest an email. If they want an email, suggest a text. If they want a text, it can wait. Ruthlessly protect your time. Meetings can sometimes be good to stay on the same page, but most of the time they serve as a form of procrastination.
#4: No unnecessary work. Doing any and every item of work that comes your way amounts to running on a hamster wheel. You’ll be busy, but you’ll be going nowhere. Don’t confuse busy with productive. You are only productive to the level of the work you do that moves you closer to your goals. Daily MITs will help in this process.
#3: Compete against who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. You need blinders on to be effective. Horses have blinders so they don’t lose sight of the goal—to win the race. If they focus on the other horses or the fans in the seats, or the bird flying in the distance, they will lose. The same applies to you.
If you want to reach your goals, stop comparing yourself to other people. You don’t have enough data. But you do have enough data on who you were yesterday. So let your only focus be to improve on yourself. Do this every single day = Domination.
#2: Batch. I always say to myself “you wouldn’t wash one sock at a time, so why are you checking emails every 10 minutes?” UPenn professor Adam Grant calls this “sprinkling.” Sprinklers get nothing done. The constant task switching and subsequent refocusing time have their costs.
Batch your activities like you would your laundry. Check email once a day, or less if you’re able. Create air-tight blocks of time for deep work, when nothing can distract you from effectiveness.
#1: Do something you’re passionate about. This is a prerequisite for the previous 9. But it is also the most important. Are you more likely to take care of a rental car more than your own? Same for your work. Are you more or less likely to care for meaningless work that doesn’t resonate with you? If you don’t feel a meaningful connection to your work, you need to think about making a change.
Balance or Burn Out:
Being laser-focused on productivity and accomplishment can have its downside. My family and friends certainly know. I tend to go off the grid for days or even weeks at a time in order to do effective work. It’s a huge weakness of mine, and is something I must prioritize fixing. Spend too much time on work, and your personal life suffers. Spend too much time in your personal life, and your work suffers. It’s a delicate balance to strike, and it’s a topic that I’d like to dig deeper on in the future.
If productivity tips don’t appeal to you, ask yourself: are you doing work that matters?
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