Get Organized and Stay Focused
Through my own experience, I’ve come up with a couple gems for handling the stress of:
- too many details…
- on top of too many near-term initiatives…
- on top of too many long-term goals…
- on top of too many unknowns.
And here they are…
Get And Use A Good Todo List
This sounds obvious, but a single list with priorities you assign is absolutely paramount (your inbox should not tell you when to do things). You need a way to log todo’s and see what is on your plate, and there cannot be more than one place for this. One of the ways I get a good night sleep is knowing that everything I’m supposed to do is recorded in my list, and I can stop thinking about it. Worry often comes from things we need to remember. They keep popping up into consciousness because we know we must not forget them! A reliable list lets us forget in good conscience.
There are many ways to do this. I use Jira because it’s crazy flexible, and can handle all the different types of tasks (effort driven, date driven, follow-up driven, someday driven, etc). As simple as the list idea is, there is a lot of process behind keeping a good list that you’ll actually use consistently. This book, Getting Things Done, is pretty good. It gives you good ideas on how to organize, outlines the types of information you’ll need to manage, and has some great advice about what a todo item should look like.
NOT THIS — clean garage
THIS INSTEAD — clean garage: clear work bench
There is a psychological reason for maintaining a list this way. The list item “clean garage” will never get started because we can’t finish it in a reasonable amount of time. However, “clean garage: clear work bench” is more manageable, and we still maintain the context of the larger chore of cleaning the garage. We think, “Yeah, I can do that now and I’ll make some progress on the garage thing.”
Everything on your list needs to be something that you can take action on immediately, and get done in a small amount of time (10m — 4h). That means if the todo “send report to Mike” is waiting on John’s approval, then “send report to Mike” is not on your list. Instead, “send report to Mike: remind John” shows up on your list when it is time to remind John, and not before that. There are a lot of other types of todo’s so the book is worth checking out (I’m sure there are other good books, but that’s the one I happened to read). OK, so now you have every little thing recorded and prioritized on your list, and your brain does not need to track them.
Meditate to practice focus
Meditation means different things to different people, but here I mean one specific thing; train your brain to focus on one thing at a time. Focus is something many of us do not consciously think about, but it is very important because context switching takes a lot of energy.
side note — I used to think that multi-tasking to handle things quickly as they come up was one of my talents. I could jump from one thing to another very quickly and get it done. At some point, I realized that it takes a lot more energy to stop what I was doing, handle the issue, and then go back to what I was doing. Being less efficient like this cuts into a day’s productivity in a big way. Needless to say, I no longer see multi-tasking as a talent, or anything good at all. Great multi-taskers are synonymous with great time-wasters.
The first step in being more focused is to disable all your pop-up notifications, except for the important ones (like maybe text messages from your family). This includes email notifications on your PC, instant messages from friends and employees, and phone calls if possible. As a founder, you’ll need to do it all, but you don’t have to do it all right when someone else asks you to do it.
The second step is to train your brain to be OK with letting thoughts go, and to focus only on the main thought. You do this with meditation. Pick a spot free from common distractions, sit up straight with your eyes closed, and focus on one thing (your own breathing, the sound of water, or even the dish washer). Your mind will tend to get bored and wander. Various thoughts will distract you from your focus. When you recognize this is happening, put those thoughts out of your mind and get back to your focus.
Doing this is difficult. It is especially difficult for those of us that always feel like we need to be doing something productive! Many times, meditation feels like a waste of time. Remember that this practice is not supposed to be productive. It is meant to train the brain to be more efficient, and this cannot be accomplished easily. Try it for just 5 minutes a day to start and work you way up to 20 minutes a day.
side note — Meditation also does wonders for sleep! The most common reason I cannot sleep has to do with thoughts about the day, or the next day, or the next week. When I recognize this is happening, I now add any missing things to my list and put those thoughts out of my head by focusing on breathing. I’m usually asleep very quickly.
After organizing your todo’s with a good list, and practicing meditation for a while, you might find you’re a much happier person too!