Winter Is Coming

Henry Clay!

My family lived in Kentucky for about three years when I was growing up, which meant I heard the name Henry Clay quite often in my history classes. Clay was a transplant from Virginia who made his name as a lawyer in the Bluegrass State before he gained national notoriety as a senator, representative, Secretary of State, Speaker of the House and two-time presidential candidate. He was a man of conviction who sought compromise where others were quick to seek blood. This reputation earned Clay a great many admirers, including Abraham Lincoln.

Clay’s wisdom is frontier wisdom and the quote on offer today is no exception. It’s a favorite among athletes as it serves as a reminder that there is no such thing as an off-season. Athletes can’t afford to stop training or abandon their diets just because they don’t have any matches in the near future. If they do, they’ll be in a world of hurt when the season does roll around.

Likewise, a frontier farmer couldn’t afford to get lazy during the summer – summer was the time to prepare for winter. A lazy summer could mean a winter with no food to eat!

You, too, should be intentional with your downtime so you are better prepared when more demanding periods come along. By all means enjoy hard-earned breaks, but don’t forget that winter is coming.

Know This: Motivating Yourself Can Be Difficult

Rupert is watching.

Questions often asked of me by people who frequent ToVa include: How do I find the time? How do I maintain the energy? How can I be so organized?

Confession: it’s not as easy as I try to make it look.

I started taking personal development seriously nearly three years ago. I’ve always chased opportunities to learn so when I say I began to take it seriously I mean that I began to pursue development with intention and purpose. It was the difference, I guess, between aimlessly surfing Wikipedia and actually chasing down intellectual resources on topics I was interested in learning more about. It truly changed my life.

This “awakening” coincidentally (but fortunately) coincided with the commencement of my graduate studies and for two and a half years these two segments of my life complemented each other in tremendously satisfying ways. I concluded my studies in early June this year and launched ToVa about a month later. I planned six months of Monday / Wednesday / Friday posts and got to work.

For the first two months this went swimmingly. I was having fun, I was learning new things and a few of my friends were coming along for the ride. Unfortunately, this didn’t last.

There were no posts last week and in the two weeks prior to that there were no Friday link posts. I had fallen behind and I began to let the Friday posts go so I could spend that time getting Monday and Wednesday posts caught up.

Last week was meant to be a week about sleep: sleeping better, leading to better health and improved focus on our goals. Ironically, my own sleep was suffering at the same time as the hours that I work at my day job shifted from day to night (meaning I finish work between midnight and 1:00 AM). I began to feel hypocritical and the voices that always ask me “how do you do it?” rang in my head, growing louder and more accusatory in tone. I felt like a fraud.

So I’m coming clean.

People… I got lazy. I stopped nurturing my systems and they atrophied and died.

The insights that I share on this blog are the ones that make the most sense to me. The methods I describe are not always the methods that I use; the suggestions are not always ones that I employ in my own life. There is truly no one size fits all solution to enhanced productivity or relentless high achievement, there are only things worth trying.

Even the very best of us – and, for the record, I do not count myself among the best – do not knock it out of the park on every swing. The important thing (and pardon the well-tread cliché here) is that we keep swinging; that we find better ways to swing or different attitudes to bring to the plate.

While I have fallen behind on the blog I have also fallen behind on my novel. Both are passion projects for me and – having completed my studies – I have plenty of time to work on both. I have woken up every day over the past three weeks with a goal to write and most days I went to sleep (too late) having written nothing.

What happened?

Even our passion projects can come to feel like work. Mix in a day job (with irregular hours), a relationship, planning for a wedding, a broken camera, etc. and you begin to justify taking time off here and there to unwind. That is, you make excuses and convince yourself they’re good ones.

I’m not even saying it’s not okay to take a break. What I am saying is that your passion projects will not complete themselves. Eventually you will need to get back to work.

We all fall off the horse sometimes.

Only the best of us – and that can include you and me – possess the strength of character to climb back on and continue riding.

So I’m doubling down and inviting you to do so with me. I’m working on my blog and my novel every day – what are you working on?

Sometimes Your To-Do List Is Best Left Unfinished

Rupert's cupboard is empty.

On Monday we discussed using context and prioritization to better organize our to-do lists. Keeping the highest priority items at the top of our lists ensures that we’re getting the right things done in order to make real progress toward achieving our goals. Less important tasks get relegated to the bottom of the list and naturally fall off the list altogether when their time passes or we move on to bigger and better things.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer likes things this way, recognizing that if she ever got to the bottom of her to-do list it would mean she had spent valuable time doing things that weren’t her priority.

What items are hanging around on your to-do list that just don’t matter? Obviously some things (like, say, paying taxes) have to be done whether we can be bothered or not, but other tasks are only important when we first add them to the list. Time and hindsight exposes such activities as either being worth the effort or not and there’s no shame in changing your mind and excising those that aren’t worthwhile.

Executing such cuts here and there will render your list more manageable, resulting in less anxiety and enabling clearer focus on the things that matter the most.

Prioritize And Contextualize Your To-Do List

Rupert has things to do.

An integral part of whatever productivity system you decide to establish is a mechanism for managing all of the tasks that you’ll have on your plate at any one time. Some will call this ‘task management’ and employ any number of synced apps or custom systems to stay across everything. Others will go the pen-and-notecard route. There is no right or wrong method – the best system is the one that works for you. Your to-do list can help relieve the anxiety that sometimes accompanies the juggling of a few things at once… if it is properly maintained, that is.

As with so many elements of enhanced productivity, intentionality is the key to a useful and properly maintained to-do list. You can still use your notecards (or your apps!) but a little forethought will go a long way toward ensuring you make progress on your list no matter your method of recording the tasks before you.

Consider Context

No matter how simple you like to keep things, you’ll find that the expectations placed upon you are different depending on your location at any one moment. That is, your boss probably expects different things from you than your wife does.

Considering this, context becomes the first consideration in organizing your tasks. Seeing ‘do the laundry’ on my list in between meetings at work is not only futile, but might actually take me out of the zone or cause anxiety as I go through my day looking at that box that I’m incapable of ticking until I get home.

If you can’t do it in your present situation, don’t even include it on the list!

As you may have already deduced, this can be broken down into further sub-levels still. If you float between two sites at work, for instance, there’s no point in worrying about dropping off documents to Mary at Office A while you’re in a meeting at Office B. You’d be dividing your attention for less than no reason.

This context problem can be overcome in many ways, the simplest being to maintain separate lists for each context. A lot of to-do apps will allow you to maintain multiple lists or assign context to tasks, meaning you can keep all of your tasks in once place but still stay focused within your present context.

A particularly intriguing way to manage the specificity of some tasks is to adopt if/then planning of your tasks. This method allows you to frame your tasks within opportunities by phrasing them as “if _____, then I will _____”. Examples might include:

  • If I have ten minutes, then I will email my parents.
  • When this meeting is over, I will grab lunch.
  • When Claire gets home, I will kiss her.

The tasks here – emailing my parents, grabbing lunch, kissing my lady friend – are not left for me to casually skip over with my eyes. Instead, they form a kind of calendar that allows for the fluidity of the day. I don’t know when the meeting will end, but when it does I know my next action. I don’t know when I’ll have ten minutes, but when I do I know how to fill it. In this way you can seize opportunities rather than letting them pass you by.

Make Prioritizing A Priority

Within each context you will want to identify the highest priority items – your next actions. Sometimes productivity can induce a kind of high, but chasing that high by ticking off irrelevant tasks while you put off the most important ones is productivity junk food – you’re consuming empty calories that can’t sustain you and your passions and you will burn out quickly without making any real progress.

Maybe your inbox does need cleared, maybe the trash can does need emptied, maybe you do need to water the plant in the hallway, but if your goal for the day is to work on your novel and all you manage to accomplish is ticking off these three unrelated things are you really being productive?

Depending on who you ask, your priorities for the day should be narrowed down to 1, 3, 5, 10… pick a number, really. The point isn’t really to identify a number – it’s just to establish top priorities of some kind; any kind.

One clever prioritization trick I saw recently was to build levels of emphasis into your to-do list by identifying your top priority for the day, three medium priorities, and five lower priorities before tackling them all in the one day. This is productivity in terms of quantity and quality, helping you move ahead while not letting anything fall through the cracks.

Identifying these priorities can be the bigger problem for some, though. When in the midst of several projects with no deadline, how does one choose what to do next? The Eisenhower Matrix is a handy way to gauge your priorities and – just as important, really – peg the things that are not a priority.

The matrix features four quadrants used to define activities in terms of both importance and urgency. The highest priority items will obviously be those that are both important and urgent (putting out the fire after you blow up the microwave), while those that are neither important or urgent (House of Cards) become the lowest priority. Items that are important but not urgent (reading this blog?) receive consideration alongside those that are urgent but not important (things your boss wants you to do like, now, that you don’t care about). The distinction between urgency and importance is a significant one. Where urgency is the same, it is the difference between, say, what is important to you and what is important to others. Work on the ones that are important to you first (depending on the context – your boss likely won’t agree that reading this blog is more important than filing reports).

However, as I have said before, it’s not neccesary or altogether desirable to eliminate those activities that are neither urgent or important. Being on at all times can burn you out and you’ll need recovery time here and there. It might seem counter-intuitive, but if you have a hard time switching off it might be worthwhile to add leisure to your to-do list. After all, there is a difference between getting sucked into another House of Cards marathon and allocating a specific time slot in which you’re going to watch X number of episodes.

Mind The Cracks

Once you’ve added contexts and prioritization to your task-management system (and doesn’t that just sound so sophisticated?), you will probably find yourself facing a dilemma: what about all those little ticky-tack things that still have to get done but never end up making your ‘priority cutoff’? You don’t want anything to fall through the cracks, after all.

A cornerstone of the GTD system is the “two minute rule”, which dictates that any action that can be completed in two minutes or less is completed then. It’s not filed away, it’s not added to the to-do list and it’s not left for after you’ve read more emails – it’s done then and then, well, it’s done.

For slightly more involved tasks that aren’t especially important, one clever idea is to maintain a separate to-do list containing these tasks. Anytime you find yourself with a few minutes to kill and no prioritized task that can be completed in that window, pull out this list and tick something off.

Move Forward, Not Sideways

The intent of all of these ideas is to keep you moving forward rather than treading water. It can be easy to fall into the trap of being busy but not making progress and life is too short.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably not accomplish everything you add to your to-do list, and that’s okay. Prioritizing your list keeps the most important next actions at the top and allows everything else to kind of naturally fall off the bottom over time. The daily review that prioritization requires ensures that you won’t waste your time and energy on things that you just clearly didn’t value in the first place.

By renewing your commitment to progress each day you will find yourself moving confidently forward, one ticked box at a time.

Make A Habit Of Passion, Learn From Kids, Be Inspired

Rupert is reading 'A Hologram For The King'.

The weekend is here again! Rituals were the theme of the week, which happens to coincide with the first weekend link about making a habit of pursuing your passion projects. Kids pervade the other two links by showing us how to channel our inner nine-year-old and allowing for a little inspiration after a disappointing loss in the Little League World Series.

Tackle Your Passion Project With The 90-90-1 Rule

Concluding a week of discussing rituals and their roles in our everyday production and creativity, here is the kind of challenge to help you get a start on making everyday your ideal day. Dedicate the first ninety minutes of your next ninety work days to working on your highest-priority passion project. Seeing as habits stick after 66 days, you’ll be well on your way to the life of your dreams if you see this challenge through to the end.

Five Things I Learned From Hanging Out With A Nine-Year-Old

There is much we can learn from kids and Eric Ravenscraft shares a few valuable lessons here. Kids aren’t afraid to make mistakes or try new things, which is refreshing to see if you spend a lot of time around jaded adults that have thrown in the towel.

R.I. coach inspires after LLWS loss

Speaking of kids, the Little League World Series is ongoing at the moment. Unfortunately, the Rhode Island team representing New England was recently eliminated but their coach took the opportunity to deliver a speech that I doubt any of the players will ever forget. I can’t embed the video here without it starting automatically, so I’ll spare you that annoyance and point you to the link.

ToVa Rewind:

Convert Routines Into Rituals For Meaningful Progress
Use Rituals To Engineer your Perfect Day

Rupert is reading: A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

Have a great weekend!