Most of us are engaged in a never-ending battle to get more done, especially those of us who work independently. If you are working for long stretches of time by yourself, you are dependent on your ability to schedule and manage your time efficiently.
Most of us learn how to do that as schoolkids, based on a system of external influences, such as rewards and punishments (and, as Alfie Kohn wrote about in “Punished by Rewards”, rewards don’t actually work very well). If you want to direct your own time, you will have to train yourself to make a plan, eliminate distractions, and choose to follow through on the plan.
Here is an easy way to get started now:
Make a plan.
Carve out how many hours you are willing to work TODAY. Be realistic. If you’re not sure how long you can work, think back to times you’ve been productive in the past. Most people can be productive for about 3 to 4 hours before they need to get up and take a break. How long can you reasonably work and actually get something done? The trick is to book yourself for this amount of time, but NOT MORE.
OK, so let’s say you’ve now got 3-4 hours set aside. What can you reasonably accomplish in this amount of time? It’s probably less than you think. Most of us overestimate what is possible in 3-4 hours. We think we’ll write the entire term paper, finish the project, clean out the whole garage, write the business plan, etc.
One of the biggest downfalls in planning is that people often set themselves up to fail by taking on something too big. What you want at the end of the 3-4 hours is the sense of satisfaction that you did what you set out to do, and start earning YOUR OWN TRUST. Without the ability to trust that you can do what you plan, what you’re doing is hoping your project will get done, without believing that it will get done.
There is a chasm of difference there. If you overbook yourself, you will likely get up with the feeling that you couldn’t do it all. Your trust in yourself just went down, and you’re less likely to believe you can do what you set out to do. If you slightly underbook yourself, you are way more likely to be successful, and to get up feeing like you accomplished what you set out to do. That way you are building trust in yourself, and building self-esteem. The self-esteem you get from doing what you say is priceless. It’s one of the most valuable things you can possibly get, and it feels terrific.
Let’s talk about removing distractions. There are two types of distractions I’ve seen sabotage people’s work: interruptions and meanderings.
An interruption is when something unpredictable happens that stops your current train of thought, and redirects you to something new. Most common interruptions are phonecalls, text messages, people walking in the room and asking you questions, and checking email. When something interrupts you, it takes on average XX minutes to re-engage with what you were doing before you were interrupted. So if someone calls to talk to you on the phone, it costs you the five-minute phone call, plus the amount of time to context switch back to what you were doing originally. Ouch!
A classic form of meandering is web surfing; another is watching TV. It’s something that has no obvious beginning or end, and that you can lose yourself in easily for a long time. If you find yourself meandering, you will have cost yourself the time it took to meander, plus the time it takes to context switch back to what you were originally trying to do.
What can you do to eliminate distractions? The three easiest ways are: (1) turn off your phone, (2) turn off your Internet access, and (3) go somewhere that other people are silently working. It may sound draconian, but it really, really works. In particular, a large number of my clients turn off the Internet at certain times during their work cycle. You may be the kind of person who can work at home in solitude. If so, it helps to have a place where you only work. The idea is to build up the situational cues so that every time you sit down there, you know you are going to settle in and get something done.
Choose to Follow Through.
OK, so we’ve now got you to the point where you’ve come up with a realistic plan for today, you’ve eliminated the distractions, and you’re ready to get to work. There is one last step… You have to choose the work you are about to do.
One of the most destructive things I hear from people is “I need to do XYZ today.” For most people, this is a cross between fantasizing about what is possible, and beating yourself up about what hasn’t been done yet. When I hear that, I can almost guarantee there will be some amount of procrastination involved before they even start. They haven’t yet made a commitment to do it, but they are hoping that by talking about the need to get it done, they will convince some other part of themselves to get up and go do it!
Language can create incredibly powerful shifts in behavior. If you’re not sure, instead of saying “I need to do XYZ today”, you can start by saying “I am considering whether I will do XYZ today”. Before you’ve committed, that is the truth about where you are. This may sound overly pedantic, but it works.
After you’ve thought through how much time you would need, what other priorities or responsibilities you have, you’re in a position to make a commitment for today, or pass. If you pass, you’re deciding today isn’t the day, and that is totally fine.
If you commit, you’ve made a decision to press forward, and use your willpower to accomplish what you set out to do. You have an opportunity to follow through on a commitment to yourself, to build your self-esteem, and to feel great when you get it done. Don’t throw away this opportunity! You will feel awesome when it’s done!