One of the biggest challenges writers face is a blizzard of busyness and distraction, which can keep us from accomplishing what we need to do in the course of the day. We need tools to help us focus on what’s most important. In our previous podcasts on focus, we’ve explored ways to focus on the big picture. Now it’s time to tackle the day-to-day!
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One of the biggest challenges we face in this world of busyness, technology, and relentless stimulation is maintaining focus on what truly matters to us. In the two previous episodes in this series on focus (episode 177 and 178) we discussed some ways to focus your life and career around your values and to prune your activities and commitments accordingly.
Today we want to discuss focus on a smaller scale. A daily, and even a moment-by-moment scale. When push comes to shove, we still need to be able to focus on our tasks today or they won’t get done. And we want those tasks to be the right tasks to keep us on track with our career and life focus.
Since we’ve talked so much about how creating focus is, in essence, making a decision about what we will and won’t spend time on, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that focus on a smaller scale also requires a decision. On a daily basis, we have to choose what to say yes to and what to say no to. How do we do that? How do we prioritize the best activity for each day? Remember the goal isn’t just to get stuff done, it’s to get the right stuff done.
First, and most important, this is a question that needs to be bathed in prayer. Not only can you be praying about this, but when we interviewed Shadia Hrichi in episodes 181 & 182, we talked about how to build a prayer team. A simple yet critical thing that you can be asking a prayer team to pray for is a sensitivity to God’s leading as you order your tasks for each day, as you consider what needs to happen each day.
There’s also some practical business wisdom we can use.
The Lee Ivy Method
James Clear, the author of the book Atomic Habits, which we’ve discussed in the past, wrote an interesting article that helps address the question of prioritizing tasks. His article is about the Lee Ivy method for achieving peak productivity—which is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done.
The steps of the Lee Ivy method, as he lists them in his article, are:
1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow.
Do not write down more than six tasks.
You could just as easily choose five or four, or whatever number works best for you. There’s nothing magical about six items. You don’t want to have so many things on the list that it’s stressful and unrealistic, or so few things on the list that you finish everything and waste productive time because you don’t know what to do next.
If you have too few items, another danger is that the tasks expand to take up the time allotted. You end up taking far longer than necessary on any given task. Also realize that this method is about daily goals. So if, for example, you’re in the middle of writing or editing your manuscript, obviously that can’t be done in one day. The solution is to break that big project down into daily goals. A daily goal could be to write 1000 words, or maybe a time goal works better for you. So the task might be to write for one hour.
2. Prioritize those six items (or the number that works for you) in order of their true importance.
How do you do that? Prayer can help you discern the order.
Another idea that can help you determine order of importance is a question we discussed in part 2 of our focus series. It’s from a book by Gary Keller called The One Thing. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing I can do, that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Or, it might be easier to phrase it: “What’s the best thing I can do to make everything else easier or unnecessary.”
What comes out of this question might surprise you. For example, I suffer from fibromyalgia, which is now affecting my ribs. My hubby and I have a golden retriever who sheds a lot, creating a need for vacuuming, lest we be kicking up dog hair with every step we take. Vacuuming needs to happen for life to be functional.
However, vacuuming inflames my ribs, which affects my ability to write and edit. That makes my work harder. I ask myself, “What’s the one thing I can do to make my work less painful and therefore easier?”
The answer turns out to be that I need to find a vacuuming solution such that vacuuming will be easier or unnecessary. I think we can all agree that the dog stays, so that’s not a solution. Having my hubby vacuum has been a short term solution, but he doesn’t always have the time, and frankly he’s not great at it.
The next idea? Get a robot vacuum like a Roomba or whatever. Putting off this task of finding a robot vacuum, or making this task less important, ultimately makes all my work harder. Prioritizing this task makes my work going forward easier and more efficient.
3. When you start work tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task.
You work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task. Now if this first task happens to be a three hour project, we’re not saying you can’t take a bathroom break, or stand up and stretch, or get a second cup of coffee, or take a ten-minute break to play with your dog, or whatever to freshen your mind. Those things are good and often necessary.
What we are saying is that if this is what you’ve identified as the most important task of the day, stick with it. The temptation will be to skip to another project when this one gets difficult or tiring or boring. Instead, that’s the time for a short little break.
As soon as we give in to the temptation to switch tasks, we’re in danger of not finishing the most important thing on our agenda for the day, because we don’t know what will come up that will end our work day. It could be a health issue that rears its ugly head, or an emergency with your family, or even some type of fantastic opportunity you don’t want to miss out on. So, finish that first and most important task of the day before moving on to the second task on the list.
4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion.
At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
5. Repeat this process every working day.
Sounds simple, right? But few people actually do this, let alone adhere to it strictly or do it consistently. But this method has proven highly effective for several reasons, which James Clear also discusses in his article.
Why Is the Lee Ivy Method Affective?
First, it’s not complicated: Do what’s most important first.
Sometimes we overcomplicate our lives and our decisions, when we often just need to pray about it and move on. We need to trust that God is guiding us. When life happens, when our day gets messed up, an emergency happens, or whatever, we can’t beat ourselves up. We can simply deal with those situations as best we can and then get back to the tasks we listed.
Second, the Lee Ivy method forces us to make difficult decisions and commit to them.
Remember what we’ve been saying over and over: focus is about making decisions. Waffling back and forth wastes time—time we could spend getting important tasks done.
Third, we can start our day with no friction over having to decide what to do. We already know what we need to do, so there’s no reason not to plunge in. That said, getting started on anything requires that we overcome inertia: the tendency to do nothing. If we’re naturally a slow starter, or not a morning person, or whatever, overcoming inertia can be more of a challenge. Knowing what the plan is can help push us forward into motion.
It’s also nice that we don’t have to be thinking or worrying the night before about what we need to get done the next day. It’s already written down, there’s already a plan. That frees our minds for relaxation.
Fourth, the Lee Ivy method forbids multitasking.
While our modern culture may idolize this ability to multitask, the truth is that busyness—doing many things—is not the same as doing the right thing well. Furthermore, our brains aren’t physically wired to multitask. Here’s a great quote from an article on Psychology Today’s website:
“The research shows that people can attend to only one cognitive task at a time. You can only be thinking about one thing at a time. You can only be conducting one mental activity at a time.”
Because we can’t actually multitask, what we’re really doing is switching between tasks rather than performing them simultaneously. Sadly, we don’t even do that well. Worse, research has also shown that we think we do it better than we do. We aren’t capable of realizing just how inefficient we are. So if you’re out there thinking, “That can’t be true. I’m great at multitasking,” well, you’ve just proven the point of that research result.
Bottom line? Our. Brains. Can’t. Do. It. God did not make us that way.
Why is switching back and forth between tasks a problem? There’s a mental cost to it. Research shows that it creates a reduction of accuracy and speed. While we may think we’re doing so well at “multitasking” or switching back and forth, really we’re going more slowly than we would if we focus on one thing at a time, and we’re making more mistakes.
We didn’t even mention the time loss involved in diving back into each task after a switch, nor the brain energy all this eats up. Bottom line, don’t do it.
Drawbacks to the Lee Ivy Method
We’ve listed several reasons why the Lee Ivy method is often successful, but it does have at least one possible drawback: If the key to the method is to do the most important task first everyday, what happens if writing is your most important task, but your creative brain doesn’t wake up until noon? That would mean you’re trying to do your most important task in the morning, at a time that’s least suitable for that task, which doesn’t exactly set you up for quality focus.
Now, some people can, over time, train their creativity to happen whenever they need it to. That’s great. But if that’s not you, then the solution is to adjust the Lee Ivy system, or any other system that you want to use, to suit who you are. Maybe you need to coordinate your most important tasks with your highest level of mental or creative energy instead.
The goal is still to figure out how to structure your day in a way that allows you to successfully accomplish your most important tasks each day. Accomplishing those tasks means your day has been focused on what matters most to you.
Complete or Kill
One other thing we want to say about the Lee Ivy method, or any other strategy that utilizes a task list, is that if a task keeps showing up as number five or six on your list of important tasks for the day, and you never get to it— it just keeps showing up on the next day’s tasks and never seems to move higher than five or six on that list either, it may be a sign that it shouldn’t be on the list at all. A “complete or kill” mentality might be helpful for you.
If it truly needs to be completed, make yourself get it done.
It might be hanging around on the list because you’re simply procrastinating. Maybe it’s a difficult or tedious task. We all have tasks like that, and we need a “just do it” mentality. It can be helpful to plan a nice reward for ourselves when we do get it done.
Or maybe the problem with trying to get that pesky task done is that it’s overwhelming because it’s too big. We can help ourselves by breaking it down into smaller tasks that we can then put on our list in order of importance.
Or maybe how to do that task needs to be researched first, so we should put that on our list.
If none of those things apply, it’s possible that this task simply doesn’t need to get done at all, and we just haven’t recognized it or haven’t admitted it or haven’t wanted to let it go. If we want to achieve focus in our days, we need to make those tough choices. Face the fact that we’re not going to complete it, and kill it instead. Just delete it. Or perhaps we can put it on a “not now” list so we’ll stop being distracted by it today.
Goal Setting to the Now
Another tactic we can use to help us create focus on a daily, and even moment-by-moment basis is something Gary Keller talks about in his book The One Thing.
Gary Keller describes a process he calls Goal Setting to the Now. I loved this idea because it’s another way to connect our large scale goals with small scale focus. To put this in practice, you ask yourself:
What is the big goal I want to achieve?
Gary Keller phrases the question as, “What’s the one thing I want to do someday.” We’re modifying it because when I hear, “What do I want to do someday?” I always think, “I want to take a cruise to Alaska and see whales.” But that doesn’t mean my whole life or career is focused on that. Everyone needs to feel free to phrase the question in whatever way works for them.
This big goal, or this “someday thing,” can be an overall career goal such as, “I want to be able to quit my day job and be a full time writer.” Or it can be a goal you want to achieve this year or whatever. If it’s a lifetime goal, then go to this question next:
What’s the ONE thing I can do in the next five years to be on track to achieve that lifetime goal?
Once you have that answer, then you ask:
What’s the ONE thing I can do this year to be on track to achieve that five-year goal, so that I’m on track to achieve my big lifetime goal?
That answer gives you a one year goal. Then you ask:
What’s the ONE thing I can do this month to be on track to meet my one-year goal, to be on track to achieve that five-year goal, so that I’m on track to achieve my big lifetime goal?
Then you move on to the next question:
What’s the ONE thing I can do this week to be on track to meet my goal for the month, so that I can meet my goal for the year…and so on.
Then once you know your weekly goal, ask:
What’s the ONE thing I can do today to be on track to meet my weekly goal, so that I can be on track to meet my monthly goal, so that I can meet my goal for the year…and so on.
Lastly, and hopefully you’ve been hanging in there with us on this, when you know your daily goal, you would ask:
What’s the ONE thing I can do right now to be on track to meet my daily goal, so that I can be on track to meet my weekly goal, so that I can be on track to meet my monthly goal, so that I can be on track to meet my one-year goal, so that I can be on track to meet my five-year goal, so that I can be on track to meet my lifetime goal?
That’s a lot to go through, but for some of us, the power of connecting what we’re doing right now, in this moment, to what we want in our lifetime is a powerful motivator, as well as a source of clarification for what matters to us. This can help us justify why we’re making the choice we are, and it can create focus on a daily scale as well as a moment-by-moment scale.
One more thing we want to clarify. While Gary Keller’s system of questioning can work brilliantly for many folks, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. Some people may feel overwhelmed just trying to get through it all. That’s okay! If it’s overwhelming or too complicated for you, don’t use it. We’re all made in God’s image, but we’re all unique as well. Find the system that works for you.
Erin loves Gary Keller’s system, and the Lee Ivy method, and her Omnifocus to-do list program. She has lots of obligations and tasks to manage, and using those tools prayerfully works for her.
Karen prefers a very different and simple system. She prays at the beginning of each day, “Okay, God, what do you want me to do today?” That’s how she prioritizes. She takes it to him and simply does what he impresses on her to do that day, trusting that God is guiding her. It’s a no frills method that works for her.
There are many different systems and many different types of people, but there’s only one God. He knows us inside and out, and he knows exactly what we need in order to accomplish the tasks he’s given us in the timeframe he wants us to accomplish them. Trust him, honor him, and be obedient. That’s success!
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THE PODCAST
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
What helps you decide what to focus on each day?
Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!
A big thank you to our March sponsor of the month, Tammy Partlow! She’s a speaker at women’s retreats, and her debut novel Blood Beneath the Pines, a suspense set in the deep South, is now available. She’s hard at work on the second book of the series!
Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast P.S. for their fabulous sound editing!
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