In my last post, Setting the Stage for Productivity, I wrote about changing the location of where I start my morning routine in order to become more productive. It was very effective! But that was just one of the changes I made. Through evaluating my routine, I pinpointed that my issue of “spinning my wheels” was due to my wandering mind; I was not focusing. So in addition to creating an environment for study rather than relaxation (warmth, coziness, comfort), I determined that I was going to start my day with a different mindset: I was going to focus on focusing! My strategy was three-pronged.
1) Start the night before.
I actually started focusing the night before. Before I went to bed, I opened my Bible to where I was going to be reading the next morning and set it on top of my closed laptop. This was my not-so-subtle reminder that I was not to even open the laptop before reading (refer to Measure Your Time). Those precious, quiet, interruption-free morning hours are not meant for such trivial tasks as reading and deleting and filing away emails. Also, my task list is on the same page as my inbox (I use Microsoft Outlook as my organizer) and so if I look at my inbox, I inadvertently see the list of tasks I need to work on that day, too. Just seeing that list and the emails that need to be dealt with is a distraction that captures my mind and starts it in a direction that I don’t want to go just yet. So the small action of putting my open Bible on top of my closed laptop was one of those Tiny Actions That Make a Huge Difference! (By the way, my weakness for getting sidetracked by my inbox first thing in the morning is a very common problem—so much so, that books have been written about the subject. I believe I even once saw a book title along the lines of “Don’t Check Your Email First Thing in the Morning.”)
That tiny action was not the only thing I did the night before. I also made a list of the “major things” I planned to do the next day. I wrote about this in my series on A Productive End-of-the-Day Ritual. I couldn’t say it better than I already have, so I’ll just quote from a previous post:
On my actual “to do” list, I may have a string of things to prompt my memory: pick up prescription, pay electric bill, call client, etc. But in this before-I-fall-asleep list, I list the most important, most time-consuming things I plan to do. I find this extremely helpful in narrowing my focus when I get up the next morning. I know exactly where to direct my energy early in the day (this is why this ritual helps me sleep better; it removes any subtle uncertainty about “where to start” and any nervousness about “will I forget?”).
By the way, all time management gurus advocate making a quality to-do list the night before (or first thing in the morning) in order to accomplish the most in your day. So consider this ritual…a time-management tool, as well! Some say just the simple act of making the list will make you 25% more efficient.
2) Set a timer.
There is a “law” that is oft repeated in time management writing, particularly in regards to procrastination. Parkinson’s Law says, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, however much time you have to finish a chore or a project, that is how much time it will take. If you have an hour, it will take an hour. If you have 15 minutes, you can finish in 15 minutes. If you have three weeks, you’ll take all three weeks. But if you have only a week, you’ll somehow get it done in that timeframe. This law explains why deadlines are so effective.
I had read the idea of using a timer for household tasks, but I had never tried it for mental work. In my plan to focus on focusing, I decided that I was going to attack the reading like I didn’t have time to spare (Parkinson’s Law). I sat down to my open Bible and set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes. I wasn’t really limiting myself to only 15 minutes, it was more of a tool to remind myself that I needed to focus for for that length of time (remember, I was focusing on focusing). When the timer sounded, it was a prompt to check myself to see how I was doing. If I wasn’t through reading, I simply re-set the timer and continued.
I found this tactic surprisingly helpful. Do you remember from my previous post that I would often spend an hour or two in the reading phase of my morning routine, but too-often felt like I was spinning my wheels? The timer hack has mostly eliminated that. Yes, my mind still wanders some, but the impending alarm helps pull my mind back to what I am doing. I am able to glean in 20-30 minutes what was taking me 1-2 hours before. And if you’re thinking this takes the “spirit” out of my study time, you are wrong. The timer is for my wandering mind. My spirit is still attuned to what God wants to say to me that day.
3) If it’s important (MIT), do it in the morning.
In Setting the Stage for Productivity, I listed my five current MITs and confessed that two of these—Spanish and writing—often fell by the wayside in my daily routine. More often than not, they did not get done. My strategy was purposeful—I felt I could take care of these two items at a less-demanding time of day without sacrificing quality—but it just didn’t work out as I planned. The fact is, if it is truly important, I must tackle it first thing in my day to assure that it gets done. Experience proved that.
After the success I found when I started using a timer to help me stay focused, I shaved enough time off the reading/studying phase of my MITs to easily accommodate the time needed for writing and Spanish (by the way, I set a timer for writing, as well).
I have been thrilled with the results I have experienced by implementing these three productivity strategies. I have consistently been completing my MITs and starting on my next tier of tasks in a timely manner. I am accomplishing more each day and doing so with the satisfaction of knowing that I am still “keeping the main the main thing.”
Do you have strategies for being productive? Some small tip you share could make all the difference for another reader, so please leave a comment!