How to Get it All Done
On my weekly newsletter, The Fight Spot, I ask people what their biggest challenge is related to focus and doing their best creative work.
One very common issue is the issue of having more ideas than time. People have so many interesting, exciting, or important projects they are working on that they don’t know where to start. They feel overwhelmed by options. They have too much to do. And so one very common question is “How do I get it all done?”
I often ask myself this very question. How am I going to get it all done?
Last summer, I was in San Francisco for WWDC, and I was talking about this issue with a friend. He’s an iPhone app developer and he literally has dozens of apps and web services out there. I ask him how he juggles his focus and priorities.
For me, at times I feel stretched thin with “just” my 3 websites and podcast. I know that I do my best work when I am head down and focused on just one project and it’s all I think about until I’m done. But sometimes that’s not an option (or is it?).
My friend said that to have multiple projects you have to be okay with letting one or more of them be neglected for a time while you work on the others. And, in his experience, coming back to an app and working hard to ship a big update, he often wouldn’t even see a big spike in new sales. So the update wasn’t even worth it all that much in the short term.
Let me start by saying that I don’t know the answer, here. There isn’t one universal rule here. You have to trust your gut and know your situation to make the call if you’re going to keep juggling many projects or if you’re going to let some go to focus on one.
That said, for those of us who have several projects and ideas all going at the same time, how do we juggle them?
Here are some suggestions:
- Identify your roles and goals: you need balance in your life, so step back and identify your roles (parent, boss, employee, self-improver, etc.) And make sure that you’re not spending the vast majority of your time in just one of those roles.
Reduce the scope: consider scaling back what “1.0” looks like, so it’s something that is attainable. And consider lowering your bar of perfectionism — my friend Sean McCabe says we ought to aim for 90% complete (instead of 99%).
Reduce your project load: do you have to be doing all the projects right now? Can one or more of them be put on pause? Instead of doing three projects all simultaneously, can you do one at a time? Even on a week-to-week basis?
Get help: consider delegating and/or hiring others to help you.
Learn to say no: to your own ideas, and to other peoples. In the Focus Course, we have a day dedicated to ideation and strengthening our creative imagination. One of the benefits to this exercise is that you learn you have more ideas than time, and you don’t have to be a slave to your good ideas. We all will have ideas that we want to do, but the existence of them doesn’t mean we are now obligated to flesh them out.
Spend less time on counterfeit rest: things like television, video games, social media, mindless internet surfing — these things can be time sinks. Moreover, they don’t leave us feeling refreshed, motivated, or recharged. You most definitely need breaks and time to rest, but there are some great ways to do it other than zoning out.
Plan ahead: your productive tomorrow starts today. What is one thing you can do now that will improve life for your future self? Go to bed on time, set out your clothes for tomorrow, write down the first thing you’re going to do when you sit down to work in the morning, etc. This will give you a head start on your projects.
Why too many spinning plates will hinder our long-term focus and motivation
Another common question I get has to do with the issue of too much responsibility. People saying something along the lines of: “There are so many responsibilities I have, and/or so many projects I’m working on, and/or so many hobbies I want to pursue.”
As in: There’s a lot I have to do, there’s a lot I want to do, how should I approach it all and how can I maintain my focus?
There is a lot of nuance here. We’ve already discussed this topic from the perspective of the Tyranny of Choice — in that, when we have too many great options we’ll choose none of them.
Here, let’s break this topic down from another perspective:
Is it best to make a little bit of progress on a lot of projects, or is it better to make a lot of progress on just a few projects?
The latter. It is better to focus on making significant progress on only a few projects at a time.
- When you’re focusing on one project, everything becomes fodder and inspiration.
- You have a clearer understanding of what needs to be done next.
- It’s easier to measure progress, and progress helps build and keep your momentum.
- When your focus is undivided, the quality of work you’re doing is better.
- When you're focused on a single project, it’s easier to get in the flow — and that is a naturally motivating state to be in.
If and when we’re afraid that we should be focusing on multiple projects all at the same time, it oftentimes comes from having too granular of a perspective.
This is where annual, monthly, and weekly planning can be so helpful. They give us a long-range perspective, which also gives us the permission to focus on one main thing at a time.
Say we have a list of 12 books we want to read this year. Well, instead of reading all 12 simultaneously and finishing them all at the same time, we can read just one per month. Our retention will be better, the reading experience will be more enjoyable, and the cognitive load will be less — because we will only have one book we need to read at a time (instead of choosing between 12 at any given moment).
This is easier said than done, because when we are focusing on just one project it feels as if we are neglecting the others. We’re not neglecting the others if we have a plan to get to them at a later date. In fact, what we’re actually doing is making sure that when we do get to the next project, we’ll be able to give it the full attention it deserves.
The idea here is something from the Agile Method, called Sprints. A Project Sprint is where your team identifies a particular goal, and then gives yourselves a set amount of time (usually one month) to accomplish that goal.
Then, after that Sprint, you do another. And then another.
Just like the example of 12 books, let’s say you had 3 primary objectives to complete before your project was ready to ship. The idea is that by focusing on each one in isolation, you’ll make faster overall progress with higher quality end results than if you had focused on each one in parallel.
The challenge to this approach is that our lizard brain freaks out. We presume that anything which is important should be worked on every day. But that’s working without the big picture in mind.
If we pull back to say “I want to ship this project in 3 months from now and these are the 3 big things I have to have done in order to ship” then why not work one one thing for a month?
* * *
Here I want to answer a question from one of my podcast listeners, John D.:
My biggest problem with my focus comes from trying to put too many pots to the boil at once, and not having enough heat for all of them. One interesting project competes with the next to the detriment of the whole. For example, I am currently involved in two of my own little start-ups, which has distracted me from my lifeblood consulting work and stolen time away from my fitness goals. The answer of course is to be more strategic and chose the most important activities, from a whole-of-life perspective, but the excitement of a new idea is like crack.
I think John nails it with the sentiment that “the excitement of a new idea is like crack.” How do you temper that tendency to have too many brands in the fire?
This is a big part of what the phrase “honesty, clarity, and a bias toward action” is all about.
We temper our tendency to do too much by:
- Being honest with ourselves in regards to knowing what we’re capable of, what’s important to us, and what we’re responsible for.
- Having clarity about how and when we’re going to do what’s important.
- And then developing the deep personal integrity we need to be people who have a bias toward action rather than lethargy.
So yes, the excitement of a new idea is addicting, and the magnetism of its momentum can be powerful. But we have to make a choice: are we going to be perpetual starters or perpetual finishers?
At the end of the day, there isn’t a “system” or a “methodology” for this stuff. It’s just having the courage to make a choice and then go with it. We’ve heard the advice that we have to say no so we can say yes.
The Momentum Dip and Intrinsic Motivation
Imagine a chart where on the y-axis is our motivation level. 0% motivated at the bottom and 100% motivated at the top.
Then, on the x-axis, is a project’s timeline. 0% completed to 100% completed.
The chart starts out 0% motivation and 0% completion before the idea is birthed. But then when we get the idea, we usually jump up to 90% or 100% motivation at the early stages of the project. The excitement and low-hanging fruit are driving our motivation.
Then, as we get into the drudgery of the project, our motivation begins to dip. It get’s lower and lower, and we slog through the mud.
This is where a lot of people quit. They decide it’s not worth it. They get distracted by another project. Whatever.
For those that do make it a bit, then, as the light at the end of the tunnel begins to show, motivation kicks back up. We can see that we are nearing completion, and so the motivation picks back up, helping us finish the project.
(At the two ends of the spectrum we’re basically experiencing what’s called the “Temporal motivation theory”. Where basically, when the probability of success is high and the value of the reward is high, we are more motivated. We get less motivated based then there is a low probably of success and a low value of reward, as well as how much delay there will be and how sensitive we are to that delay.)
So, is there a way to help the middle-part — that Momentum Dip — to stay higher?
When we loose sight of the reward at the end of the project, when we’re no longer feeling certain of its success, and when we don’t know how much longer it will be… How do we stay steady and maintain our momentum and motivation through the boring and menial work of seeing a project through to its completion?
Put another way, how do we increase our Intrinsic Motivation?
Well, we’re more likely to be intrinsically motivated if we:
- attribute our results to factors under our own control
- believe we have the skills to be effective agents in reaching our desired goals
- are interested in mastering a topic
If you think of Motivation as being a cycle between Thought, Behavior, and Performance (where our thoughts influence our behavior, our behavior drives our performance, and our performance impacts our thoughts), then think about how you can boost each one of those areas.
How can we adopt the mindsets that help us increase our intrinsic motivation? And how can we strengthen the factors at play in the cycle of motivation?
- Think positive, be generous, sacrifice and give to others: It sounds like an inspirational poster, but it’s true. If our thoughts are paramount to our motivation, we need a healthy thought life and a healthy inner life. Cynicism, sarcasm, and the like usually feel good in the moment, but they are literally dead weight in our journey to do meaningful work.
Integrity and work ethic: being a person with a bias toward action rather than lethargy. This is how we boost our behavior.
Learning (a.k.a. sharpening the saw): is how we can grow in skill, which will increase our performance.
Accountability: working with others, and/or letting others know about your plans can give motivation.
Having short-term milestones (which are like little projects start and stops within the big project): when we are making regular progress on small but meaningful tasks, then it’s like having the wind at our backs. But if we never put our sails up (i.e. make and recognize those short-term milestones) we’ll never “catch” that wind with our sails to take advantage of it.
Having a routine or habit where you show up every day: then doing the work becomes less about inspiration and more about professionalism. And even then, over time, as our subconscious begins to expect that every day we’re going to be showing up to do the work, then the “drudgery” of that work becomes easier and easier. In fact, it becomes enjoyable.
Taking joy in the journey: if we are “waiting until this one last thing” before we can be happy or before we’ve arrived, the one last thing will never come. I’m all for moving toward goals and accomplishments, but those do not define my life and my happiness is not dependent on them. Have fun now; enjoy the journey today; cultivate meaningful relationships in this season; don’t wait until that one more thing is finally done.
For me, when I’m feeling anxious or stressed about a task or a project, or I’m losing my motivation on it, then it can be helpful to ask why.
- Why am I doing this?
- Why am I anxious or stressed out?
- Why do I feel the need to have all these other brands in the fire, too?
So often I’ll find that I’m doing something for a reason I don’t even know — it seemed like a good idea at the time, or I committed to it in a moment of weakness, or whatever.
Or I’ll re-discover that yes, this project is important and if I’m feeling stressed about it then how can I change my approach or timeline to completing it, or how can I free up time and energy from somewhere else.
Moreover, when I’m feeling anxious in my work life, it could be due to imbalance in the other areas of life: personal, relational, physical.
Just in the same way that having balance and health in all the areas of our life contributes to the health of the other areas, so too does imbalance in one or more areas cause an imbalance in the others.
For instance, I recently read about one of the experiments tried by the noted psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mi-Hai Cheeck-sent-Me-Hai—lee). He told people to only do instrumental activities all day long. Literally, they were not allowed to have fun.
From Christine Carter’s book The Sweet Spot, she says says:
Csikszentmihalyi unintentionally induced textbook cases of generalized anxiety disorder in people simply by instructing his subjects as follows: From the time you wake up until 9:00 p.m., he explained, “We would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing anything that is ‘play’ or ‘non-instrumental.’” … Following these instructions for just forty-eight hours produced symptoms of serious anxiety in research subjects—restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension—all by eliminating flow and play from their lives. In other words, we get anxious when we aren’t having any fun.
After 2 days he ended the experiment because of the extreme negative effects it was having on the test subjects.
Speaking of Professor Csikszentmihalyi, he is the guy who architected the notion of “Flow”.
His theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of “flow”. I.e. a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
And when we have lots of brands in the fire, it’s extremely difficult to get into a state of flow.
So let’s wrap this all up: It is better to make a lot of progress on just a few projects at a time, than a little bit of progress on a lot of projects.
When you’re focusing on one project, it becomes one of the top ideas in your mind and everything becomes inspiration. You’re hungry to learn and discover.
When you’re focused on just one project, there is a clearer understanding of what needs to be done next. Which means less cognitive energy spent on managing all the things and more spent on doing.
And when you’re spending more time actually making progress, it’s easier to measure progress, and progress realized builds your momentum and motivation.
When your focus is undivided, the quality of work you’re doing is better. We know this on a micro-scale, “there is no such thing as multitasking” and the same goes for a slightly larger scale as well.
When your focused on a single project, it’s easier to get in the flow — and that is a naturally motivating state to be in.
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