The most common complaint about working online is information overload.There are just too many options, too many emails, too many choices.
The most common complaint about working offline is information overload. There are too many meetings, too many emails, too many projects.
As a business owner, father, husband, Christian, golfer, reader and writer, I feel the same pressure you do. Too much to do and too little time.
Of all the things that have worked for me (and I have tried many “time management systems in my day) the one thing that has worked best is what you will find below.
It’s a five step process I use every time I feel overwhelmed by it all, no matter how often that feeling comes.
This five step process brings focus and clarity into my life. It helps define next actions while letting me see the big picture too. And it helps me identify where my thinking has become confused.
All of this brings clarity and focus. And the beginning of accomplishment, at least for me, is almost always clarity and focus.
And caffeine of course! 🙂
I hope you find this process helpful too.
Step One – Empty Your Mind
When I say “empty your mind” I do not mean in the meditation sense of clearing your mind. While that is great too, what I mean is doing what is called a brain purge. I wish there was a prettier way to say it, but that’s literally what this is.
Here’s how it works.
Get alone in a quiet place with a pen and legal pad. If you prefer a digital experience use Evernote or your idea capture tool of choice.
Now begin writing down everything that comes into your mind. And I do mean everything.
From needing to buy milk to needing to check the return on your 401K to needing to call aunt Evangeline, write down everything you can think of that is yet to be done.
Don’t worry about whether it is a project, a goal, a thing to do, a whim or a wild hair.
Just write it all down.
The goal of this step is to purge your mind of all the things you are trying to remember.
Your mind is a wonderful tool, given to you to help you live the life you want. But what most of us do is use our minds as a sort of running to-do list.
And our brains are designed to be so much more than that.
This step seems like it will take days but in actuality will take you about 30 minutes.
Step 2 – Categorize The List
What you have just done is make a master task list. And a projects list. And a goals list. And a passion list. And a “oh no, I forgot to!” list.
Now it’s time to categorize the list so you can make the list work for you.
Notice I said categorize, not prioritize. The difference is subtle but important.
Here’s how you categorize your list.
On your list will be many types of entries. What you want to do here is to write down a one-word description for each item on your list.
Start by making a short list of categories like Work or Personal or Family or Church. Things like that. If you want to add labels like Goals or Dreams or Projects that’s okay too.
Now write your one-word category name next to each item on your master list.
This is usually where people start to feel better.
Now you are beginning to get the sense that the list is manageable. It might be long, but you are getting it organized and can see that it will be manageable.
This step usually takes about 15 minutes.
Step 2 – Highlight The Next Vital Action For Each Category
Now it gets fun. Read through your list again and find the one most-important action you can take in each category.
Some people prefer to re-write their lists by category at this point. That’s fine if it makes it easier for you to see all items sorted by category.
The key here is to find the one next action. Not all the actions you could take but the next action you will take.
NOTE: For some of the things on your list the next action will be to have a planning session with yourself to map out all the steps needed to achieve a goal. In other cases your next action might be to make a phone call.
There is no wrong or right here – just choosing the one thing you can do within about five minutes that will move you ahead.
Once you find the one next most important task for each category, mark it in some way that matters to you. Some people circle, some use stars. I like to use a highlighter on my next action items.
This step usually takes about 15 minutes.
Step 4 – Choose Four Next Vital Actions
I wrote to you recently about Most Important Tasks. If you have not read that post lately you might want to click here to read it.
No matter how simple or complicated your time management system is, one key to productivity to start every day knowing what your four Most Important Tasks are for that day.
Another key – do the hardest task first. We will save that for another post.
Okay – it’s time to look at your list again. What you should see is a list of thoughts, all of which have a one-word category next to them, with the next actions marked in some way. I like to use a highlighter for mine.
Now choose four next action items from your list and write them on whatever system you use to keep up with daily tasks.
If you use Google calendar, for example, write them there. If you use a paper calendar, write them there.
If you don’t have a calendar or planner system, write them on a 3X5 card you can put on your desk or in your pocket.
These four items become the heart of your to do list for tomorrow.
All they all you will do? Probably not. But they are what you must do tomorrow if at all possible.
This step takes under 5 minutes in most cases.
Step 5 – Stop Using Your Brain For Storage
What you have done in steps 1 – 4 is powerful. You have purged your brain of everything you need to do now or in the future, and cleared your mind for laser focus. Congratulations!
Now it’s time to super charge the process and keep the good times rolling.
And that means making a change.
This change is radical and hard to do. But if you do it this one change can improve your life, your focus, and your ability to accomplish anything you want.
The change is this – stop remembering things you need to do and write everything down as it comes to your mind.
Then add what you write down to your master list, categorize it and decide the next actions. Then choose four from your list for tomorrow and repeat the process every day.
While there are entire productivity systems you can buy, and seminars aplenty you can attend, creating this one “write it down now” habitreally can change your life.
So there you have it; four steps you can take anytime you like to clear your mind and regain control. And a bonus step to help you build a habit that will keep you in that clear-mind space every day.
This is by no means an entire system. But it’s a start. And if you make this start you will have more focus, more fun, and get more done too.
And those are … well, you know.