Sometimes my days will start with the best of intentions. I’ll sit myself down at the computer in the morning, make myself a cup of coffee, check my email. A few hours later, after several hours of flicking through Reddit, Twitter and Hacker News (in addition to fielding screaming capitals URGENT) emails from colleagues, I’ll have forgotten what I even sat down at the computer to do.
It’s not that I have nothing to do. In many ways, it’s just the opposite. I have too much to do, and not enough time to do it in. I feel overwhelmed.
Particularly for freelancers like myself who work remotely, how we spend our time is a vital strategic decision. There’s no manager standing over my shoulder ordering me to get back to work, or to drag my attention away from my smartphone.
It’s easy to make lots of fancy commitments. It’s easy to say “I’m going to go to the gym”, “I’m going to do thirty minutes of Yoga every morning,” or “I’m going to get into meditation this year.” We need a trick for sticking it.
Daniel Lippman, the co-author of the Politico playbook, wakes up at 3.30am to start writing. Then he has breakfast, does some schmoozing at the Four Seasons. He’s usually done his first TV interview before he’s had lunch. And he does it before he’s set his alarm clock or had a coffee.
Lippman’s routine reminds me of another great, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway described his writing ritual as starting just as the sun began rising, then working straight through until whatever he had to say was said. He likens completing his morning of writing to making love to someone you love–being both empty and fulfilled at the same time. Upon completing that morning’s work, he would wait until the next morning to begin again, going over his ideas in his head and holding on to the anticipation of starting again the next day.
Both Lippman and Hemingway have ritual in common.
The key to success, for Lipmman and for Hemingway, is the daily ritual and the slow, deliberate progress towards their goals. There’s no heroic efforts, just doing the same things, day in and day out. Great people care about the quality of their work and they build that quality into their schedule.
Even if we don’t have anything as glamorous as a morning TV show to run, we need to become experts in time management too. Not just a “to do list” of whoever is nagging us today. That approach isn’t focused or deliberate enough.It needs to be a process that we have down whether it’s a busy day or a quiet day.
What’s the first order of business for you when you sit down at your desk? For many of us, we can’t resist checking our emails or social media. But doing this gives other people control over our agenda. Both drain our focus, and put us into a reactive mindset, which it can be hard to get out of even hours later.
Far better to start your day with a quick planning session, before technology has a chance to get in the way. Take a blank sheet of paper (this really does not seem to work if you use an online tool such as Evernote, for some reason), and ask yourself this:
“Today is over and I’ve had a wonderfully productive day. What is it that I’ve achieved?”
The reason this works so well is because it drags your focus away from urgent stuff, like making sure invoices are chased up, sending emails and managing your calendar, from important stuff like planning the next six months of content, setting up lead nurture campaigns or completing a white paper. You only have so many mental cycles in a day, and you should use them wisely.
This is the thinking behind Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants for Time Management. The better you get at focusing on important things before they become urgent, the more you will achieve.
Covey’s approach, on its own, doesn’t get you very far though. It’s good at telling you what to do, it’s not so good at making you do it.
This is where David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” routine comes into play. Take the list of things that you’ve just written and now break them down into composite tasks, starting each item with a verb. Instead of just writing “Blog post”, write down every action that will lead to that blog posts being written. You might end up with: Research market, write bullet points, finalise draft, incorporate royalty-free images.
Countless studies have shown that the more specific you can be about your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them. There’s something quite addicting about Getting Things Done too – you always have a “next action” to move onto, so you avoid the analysis paralysis that often comes with taking lots of decisions.
Next, it’s important to prioritise your list. If you just have a long list of things to do, you’ll have no incentive to get started on any of them, and you’ll end up feeling terrible. You should start your day with the item on your list that is going to consume the most mental energy, and try to end with something fun. For me, I love connecting with people but find hours of solitary writing quite tedious, so guess what gets done first? Then, when I need a bit of a pick me up in the afternoon, I get to build connections, which is one of my favourite things to do.
This whole process should take you less than ten minutes to complete, and studies show that it’s best done when you have lots of energy, so before 10am.
The whole thing will take you less than 10 minutes to complete. Yet it will continue to pay dividends throughout your day.
You’ll be amazed by the changes that starting your day with a mini-planning session will reap. You’ll start taking better decisions as you’ll be taking decisions at a time when your mind is fresh. You’ll also avoid that feeling of not knowing what to do later in the day, when you’re struggling for energy.
Now, with all that off your plate, what are you going to be able to achieve?