Six steps to Stress-free Productivity

Reading time: 2 minutes and 12 seconds

productivity, stress free, focus, career change

Stay calm

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This is quite simply the best technique I know for staying focused on your priorities.  If you want to feel more organised, more effective and get more done, try this approach:

Step 1 – Set up a Weekly Master Task List

This process uses an old fashioned journal, so head to the store and find a properly bound notebook (ideally A4 sized across two pages such as a Moleskine).  Congratulations – this is your master task list.

On the first double page, write today’s date at the top left.  Every week, you’ll use a fresh double page to compile your master task list.  The left hand page is for work projects, the right hand page is for personal tasks.

Step 2 – Put all your projects and tasks down on paper

Start with the work page (the left hand side of the book).  Think of every project or area you are involved with and write a heading for that on the page.

Under each heading write in the specific tasks that you need to complete.  Don’t be shy about throwing everything in your mind down onto paper.  Keep going until you run out of ideas.

Now repeat this process for your personal tasks on the right hand side.  Get as detailed and specific as you can – the aim is to be complete.  If you need to buy a lightbulb, or return library books, put that in.  Also put in things you enjoy such as exercise and socialising.

The objective here is to get all of your tasks out of your brain and onto paper, so that the worry goes away.

Step 3 – Prioritise tasks

Now go through EVERY task on the page and write a priority next to them.  The priority scale is:

A-    Mission critical – this must be completed this week

B-    Important – this would be a nice to have for this week, but not vital

C-    Trivial – small and annoying, however if this is not completed, no big deal

Step 4 – Set days for completion

Now we get specific.  Look at your calendar for the week and determine how much time you have available each day for working on these tasks.  Go through your A rated tasks first and assign a day of the week for completion of these tasks.  Do the same thing for the Bs (don’t bother with the Cs).

Step 5 – Daily actions

Every morning, consult your Master Task List.  Identify the A and B tasks scheduled for the day. Take a Post-It note and write out the tasks you will accomplish and the order you plan to do them.  As you work through the list during the day, cross off each task.  At the end of the day, go back to the book and cross off all completed tasks (this feels good).

During each day, if new tasks arise or your brain remembers something that was missing from the master task list, add them in to keep the list up to date and prioritise as above.

Step 6 – Weekly refresh

At the end of every week, or the beginning of a new week (according to your preference), you need to refresh the Master List.  Start a fresh page and transfer over all remaining tasks from the prior week and add in any new ones.  If a task has been hanging around for a while and not getting done, consider if it is really important.  If not, don’t roll it over.  Now follow the process for prioritisation and scheduling for completion as above.

This simple process has helped me to create a sense of calm and assurance that nothing important gets missed.  Surprisingly, I’m not a natural list person and didn’t think it would work for me.  I’m by no means perfect, however it has certainly helped me to be much more effective and focussed.  Give this a try next week and see how it helps you – and don’t forget to share your tips about getting focused by leaving a comment.

Two Powerful Ways to Your Perfect Day

Reading time: 3 minutes and 15 seconds

Two powerful ways to boost your focus and improve productivity every day – click here to subscribe and never miss another post

Focus, Career change, procrastination

Find your focus - picture: Sergi's Blog

“Its such a perfect day – I wish I spent it with you” – Lou Reed, Perfect Day

Imagine a perfect day of focus.  From the minute you open your eyes, you are energised, in the zone and ready to go.  Throughout the day, you effortlessly work through your top priorities and get them done.  You deflect the interruptions with grace and constructively deal with the challenges that arise.  As you wind down at the end of the day, you feel fulfilled, content and satisfied.  This may sound unrealistic, unobtainable and a little bit crazy, however why not try to get as close as possible to this?

I’ve struggled with finding focus on a daily basis.  I’m a well known procrastinator, particularly when it comes to doing the most important (and for that read scary) things.  Yet recently I’ve found two really powerful techniques that have helped me immensely to move closer to having the perfect day, and here they are:

1. Plan out your day in scrupulous detail

One problem I had with being focussed and effective each day was that I didn’t even know what focus looked like.  To change this, I have taken to setting aside time each morning to create an incredibly detailed plan of attack for the day.  Starting with my prioritized to-do list (I’ll share how to create this later in the week), I work out the key priorities for the day – this includes things from work, my personal life and also how I’m going to take care of myself.  I use my calendar to see how much time I have available to make sure that this is realistic.  I then create an incredibly detailed programme for the day ahead with a blow by blow account of EXACTLY what order I will do everything and the timing for this.  For example today’s schedule looks like this:

8.30am Meditate

8.45am – Send key emails (and I have a list of exactly which ones)

9.15am – Clear out email accounts

10.00am – Go to Coffee Shop – Write four blog posts

12.30pm – Return home

12.45pm – Run – 4 miles tempo run

1.15pm – Post run stretching, shower

1.40pm – Lunch – spaghetti bolognese

2.00pm – Put postings on Linked In

2.30pm – Business Telephone calls (again I have a list of which ones)

3.30pm – Design ideal client experience

5.30pm – Scheduled business call

6.00pm – Do Crossword and relax

6.30pm – Send out personal emails

7.00pm – Cook supper, relax and read

Anyone who knows me will realise that this is the antithesis of my laid back personality.  Yet the remarkable thing is that it is 11.38am and I’m in the coffee shop finishing my second blog post of the day.

I’ve found that knowing what you want to achieve creates a real sense of focus and even if you follow the plan with 80% success, those days feel remarkably productive.  Mapping out your perfect day in obsessive detail is no guarantee of success every time, yet it gets you focused on what is most important and helps to reduce the draw of distractions during the day.  It is easier to get back on track and know what to revert to if you are thrown a curve-ball.

2. Act like you are being audited

This powerful technique came from the Change your Thoughts blog.  The key here is to act as if your actions are being audited each day.  Imagine that at the end of each day you have to justify what you did to a super critical auditor who will make you account for every second.  How easily could you justify what you did today?

To put this technique into practice, start out by “meeting the auditor” twice a day for a week – at lunchtime and at the end of the day.  Each time you meet, you need to justify your time since the last meeting – explain what you have done and what makes that important and useful.  You also have to explain your less productive time – that half hour on Facebook, the twenty minutes in the bathroom, the 3 hours watching TV.  Remember the auditor is not there to judge, only to listen and record.

The objective of this process is not to beat ourselves up, or to take all the fun out of life, it is simply to find focus.  One of my primary values is to take better care of myself and develop inner peace and happiness.  For me, finding time to meditate, run, read and simply relax and get quality time is justified and I can look the auditor in the eye with good conscience.   However, if I goofed out on the important deadline that I had and didn’t make an important call to go running, that is harder to justify.

Over time, your inner auditor will become internalised.  You’ll feel them looking over your shoulder as you start your game of Tetris and go back to finishing your spreadsheet.  It will become easier and easier to justify your time at the meetings as you find your focus improving.

So the perfect day may not happen every day, however using these techniques you can get closer to a focused and effective day to day existence.  As with all personal change some days will be better than others and you’ll need to be kind to yourself when the less good days come along.  However with persistence and patience you’ll find the Perfect Day may just be possible.  Let me know how your perfect day is, by commenting.

Find your Focus in 2010 – Feel the Fear and Do it anyway

Reading time: 2 minutes and 45 seconds

Continuing the series on Finding Focus in 2010 – 3 powerful steps to beat procrastination and overcome fear.  Click here to subscribe and never miss another post – and you’ll help us get to our big target of 500 subscribers (currently 115).  Thank you!

There is nothing to fear except fear itself” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fear – gut-wrenching, stomach-churning foreboding.  Even thinking about fear sends a shiver down my spine.  Despite this, we should all be quite grateful to our biology for this emotion.  In its primal form it is there to protect us from harm – the sabre-tooth tiger hiding in the bushes or falling over the edge of a cliff.   Unfortunately this instinct can also be a real obstacle to finding focus in our lives.  It can paralyse us with inactivity, drive procrastination and avoidance, and distract us from the here and now.  Feeling the fear and doing it anyway may be a  a cliché, however learning to manage fear can increase our focus and effectiveness .

When we feel afraid, our ever-active brains conjure up a future scenario that typically involves failure and impending doom.  Before we know it, looking for a new and more fulfilling job leads to us being rumbled by the boss, fired, losing our homes and destitute on the street, stealing to feed our families.  All this imagination requires a lot of energy and takes our eye off the ball of what is happening in the present moment.  Fear also generates powerful hormonal responses in our body (that tightness in the stomach) that literally make us freeze.  Gripped by fear, it is normal to abandon that important phone call, and find something less scary to do (this is where Google and Facebook often kick in for me).  This often causes us to lose all focus on what needed to be done and go into a loop of procrastination and delay.

Learning to understand and manage fear is the first step to overcoming it.  Here is a simple three-step process to start dealing with fear:

1. Find your fear

The first step to making a change is to understand what is happening.  Next time you find yourself procrastinating and wasting time, or avoiding an important task, stop for a minute.  The first thing to do is to figure out what is going on, and these questions may help:

  • What activity am I procrastinating about?
  • What is behind this – what am I afraid of?  (The most common fears include, fear of taking a risk, fear of failure, fear of rejection and fear of humiliation)
  • What unfortunate consequences am I anticipating and attaching to this activity?  (Let your imagination really go wild here).

Often we internalise and hide our fears, so take a little extra time to ensure you get to the root cause of the problem.

2. Rationalise your fear

Next, it is time to explore the situation.  Fear tends to be irrational and based on our own wild imagination’s ability to whip up a terrifying scare story.  Think through some of these questions:

  • How realistic is the scenario I’ve created?
  • What are other potential outcomes?
  • What would the consequences of these be?
  • How would I handle these consequences in reality?
  • How rational is this fear, really?
  • What is the best decision to make in the moment based on my desired outcome?

The objective here is to come back into the present moment and decide the most logical step to take right now.   If you are still stuck with your fear, try this next step:

3. The Power of Ten

Think through the activity you are planning to undertake.  Now ask yourself if you are to do it, how important are the potential consequences in ten hours time?  What about in ten days, ten weeks, ten months or ten years.  Use these answers to assess the fear you feel.  This helps to provide a better perspective on making choices and to diminish fear of the future implications.

Fear is a hardwired into our DNA and learning to manage fear’s effects takes time and determination.  Not one day goes by where I don’t feel afraid about something I need to do.  However, these simple steps can help us to be brave and achieve things we dreamed of but thought were impossible.  This process helps us to take life one small and determined step at a time and be more focussed every day.

Find your Focus in 2010 – Oprah’s 4 secrets of focus

Reading time: 2 minutes 48 seconds

The next in the series on finding your focus – click here to subscribe and never miss another post.

Oprah Winfrey is one of most focussed people on plant.  From humble origins she has built a one woman media machine.  Over the last 25 years she has logged over 4,000 hours of the Oprah Show, speaking to audiences in over 100 countries.  Her empire includes a magazine, book club and one of the world’s most popular websites.  Oprah is the only person to have appeared on every Time Magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world every year since its inception.  When Oprah speaks, the world listens.

So how does Oprah stay so focussed.  Here are 4 of her secrets:

1) Be Authentic – Find your Vocation

“The Biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams”

Oprah walks her truth.  Her personal drive comes from the feeling that she was put on earth for a purpose.  We all have a unique set of skills, strengths and abilities and personal values to serve.  Finding a vocation – what you were put on earth to do – creates massive personal focus.  Think about what you were put on earth to do – it needn’t be as grand an ambition as Oprah, Gandhi or Martin Luther King – perhaps it is to be a great parent, to care for others in your community, or to design a new technology to help mankind.  If you can find your purpose, you’ll feel the urge to use every second on earth to achieve this.

2) Work Smarter – be more effective than everyone else

“The Big Secret in life is there is no Big Secret.  Whatever your goal, you can get there if you are willing to work”

Oprah is renowned as one of the hardest working people on the planet – she never stops.  Yet her secret is that she has learned to work effectively – to put her energy and attention into the most important activities and let the less important things go.  Learning to work smarter is a key way to find more personal focus – it will free up energy and help you feel more fulfilled.  Later in this series, I’ll share some key ideas on how to work smarter and be more effective.

3) Never give up – don’t let them drag you down

We are each responsible for our own lives – no other person is or even can be”

Oprah could have given up before she even started.  What are the odds of a girl born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage mother becoming one of the most influential people on the planet.  Early in her career many media insiders were scathing of her rise, Time Magazine writing “In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female of ample bulk. As interviewers go, she is no match for, say, Phil Donahue.”  Her secret is the ability to live in the moment and to face triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters the same.  Oprah doesn’t’ operate in a rose-tinted wonderland where everything is wonderful.  She takes a realistic, pragmatic approach to success and failure.  She looks for the learning in every success – how to be better next time.   Think about how you can cultivate a realistic determination to achieve your vocation.

4) Help others – Follow a Higher Calling

“What I know for sure is that what you give comes back to you”

Oprah is a woman on a mission.  Everything she does is designed to help other people to make the most of their lives.  By putting the welfare of others above that of herself, she has selected a motivation beyond serving her own ego and needs.  Finding a motivation that goes beyond ourself is powerful way to increase our focus.  When others are depending on our actions, it is harder to find an excuse or wimp out of helping.  To increase your focus, consider the motivation behind your actions and look for opportunities to serve the greater good where possible.

Of course, there is only one Oprah.  Finding your focus is a very personal process, yet we can learn from her example.  One way to this is to try modelling Oprah.  Pick a day, think about the focus needed to achieve what she has and then try being her for the day.  Concentrate on acting authentically, being as effective and focussed on your priorities as possible, being indomitable and genuinely helping others.  What did it feel like to be Oprah for the day?  Please leave a comment and let everyone in the Less Ordinary community know.

Find your Focus – The Power of Now

Reading time: 3 minutes and 25 minutes

Find your focus

Find your focus

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, that’s why its called the present Eleanor Roosevelt

Finding your focus feels absolutely amazing!  The feeling of being absolutely together, engaged, energised and able to give our full attention to whatever we are doing is pretty much unbeatable.  The biggest irony is that when we are focused it is completely effortless to be there, yet it can be one of the most difficult things to achieve.  This month on Less Ordinary Living we are going to explore how you can become more focussed, so click here to subscribe and enjoy every step of this journey.

I think of being focussed as living in the moment – being completely present in our current situation.  When our mind is in this state, we are able to give all of our effort and attention to whatever we are doing or whoever we are with.  If you’ve met a master in being focused, you’ll probably also notice that they have a presence about them  Presence means living in the moment and it is another benefit of finding focus.

Probably the biggest single factor that blurs our focus is our mind.  We’ve all been gifted with a powerful super computer in our head.  However this computer keeps running 24 hours a day, throwing out thoughts and powerful emotions.  These thoughts and emotions typically relate to two things:

1)   The past – our brain is constantly picking over all the data it has taken in from our life to date.  It generates thoughts about what we have experienced, our actions, and the world around us all the time.   We pick over a conversation with our boss, how we reacted to our partner last weekend, our apparent failures to stick to our new years resolution – anything really.  These thoughts also generate emotions which are our response to the stories we are creating – guilt, shame, embarrassment, sadness, joy.

2)   The future – our brain is also imagining the future based on the data available to it.  We create endless permutations about what will happen if….  We tell ourselves that we couldn’t possibly do something because we don’t have the skills or we visualise all the terrible outcomes of taking an action (unemployment, bankruptcy, homelessness, starvation).  Sometimes we daydream about the good things that might happen, and then the dark shadow of fear appears – I couldn’t do that it would be too risky.  The emotions arising when our mind wanders to the future include excitement, anticipation and quite often fear.

The problem with all this is that when our mind is stuck in the past or the future, it blurs our focus.  We lose track of what is happening right now.   When our mind wanders we cannot be present – we phase out of conversations, we start procrastinating because we want to avoid our fears, we blow off our to do list because it our project is doomed to failure in a hundred nasty ways we’ve imagined.

So how do we start to deal with this conundrum and become more present and focussed?  Here are two approaches that will start this process based on my experience:

1)   Awareness. The first step is to become aware of what is going on in our head  Learning to detach from our thoughts and emotions is a powerful step in becoming more focussed.  Try this exercise to become more aware of what is going on upstairs:

  • Sit still and take a few deep breaths – try to clear your mind – keep a pen and paper handy
  • Try to focus all your attention on your breathing for 3 to 5 minutes
  • Thoughts will naturally emerge – when they do, simply observe them and write them down, then return to concentrating on your breathing
  • When you are finished, review your list.  Consider where the thoughts came from, which ones were taking you to the past and which to the future, and also consider how this frequency of thoughts affects your concentration and focus.

If you repeat this exercise every day for a week, you’ll start to learn how to detach from your thoughts and become more aware of them.  As you get more proficient, start to become aware of your thoughts and emotions throughout the day.  You may find that even after a week you’ll start to find more focus through this practice.

2)   Focus your attention.  If we train our mind to focus and be in the zone for short periods of time, over time we can learn to keep our mind from jumping into the past or future.  This simple 5 minute exercise is a simple way to do this:

  • Find an object that you find beautiful or interesting (a flower, piece of art etc).
  • Study the object intensely – take in its shape, colour, texture, structure, smell, feel.  Bring all your attention onto this object and bring your mind into focus on it.  Become absorbed in the object and make it the sole point of your attention for 5 minutes.
  • If thoughts arise simply acknowledge them and move your attention back to the object in hand.
  • Enjoy this time and at the end, reflect on what it felt like to be really present and focussed.

Again if you practice this exercise repeatedly you’ll find your concentration and focus improving.  You’ll learn to clear your mind of distracting thoughts and emotions from the past or about the future.

So we’ve started our journey towards finding that amazing feeling of focus consistently.  Tune in next time to continue finding your focus, or click here to subscribe so you don’t miss it.