One thing at a time (a.k.a. Focus 101)

I’ve been posting about focus and systems a lot lately, but I thought I’d use today to get back to the basics.

Many of my readers probably don’t need this: Those of you who are proficient systematizers and who are already looking for new ways to improve your focus.

But for anyone who’s lost in piles of projects and tasks, without a clear picture of what you are supposed to be doing right now, this post is for you.

Here are the three basic steps to knocking things out, one at a time, even if you don’t have any system already set up.

1. Quickly write down your 3-10 most urgent/important things

Writing things down is the most basic, most important element of systematization. You don’t want to juggle things in your head; that’s a recipe for confusion and distress. Write down exactly what it is that needs to be done so you can look at it with your eyes, not just in your mind.

These 3-10 things should comprise absolutely everything you’re currently worried about needing to get done where you are today. If you think you should address it within the next few hours, put it on the list.

Next we’ll eliminate all stress connected with those things.

2. Make up an order to get those things done

Take that list of 3-10 most urgent items and write down what order you’re going to do them in over the next few hours.

You can set each task up one of two ways:

  1. Work on the task until it’s completed (e.g. until the email is sent)
  2. Work on the task for a certain amount of time (e.g. until you’ve spent 25 minutes on the proposal draft)

Decide based on whether it’s something you (1) actually have to finish or (2) just need to make some progress on.

Try to set it up so that you can get all those tasks done in the next 4 hours. Personally, I like to choose both options 1 and 2 at the same time for all my tasks, because that makes me race against the clock to complete each one. As I’ve written before, urgency makes us work better.

3. Execute without distraction

Look at the first item on the list. Look at it carefully, because until you’re done with that item, you aren’t allowed to think about anything else.

That’s right. Since every other item on the list is written down, you can rest assured that you’re going to get to them eventually. The trick is to focus on the one thing you’re doing and don’t even let your mind wander to any of the others until you’re done.

If you are tempted to think about one of the other tasks on your list, just take 1 second to glance at the list and assure yourself that you will be getting to it soon; then reset your focus to the task at hand.

If you are suddenly struck with the thought of something you need to do that’s not already on your list, do not stop what you are doing to do it. Instead, just take 10 seconds to put it on the end of the list; then reset your focus to the task at hand. You’ll come back to the list later.

To reduce distractions, I also recommend closing your email and, if practical, turning off all of your phone’s alerts during each task. Check your email and phone between tasks, but don’t let them interrupt you while you are focused on something.

It really works!

This very simple system alone will get you a long way.

This process is guaranteed to make your afternoons feel much faster and more productive. You won’t be as stressed out about how much you have to do, you’ll work with much better focus, and you’ll be done sooner.

Of course, there are ways to enhance the system and make it even better, but start with just this. Do it consistently for a few weeks, and then test new things.

Never let yourself worry about more than one task at once. Systematize and focus.

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