I’ve tried pretty much every productivity method out there—the Pomodoro Technique, David Allen’s ever-popular Getting Things Done, the Eat That Frog approach, to name a few. My bookshelf overflows with productivity books: Organize Tomorrow Today, The Power of Habit, and It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys.
(The last title no doubt gives me away: I wasn’t exactly born color-coding my wardrobe.)
But I find trying out new productivity methods to be a lot like dating before I met my husband. The methods sparkle at first. I’m getting things done, eating my frogs, feeling like a happy, productive, totally capable human being. The strategy du jour works, at least temporarily. But after a month or two things start to fizzle.
Some people are naturally organized, productive, and efficient; they can see the big picture and not drop any of the thirteen balls they have up in the air. But not me.
I become so enamored with ball number three—like this article, I’m writing, I’m all in on productivity methods right now—that I forget to pick my head up. Days go by before I realize I’m behind on areas of my writing business like sending invoices, marketing outreach, or editing the third draft of my novel.
I’m not alone in my struggle to keep up with it all. A 2015 global study by Ernst and Young revealed that our modern working lives are increasingly complex—we work longer hours and we typically have more varied responsibilities. Not to mention, of course, we’ve added a slew of options to our distraction arsenal: a buzzing smartphone, cat videos begging for clicks on social media, and the internet offering a 24-hour news cycle. It’s no wonder many of us feel distracted, overwhelmed, and unable focus.
It’s a system that forced me to (finally) grapple with the time and energy constraints I’m working with and ensures that I’m giving each important area of my life the attention it needs.
Mark Forster, a British author best known for his books on productivity, is like me. He tried endless productivity methods. But eventually, they all fell short. And as he points out, it’s not time that we should focus on, he says—there are 24 hours in every single day, no matter how we slice and dice them. Instead, we need to learn to manage our attention. Life presents us with an infinite number of possibilities to pursue, but we can’t choose them all. It’s far better to select fewer things and do them well. This advice sounds familiar and straightforward enough, but few of us actually manage to practice this precise level of prioritization and focus in our lives.
I picked up Forster’s book, Get Everything Done—and Still Have Time to Play, from my local bookstore in Marin County. After reading it, I decided to give his DIY productivity method a try. He claimed that his system works all of the time. As I describe Forster’s technique, you’ll see that it contains elements that are similar to other productivity methods, but what I found is that this technique not only covers how to get the work done, but also gave me a systematic approach to decide what should be on my to-do list in the first place.
It’s a system that forced me to (finally) grapple with the time and energy constraints I’m working with and ensures that I’m giving each important area of my life the attention it needs. If you’re like me and have dozens of projects going at once, but don’t feel like you’re making progress on any of them, this may be the system you’ve been missing too.
Step #1: Inventory Your Commitments
Forster’s initial advice sounded familiar: prune your list of commitments, ruthlessly say no to projects that are not a top priority. It was an exercise I hadn’t done in awhile, and I found Forster’s approach invaluable. The key to his system is ensuring that none of the commitments listed will fall off your radar.
First, make a long list of all of the areas of commitment and activity you have in your life, work as well as personal responsibilities, all the things you have to complete along with all the things you do for fun. Then mark each category with a percentage: what percent of your day/week/month do you devote to that category? It’s important here to note that our daily errands and basic needs must also be accounted for: sleep, meals, commuting time, etc. all take up a portion of our day. (Also remember: Unless you’ve figured out how to clone yourself, your total must add up to 100%. In my first version I scheduled 110% of myself.)
Here was my initial list:
Step #2: Add Up The Percentages, Trim Your List, Repeat
My list looked long, but I didn’t think it was too long. In the spirit of simplification and focus, I decided to combine some categories, and eliminate others.
Writing a blog and teaching a weekly yoga class went first. I also cut out volunteering at my kids’ school (for just this year) to focus on volunteering with Family House, a cancer organization I care deeply about. Then I combined some of the categories that overlap (like marketing and pitching for new business).
Here’s my new list:
My next task was to assign a percentage to each category:
Step #3: Make Sure Each Category Has Enough Time To Do It Well
Forster points out that you need to apply enough time to any one category to do it well. It’s not worth dedicating yourself to a project if you can only spend a teeny amount of time on it. I decided that I wanted to give each category at least 10% of my time. Volunteering is important to me, but it’s not something I can do in a meaningful way in the same year I’m trying to finish my novel, in addition to the freelance writing work I already do, all on top of raising children. I trimmed my list again to narrow down what I want to focus on with my limited attention span.
Now I have a focused list of priorities. “Our circumstances reflect what we have been paying attention to,” Forster says. If I pay focused, regular, and sufficient attention to the seven categories I’ve selected above, then I will see meaningful progress in each of those areas.
Step #4: Set up Categories and Projects
Next, I used Todoist to set up my categories – Novel, Articles, Pitches, Paperwork, Kids, Personal, Fun – with my active sub-projects underneath each one. For example, the category of “Writing/researching articles” would include a sub-project for this article, as well as for the other pieces I’m working on. This way, every time I open my to-do list, I have a visual reminder of the categories I’ve committed myself to and I can only add sub-projects that fit under each of them.
Step #5: Add Checklists Rather Than To-Do Lists
Forster recommends using checklists instead of creating to-do lists. It may sound like mere semantics, but there’s a key difference: A to-do list usually includes a set of unrelated tasks that need to be completed within a certain time frame, usually in one day. The problem with to-do lists is that often you look at them and think, ugh. (Resistance!) Checklists, on the other hand, break a project down into smaller, sequential tasks, which reduces resistance.
Let’s say that for this article, I have come to the task to “revise draft.” If I didn’t get enough sleep last night, I might look at that task and again think, ugh. But, if I’ve created a checklist for that task of “revise draft,” the resistance melts away. My checklist includes this set of sub-tasks:
Now, when I look at what I have to do, what I immediately focus on is the first item on my checklist: “read comments from editor.” Easy! (Resistance: 0 Jackie: 10 points!) I win.
Step #6: Work In Bursts
Inner resistance isn’t the only problem you’ll face when trying to get things done. Sometimes you’ll lag behind simply because you don’t have a particular time constraint (other than the deadline) for a task like “research relevant studies.” As soon as I get frustrated or bored, Facebook or Twitter would love to entertain me—for free. On the flipside (which tends to happen more often for me) I can sometimes get so engrossed in the research I’m doing that I lose track of my larger goal to revise the article.
Having a time limit, especially a tight one, forces concentration. Forster suggests working on your checklists in timed “bursts.” When your flight is about to take off, and you only have five minutes left on wifi, you can crank out more emails in those five minutes than you’ve written all day. Forster calls this the “end-effect” and says that the most effective work is usually done at the very end of the cutoff. And once you start moving, sometimes even after only a few minutes, the resistance begins to weaken and often disappears entirely.
Timed bursts are used in the Pomodoro technique as well, but the Pomodoro method doesn’t make sure that you rotate among the different categories of your business. So, you could (and I did) spend your whole week (or month) on writing and editing bursts, forgetting to circle back to ones that include invoicing, marketing, and networking tasks.
There are several different ways of setting up your bursts—which you can read more about in the book—but I will show you what worked best for me. The nice part about the burst system is that you can change the sizes of the bursts to suit your needs.
My writing work pretty much falls into two distinct areas: there is focused, deep work (researching, writing, editing, planning) and quick, busy work (emails, calls, paperwork, etc.). I’ve found that I work most efficiently when I do my “deep work” in the morning and my “busy work” in the afternoon. For my “deep work” that requires sustained focus, I use a longer burst – usually 50 minutes. I don’t want to be interrupted every 5 minutes while writing. I follow each burst by a 5 or 10-minute break and then, if I need to keep going, another 50-minute deep burst. For busywork (like doing paperwork, sending pitches, etc.) I use a shorter burst.
Important: When the timer goes off, start the next item right away, even if you haven’t finished. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted, and your attention will lag. And never stop at a clear stopping point. Instead, go ahead and move on to the next thing. If you leave something unfinished, your brain wants to come back to complete it. It’s like an opened car door; your brain wants to come back to shut it. [Note: my timer just went off, and I had to stop here.] But, since I work through a systematic set of categories throughout the day, I will come back to this article when I come back to the “articles” category, and I will pick up this task where I left off.
Each morning, I write out my bursts on a post-it note and place it by my keyboard. The bursts keep me on track for working systematically in between each category, and the tasks and subtasks keep me on track to meet my overall objectives. So here’s what my work day of bursts looks like. All I have to do is open up my lists of tasks and subtasks, set the timer, and go:
And then my personal categories are here. House / Personal To-Dos and Quality time/Fun!
I am working now within a 50-minute “burst” and I have 9:56 left before I have to move on to a different checklist within Pitches, so I am cranking out this draft much faster, and with more focus, than I otherwise would.
If your resistance is high, start with a short burst, then add five as you go up. Forster recommends keeping it under 40, but when I’m writing, I use 50-minute bursts. Adapt to fit your needs. When you lose momentum, go back to 5 minutes. You can use bursts for your breaks too. In 8 minutes when I finish this burst, I will get a cup of coffee, stretch my legs, pet my dog Duke, and maybe read a quick news article. Forster recommends being strict with the timer, or your attention will drift.
That’s it! It’s a deceptively simple system. Yet where other systems left me feeling overwhelmed and guilty after a few weeks, Forster’s system leaves me feeling confident that I’m making measurable progress on everything I’ve decided is important to me right now. There’s no nagging guilt over areas of my life that I’m neglecting.
After a few months of working with this system, I found that my productivity improved tremendously. I felt lighter, more in control, as I’d let go of several projects and categories—teaching yoga, volunteering—that I just wasn’t able to accomplish in a meaningful way. I hope to come back to these items down the road when I have more time. But doesn’t it make sense to tackle finishing my novel first—making it the best it can be? And then, when that time slot frees up, I can take on another project. The constant variety, cycling through the categories regularly, keeps my mind fresh, and keeps me from getting bogged down in my email, or finding myself on Twitter when I’m supposed to be working.
And speaking of that, my burst is coming to an end. Time to get started on my next article before that buzzer goes off.