Blog Short #53: How to Get Your Most Important Work Done
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash
I recently finished an online course called Time Genius, created and taught by Marie Forleo. I took the course because I struggle with getting overwhelmed by the many tasks I need to do daily that interfere with working on my most important goals.
The course was packed with loads of valuable tools, and today I want to share one of them with you that’s had a surprisingly significant impact on my productivity while also decreasing feelings of overwhelm. I’m hoping you can try it too and get the same results.
Do the most important work first.
Based on one of the strategies offered in the course, I decided to start scheduling my most demanding and important work first up each day. For me, that’s writing and researching. It’s brain work that requires consistent focus and heavy engagement.
Let me give you one example of how this has worked.
For years, I’ve cooked every Friday morning for 3 or 4 hours to have food ready for the week. Afterward, I usually take a quick lunch break and then write for several hours before closing out the workday.
I decided to flip-flop that day and begin with writing. I blocked out a 4-hour period from 9 am to 1 pm and worked diligently until the time was up. Then I followed with a lunch break and did my cooking in the afternoon.
Surprisingly, I found that I was at least five times more productive writing in that morning block than in the afternoons. No exaggeration! Probably more! Even more surprising, I enjoyed cooking much more later in the day and did it faster, leaving time for answering emails and other busywork.
This one switch has made a massive difference in writing output, and as you can guess, I’m using this strategy on other days of the week as much as possible.
Writing, or any creative endeavor, or any work that requires intense focus, is called Deep Work. This description comes from Cal Newport in his book of the same title. He defines deep work as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push our cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
This type of engagement requires all of you and demands pulling out everything you’ve got. That’s why we resist it. We know it’s going to be taxing. However, once you get all the way in, you can get into that state of flow, which feels almost effortless. It’s making yourself set aside the time, sit down, and start that’s difficult.
Newport has several ideas about how to get consistent, and I learned more about these in Time Genius. I’m going to briefly list them for you so you can try them yourself.
1) Select a set time block.
Select the time of day that’s your energy sweet spot. It’s when you feel the most clear-minded, fresh, energized, and productive. For most people, it’s morning, but some do best in the afternoon or evening.
Next, create a time block you know you can commit to, and set it on your calendar. Keep in mind that most of us can only engage in 3 to 4 hours of deep work per day, and for some, it’s less. I usually set aside 4 hours if I’ve got the time. If not, I might set aside 2 hours or even an hour and a half if that’s all I have. My best time is morning, so I always set up time blocks in the AM.
2) Plan your work agenda ahead.
It’s imperative to know ahead of time what you’re going to do during your time block. If you don’t know, you’ll waste a good bit of energy and time upfront deciding. You may have different types of deep work you need to do on different days, or you do the same work each time.
The best policy is to write out what you’re going to do during each deep work time block for the week ahead. Establish a standard method of making this list. You can use a journal, a regular to-do list, or whatever works for you. Just be sure it’s the same every week. You’re building an automated habit. I use “Notes” on my iPad and check it every night before bed and review it again in the morning.
3) Remove every possible distraction before you begin.
If you don’t do this one, you won’t succeed. It’s as simple as that.
Distractions create something called “attention residue.” It’s the lagging attention that remains on one task as you try to switch to another. This also happens every time you multi-task. It works like this:
You muster up an energy surge to pull away from the first task. Then you use more energy to turn your attention to the other task (or distraction) and engage in that. To get back to where you were, even more power is required to make that u-turn and reengage in your deep work.
Distractions are dings from your phone notifying you of texts or emails, ringing, notifications appearing on your computer desktop, TV, pop-ups, other people conversing, or anything that can pull your attention away for even a moment.
Personally, I like my phone across the room where I can’t see it. Research has shown that just the presence of a phone is distracting. If you must be available for emergency calls, you can program your phone to ring only for specific numbers.
4) Set up your physical environment before starting.
Where do you do your deep work?
Select your best location. Make sure you have everything you need right there. Make it comfortable. If you drink coffee or tea or water, have it ready and sitting on your desk or side table. Get your snack. Have your computer charger ready, so you don’t have to get up and find it and plug it in.
If you’re working at an office, have your desk set up the way you like it and let other people know you’ll be unavailable for the next several hours. Use noise-canceling headphones if you need to block out chatter or other noise.
Do whatever you can to make your space inviting, comfortable, and stocked with what you need so you aren’t distracted before you’re done.
The big takeaway from focusing on your deep work at the right time of day, consistently scheduling it, and guarding that time, is that you get the reward of feeling momentum toward your goals. You reduce your overwhelm and enjoy doing your other tasks later in the day because you’ve finished the hard stuff already. It doesn’t hang over you or nag you or slip away.
Prioritizing your deep work will get you to your goals a lot faster and leave you feeling satisfied and pleased with your accomplishments.
Let me know how it works! Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
All my best,
Do you have a checklist you use? I am a big fan of checklists. 🙂
Great question! I set up my whole week ahead. Every Saturday morning, I spend 30 minutes going over my goals for the week. I also review what I did the week before to see what worked and what didn’t. Then I set up focus blocks on my calendar for the week ahead. I list the specific tasks I’ll do in each focus block. I use a written format for the review. It consists of insights (things I learned), revisions (what I need to do different), new goals, and scheduling. I’ve been doing this for over a year and have gotten pretty good at knowing how much I can accomplish in a particular time period, but sometimes in spite of all that I have to revise.:)