"Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you'll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?‘"
— Marcus Aurelius
Separate your day: a time for creating, and a time for consuming and communicating. And never the twain shall meet.
Start of day. Begin your work day by not checking email or any other distractions, but start a simple to-do list on paper or with a text file. On this blank to-do list, just list your three Most Important Tasks. Or if you like, just list the One Thing you really want to accomplish today. This helps you to focus on what's important. Even better: continue this focus ritual by starting immediately on the top task on this short list of Most Important Tasks.Single-task on this important task as long as you can -- ideally until it's done. Now you've started your day with focus, and you've already accomplished something great.
Refocus ritual. While the start of day ritual is great, there are lots of things that get in the way to distract you, to mess up your focus. So every hour or two, do a refocus ritual. This only takes a minute or two. You might start it by closing down your browser and maybe other open applications, and maybe even take a walk for a couple of minutes to clear your head and get your blood circulating. Then return to your list of Most Important Tasks and figure out what you need to accomplish next. Before you check email again or go back online, work on that important task for as long as you can. Repeat this refocus ritual throughout the day, to bring yourself back. It's also nice to take some nice deep breaths to focus yourself back on the present.
Communicate first, then blocks of focus. Set a timer and give yourself 45 minutes to do email, Twitter, Facebook IM, and any reading you would normally do. Then use an Internet blocker to block these distractions for a couple of hours (up to 3-4 hours if you like) while you focus on creating. Then another 45 minutes of communicating, reading, followed by another block of distraction-free focus.
End of day. At the end of each day, you might review what you did, think of what can be improved, remind yourself to disconnect for the rest of the evening, and think about what you'll focus on tomorrow. It's a good time to reflect on your day and your life in general.
Weekly focus rituals. While it's not necessary to do a complete weekly review of everything you're doing, have done and plan to do, it can be useful to schedule 10 minutes every week to quickly bring your work and life back into the right focus. I suggest you review your projects to make sure you're not letting them get out of hand; simplify your to-do list as much as possible; review the focus rituals you've been doing to see what's working and what isn't; and basically reflect on what you're doing with work and life and whether anything needs to change.
Stop yourself when you find yourself struggling, and just pause. Be present, sensing your breath, and then everything around you. See the situation with some objectivity, instead of fleeing from it blindly. Carefully consider your options -- all of them. And then respond to the situation mindfully and with the appropriate response -- not an overreaction. In this way, you respond flexibly, appropriately, and effortlessly.
When you're going uphill, change course. Whenever you find yourself dreading something, procrastinating, forcing yourself and hating it, stop and ask yourself why. There must be a reason -- you'll never sustain any action for long if you hate doing it. Change course to something you're more excited about, and things will get easier. You may end up getting to the same destination, but you'll do it with a different course and things will flow more naturally.
Do less and less, with less and less effort. Effortless action isn't something that is achieved overnight. In fact, if you try too hard to achieve it, you've defeated yourself already.Instead, when you find yourself in a whirlwind of activity, and pushing hard, slow down, relax, and do less. Eliminate some of your motions so that you're moving with economy. Push less, and flow more. Slowly learn to do less, and then do less, finding ways of doing that require little action but lots of effectiveness. Learn to let things unfold naturally instead of pushing them to happen. Let people learn on their own instead of controlling them. Set things up so they happen without you having to steer everything. Slowly learn to use less effort, and then less than that.
Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy. Another famous quote by Lao Tzu, it's timeless and wise. If you can manage the easy, small things now, you'll save yourself the time and effort of having to do the difficult things later. This allows for more effortless action -- you work less to achieve the same results.
Reduce your tasks. If you have too many tasks, the solution is to simplify your task list. Take 10 minutes to list everything you need to do -- now just pick the 3-5 most important tasks. All the small tasks will go on a "do later" list, and you're not going to worry about them now. A good way to deal with the smaller, routine tasks that must be done (check email, pay bills, fill out paperwork, and so on) is to schedule a block of time later in the day to deal with them -- perhaps the last 30 minutes of your day, or something like that. Early in the day, focus on the important tasks.
Choose the task that excites you. Now that you've simplified your task list, look at the 3-5 tasks left and pick one task. Just one. How do you pick? Choose the task that most excites you, that feels compelling, that you're most passionate about. If you're dreading the task, put it aside for now, and pick something more interesting. If you have several tasks you're excited about, you might also consider which task will have the biggest effect on your life. What will make the biggest impact?
Single-task. Now that you've chosen one task, put the others aside for now and just focus on that one task. Clear away all distractions, including your mobile device and the Internet. Just have the application open that you need to work on that task. Now get to work. Throw yourself into it, and do it for at least 10 minutes. After that, you can take a break, but try to immerse yourself for at least 10 minutes. And have fun doing it.
A Single-tasking Life
Charles Dickens once wrote, "He did each single thing as if he did nothing else." This is a life lived fully in the moment, with a dedication to doing the best you can in anything you do -- whether that's a work project or making green tea.
Become conscious. When you start doing something, become more aware you're starting that activity. As you do it, become aware of really doing it, and of the urge to switch to something else. Paying attention is the important first step.
Clear distractions. If you're going to read, clear everything else away, so you have nothing but you and the book. If you're going to do email, close every other program and all browser tabs except the email tab, and just do that. If you're going to do a work task, have nothing else open, and turn off the phone. If you're going to eat, put away the computer and other devices and shut off the television.
Choose wisely. Don't just start doing something. Give it some thought -- do you really want to turn on the TV? Do you really want to do email right now? Is this the most important work task you can be doing?
Really pour yourself into it. If you're going to make tea, do it with complete focus, complete dedication. Put everything you have into that activity. If you're going to have a conversation, really listen, really be present. If you're going to make your bed, do it with complete attention and to the best of your abilities.
Practice. This isn't something you'll learn to do overnight. You can start right now, but you're not likely to be good at it at first. Keep at it. Practice daily, throughout the day. Do nothing else, but practice.
Productivity at Work
Pick just a few tasks each day. While you might keep a longer master list of things to do, each day you should make a short list -- just 1-3 things you really want to accomplish. Call this your Most Important Task (MIT) list. These should be extremely important tasks that will have a high-impact on your life.
Don't do anything else before doing the first thing on your short list of MITs. Don't check email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, online forums, news sites. Start your day after making your short list by working on your first MIT.
Clear distractions. Shut off phones, close the browser if possible, close your IM program if you have one, even disconnect your Internet if you can stand it.
One task at a time. Keep things simple, focused and effective by single-tasking. Focus on one task until it's done, then move to the next.
If you feel the urge to check your email or switch to another task, stop yourself. Breathe deeply.Re-focus yourself. Get back to the task at hand.
Keep on your MITs until you're done. Then you have time for email, paperwork, routine tasks, etc. Or if you have the time, pick another set of MITs.
If other things come up, note them on a piece of paper or small notebook. These are notes for things to do or follow-up on later, or ideas. Just take a short note, and then get back to your MIT.