Last week I asked you to be a silent observer in your own life and determine how often you completed tasks or participated in conversations without giving them your full attention. I challenged you to quit bragplaining – glorifying how busy you are all the time – and to stop and think about what it really means to habitually have more on your plate than you can effectively deal with. This was meant to be a gentle prod to help you start removing yourself from the Cult of Busy. Out of politeness, I did not suggest that (perhaps) having so much to do all the time is less a marker of accomplishment than a sign of disorganization or failure to prioritize.
If you want a life filled with great accomplishments, strong relationships and low levels of anxiety, then you need implement only one strategy: Do Less. Accomplish More.
Doesn’t that sound great?! “Too good to be true,” you’re probably thinking, but put another way, it might read, “Be productive, not busy.” It’s a goal-setting and time-management strategy that the world’s most successful people have been employing for centuries, and it’s actually quite simple. The whole philosophy can be boiled down to three steps:
1. Get Your Priorities Straight
2. Make Your Actions Match Your Words
3. Evaluate Your Performance
In order for this to work, you have to start with the assumption that it is impossible to do many things exceptionally well all at once. Therefore, you can either do many things marginally well, or you can focus your time and energy on only a few things. No one wants to be mediocre, so you’ve got to whittle your priorities down to just a few things. I personally use the Rule of 3 when setting goals and managing tasks: I choose the three areas of my life that I want to focus on most over the next several months (Family, Health, Career, for example), then I set three goals for each of those areas, and every day I write down between one and three tasks or events that are absolutely essential for moving me toward my goal in each area. That leaves me with a very directive list of priority tasks that I will accomplish every day and my motivation to stick to that list is very high because my success is directly tied to the tasks on it.
Knowing what you should be focusing your time and energy on is a great first step, but it won’t get you far unless your actions match the words on paper. The best way I’ve found to do this is to hold myself to two rules every single day:
Rule #1 Your priority tasks need to be the first thing you work on. Putting them off until later exponentially ups the likelihood that they won’t get done at all. This might mean waking up super early on some days, so that you can get those tasks done before you start going to meetings or whatever else you have cluttering up your day.
Rule #2 You need to spend most of your time on your priority tasks. If you allow your days to continue getting cluttered up by the nonessential, then your priority tasks will continue to slide and you won’t achieve your goals. There are many skills and traits you may need to master in order to effectively do this, but chief among them is learning to say no. Stop saying yes to everything everyone asks of you. This might come as a shock to your friends, family, coworkers and supervisors at first, but if you employ a little diplomacy and explain why, they should understand that a) this is something you need to do for yourself, and b) the quality of your work/health/relationships will improve because of it.
Once you’ve set your priorities and gotten into the habit of asking yourself those two questions every day, you’ll need to evaluate your progress very frequently. Check in with yourself at short intervals throughout the day and decide whether the thing you’re doing right now is in line with your priorities and moving you closer toward your goals, or just checking boxes and crossing things off of some random to-do list. You may want to set reminders or alerts for the first few days, in order to prompt you to bring your awareness to your actions.
It’s also a good idea to check in at the end of each day and ask yourself two questions: “Did I work on my priority tasks first today?” and, “Did I spend the bulk of my time on those things today?” Then give yourself a grade and make plans for how you can do a little better tomorrow.
By following these guidelines you can start accomplishing the things you want to in life, rather than just keeping busy.