Last week, I suggested a way to rethink your goals and your purpose. If you spent some time following that advice, it may have helped you clarify what you really want to accomplish in the near future.
If so, that’s good. But this isn’t a TED Talk. Just being inspired isn’t enough.
Now you actually have to go do something.
And that means you need a process.
You’re Going Nowhere Without a Plan
First, start by looking at how you spend your time.
I guarantee you’re not spending it as wisely as you could. (If you were, you’d be writing your own guide about how people can get more done.)
The trick to moving toward your goals isn’t necessarily about optimizing your time. It’s about understanding how much time you have each day to spend on non-obligations, and then bargaining with yourself to spend more of that time on more productive actions.
I’ll give you an example:
I used to keep Twitter and Facebook open all day, because as a freelancer those were my connections to the outside world. I may be working on my laptop in a coffee shop, but those channels helped me stay in touch with people around the world.
They were also killing my productivity.
Instead of focusing on the tasks that actually earn me money and build my business, I would post something on Facebook or Twitter as a means of “connecting” and then I’d spend a large part of my day responding to comments or clicking on related links. Instead of getting those first three things on my to-do list done, I’d have spent half my morning debating political or aesthetic differences with total strangers.
When you add it all up, these distractions may not have amounted to a lot of time altogether — maybe only an hour’s worth of five or ten minute “breaks” throughout the day. But the collective impact of those distractions is significant, for two reasons:
- They broke my concentration away from a more important action
- They were a gateway to other posts, other articles, and other distractions — and those were the time traps that added up
The time it took me to recover from those distractions and get back into the mindset I needed to accomplish my more important tasks was significant. It was like restarting a project every twenty minutes, rather than sailing through it in an hour straight.
So I started doing something different:
Now I only check Twitter and Facebook once a day.
At the moment, I still usually leave my @ replies and Facebook mentions open, just in case a comment comes in that I feel I should respond to in a timely way… but, honestly, I’ll probably stop doing that soon too.
What’s the result of this little change?
- I get depressed far less easily because I’m spending less time reading about bad news and other people’s complaints
- I’m able to focus on important actions for much longer, and finish them faster
- Finishing more tasks faster makes me feel like I spent my day well
- Spending my day well makes me feel like I’m making progress on my goals
- Making progress on my goals feels exponentially better than a dopamine jolt from a like or comment
And yes, there are days where I slip up and check Twitter or Facebook more than once. But my new habit of training myself not to do that has become so regular that I’ve actually caught myself opening those tabs when I sit down to my laptop and I’ve closed the tabs before they even load. It’s turning into a Pavlovian response. Not being on Twitter or Facebook just feels too good to give up.
I also deleted Facebook off my phone, and I logged out of the Twitter app. Even that small action — requiring myself to have to log back in to tweet — is enough of a friction barrier that whatever I wanted to tweet can just wait until tomorrow.
I also use Buffer to schedule tweets in advance, so if I do stumble across an article I think is worth sharing, I can drop it into Buffer without having to access my tweetstream and risk spending the next 20 minutes there.
Removing this obstacle to my focus has been immensely helpful. If you also have small distractions that turn into time-sucking tumbleweeds, consider minimizing or quitting them altogether.
Okay, So You Have a Little More Time. Now What?
Say reducing your distractions opens up an extra 30 minutes in your day. (It’ll probably do a lot more, but let’s aim low for now.) What do you do with those 30 minutes?
The same thing, every day.
If you want to write more, set aside 30 minutes at the same time every day and fumble through the act of writing until your timer goes off. At the end of the week, you’ll have written for three and a half hours. Most of it may be terrible, but there will be some good stuff in there too. And it’ll get easier as you train yourself to show up every day and write.
That’s the key, by the way. The showing up.
Same thing with photography, design, music, or anything else you want to make, or practice.
Exercise? There it is. Hell, do two 15-minute bursts a day if that’s all you can squeeze into your schedule. Over the course of three months, you’ll see and feel a huge difference.
Read more? How do you think people read so many books as it is? I worked with a woman who had two young kids and she was changing careers, and she still found time to read one book a week. Meanwhile, I freelance and I haven’t read five books all year because I haven’t bothered to make the time for it.
You can build new habits through small repetitions — but only if you get started.
(I talked about this technique in my 30 day challenge, which you may want to try.)
The whole point is to make incremental progress toward your goal. Once you start to see the fruits of your efforts, you won’t want to waste time on the distractions that currently cloud your vision and serve as a cheap substitute for accomplishment. Instead, you’ll want to dedicate more time to your progress because you’ll feel something you haven’t felt in awhile: