The life of an independent worker can become troubled with many things, and one of the biggest is sticking to the plan, that’s if you even have one.
OK, so I am saying ‘you’ when perhaps it has only been me that didn’t have a plan until I discovered Brain Tracey ‘Eat That Frog’, Darren Hardy ‘The Compound Effect’, Cal Newport ‘Deep Work’ and most importantly Brian Moran ‘The 12 Week Year’.
Ideas are cheap, goals a little more expensive, but rare as hen’s teeth are effective plans that lead to ideas and goals being executed.
Execution is where most of us fall down and that is directly linked to having a plan, well an effective one, and then a way of measuring the plan’s effectiveness.
I am typing this as the founding member of procrastinators anonymous and annual winner of the ‘most disorganised person IN THE WORLD’.
There was a painful evolutionary process that I went through, but hopefully, a few tips and some good recommended reading material and you could shortcut a decade or two of experimenting, pain and failure. Although, very often, we have to learn ourselves in some way to make it stick.
The first step, put things off
The first step on the road to execution came when I stopped having ‘to-do’ lists. They became longer and longer, actually ending up being more like so tome of procrastination than an effective set of actions. So I learnt the painful lesson of less is more, looking at the most important things that would make a difference to my goals and only to do them.
Brian Tracey’s ‘Eat That Frog’ taught me to take the biggest ugliest frog first and eat that before tackling anything else, i.e. the most important thing on your list and work on that until it is done. It also taught me proactive procrastination, stop doing the unimportant shit that fools us that we are busy and only to allow time for the stuff that matters. Wow, great eh! actually being cool to put things off. This was music to my ears as serial ‘pro’ procrastinator.
You are probably thinking, ‘this bloke is slow on the uptake, we already knew that!’. However, it is amazing just how many people are indiscriminate with which daily tasks they are going to attempt to complete and in what order they do them.
The next thing once I had mastered a more selective approach to my planned daily activity was then to cull it down even further. I still thought to have 20 really important task to attempt each day was a good idea!! We all have a finite amount of willpower and concentration each day and there is no way we are going to be able to do that much, especially as the tasks were quite broad and not at all defined.
That is another thing to learn, definition of tasks. To add to your list ‘work on my book’ or ‘do my website’ or ‘make calls’ etc is too large and broad. Therefore, easy to avoid doing and very difficult to measure.
Instead, ‘re-size images for home page’, or ‘edit first 10 pages of my book’, or ‘phone 5 people’ is more likely to be executed as it is defined and not too daunting.
Action not to-do
Another hugely important step was once I had culled the list to a manageable number of tasks that were clearly defined, thus easier to do and measure, I changed the list to ‘an action’ list not a ‘to-do’ list. ‘Action’ felt hugely more positive and descriptive, where ‘to-do’ is merely optimistic and future tense. Life happens in the now, the moment of time that we are in right now. Not in the future or the past. ‘Action’ is now.
Little steps, committment and momentum
OK so once you’ve worked out what is important, likely to take you forward in the pursuit of your goals, then the next thing I learnt was to break them up.
Darren Hardy’s ‘The Compound Effect’ was a brilliant discovery, it helped me realise a very important step, commitment and the resulting momentum.
It is all well and good having an effective action plan and knowing your biggest ugliest frogs but it is the eating them part that counts, the doing, the action, the execution.
If they seem like hard work, too big, a chance to allow the ‘chimp’ in us all to hijack our progress and drag us back to instant gratification and avoidance, then we will not start it. We are hard-wired not to do too much as that uses up energy and means we have to go and gather more food, that’s why we need the chemical fixes as a reward for doing something.
However, if you break your action down into small, that don’t seem to be difficult, easy to do, and easy to repeat, then we are more likely to start and to maintain, than if they are scarily huge.
Once started, if we keep repeating these hardly noticeable actions, day in, day out, we start to get a build-up of momentum, which is easy to keep going than it is to start, a bit like when a car has to get up to speed, all the energy and fuel is used in starting and accelerating and little in maintaining.
These repetitive tasks become ingrained habits that we do each day almost on autopilot then, a bit like brushing our teeth.
The other amazing thing I discovered was the compound effect, that once you do it for long enough, the results compound. This is where commitment really comes into play because initially small steps yield very little noticeable change.
Big change can be achieved by big willpower and you can see amazing results, but they are one-offs that are hard to maintain, replicate and sustain. Peaks and troughs occur and long-term progress does not happen.
Small steps create long lasting momentum, big change and feel-good.
Shallow to deep
The next major step on the road to execution is possibly the most important of all.
We have all been sucked into the distraction vortex that is the internet, social media, smartphones and a whole wagon load of interruptions that we have all embraced in mainly the last decade and without much thought or question as to its usefulness and impact on our ability to produce our very best work.
Most of the world’s workforce, whether employed or freelance, have become knowledge workers engaged in mainly shallow repetitive tasks.
Yet the greatest things that humankind has created have been from people who spent long periods of focused ‘deep’ work studying, testing, and adapting until they created that special thing. Many worked a lifetime to create, and many continued to work to produce better and better versions of something.
We have to stop being human servers, merely receiving, modify and re-sending data in the form of email, texts, tweets, Facebook updates, App entries and so on.
I am not suggesting we ditch all that, merely change the balance between shallow work and deep work so that we create blocks of time in our daily routines to be focused on one thing and one thing only in a distraction free environment, so that we have a chance of doing our best work.
The two stand-out things from Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ was time blocks and removing notifications.
So about 6-8 months ago I removed every single notification on my phone, I had about 40 of them from all the various apps installed. That alone has been the biggest single step in helping me to be less distracted and more focused. It also made me realise that the world didn’t end if I did not instantly respond to everything and I have actually become more connected to the people who really matter and less sucked into unproductive messing around.
Like Pavlov’s dog, I had become totally addicted to my smartphone, a buzz of a notification is all that was needed to get me to respond.
I now only check social and email at certain points in the day, and another discovery, that rarely, like extremely rarely, is there anything that can’t wait a few hours if not longer.
So having removed all the pings, buzzes, click-bait and other distractions that the online world presents in abundance, I was now able to concentrate.
The next step was to adopt time blocking, so literally, plan every minute of the working day until shutdown. OK, so that does not mean 9.01 open laptop, 9.02 login, 9.03 open Chrome browser and so on. What it means is laying out the day in hourly chunks, from whenever you start work until when the day ends. Then allocate blocks of time to the things on your action list, so maybe 4-5 things, allocate time for lunch, time for trips to the internet and time to look at social media etc. But what this helps is creating defined blocks for deeply focused work and separate time for the shallow, less important, work.
Doing the deep work first, obviously, the most important goal orientated stuff from the action list means you get to deal with the big ugly frogs first.
This leads to executing the more important things first and by allocating time that will not be interrupted means that we produce our best possible work.
4 years in 1
Next up I read Brian Moran’s ’12 Week Year’ – again a book full of stuff that most of us know, but having put into one book and with his concept of shortening the time horizons, this gave me the ‘urgency’ and focus on doing the few things that really matter and with a strategy to make sure they get done. Well, done more often than ever before.
Most often we put together annual plans, based on 12 months and there in lies the problem, in January when we start, December feels a long way off and that means we feel like we have plenty of time and so we put things off. Also because we have plenty of time we choose far too many things to focus on all at once.
So what tends to happen is in the last few months we focus like crazy as we realise ‘shit’ time is running out, so things start to happen.
What Brain suggests in the book is cut a month to a week a year to 12 weeks and select 2 maybe 3 really important goals and focus on them only with a clear strategy for each. This then shortens the time horizon, it creates the urgency and the focus that we all need to get things done and we naturally, as time is shorter, cut all the stuff that really is not that important.
The key thing to that is to plan each week effectively, to measure each period, and having a simple strategy, as time is shorter, will lead to you executing more things and those things will be the ones that matter to our goals.
This was the final piece in the jigsaw for me. All the pieces fell into place and I am not cured of my lifetime of procrastination and I am still honing the skills I have learnt, but I now have a clear process, plan, and I am executing a whole lot more of what is important than I put off.
So that’s it, time to execute this blog and press ‘publish’.
Oh, if you fancy learning more then I have added in the notes below the links to our various Deep Work clubs that we run here at the hub.