Posts Tagged ‘Focus’

Sticky Note ListIn the unending challenge to juggle more things to do than time to do it, I tried something different this week.  I always work with short to-do lists, but this week I tried a different tactic.  I kept open in a window in front of me on my computer a simple prioritized list using the Windows Sticky Notes program, and determined to tackle the items in order, getting as many done during the work day as possible, then setting up the list for the next day before leaving work.  That’s basic to-do list management – nothing new or special.

I’ve used Outlook’s task list for a long while, but the problem is that so much time in Outlook is spent in the inbox or calendar that the task list can get lost in the competition for attention.  Sticky Notes allowed me to keep another window prominent throughout the day as a reminder.  (The fact that I used Sticky Notes is irrelevant.  A simple list in any program will do.)

However, since a crazy quantity of incoming emails usually distracts me from getting as many to-do list items completed as I should, I also made an item on the daily to-do list of spending just one hour cleaning up emails.  I limited time in my inbox to that hour daily this week.  If I was to actually take the time to handle all the emails that have come in to my inbox the past few days, it would take several hours per day of my time to address them.  The problem with doing that is that spending so much time handling emails keeps me from doing the more important work that I’m really hired to do and must do in order to make my greatest impact.

Here is a key lesson: Email is a to-do list that others create for you.

We can’t allow others to create our to-do lists.  We must make them ourselves and not let others change them.  Of course, those we report to always have the option of mandating a change in our priorities; that’s understood.  But especially for information workers in an environment where interruptions are frequent, we must set up some boundaries and processes that help us keep the focus on doing the most important things.

Have I accomplished everything requested by others this week with this approach?  No, I haven’t.  But I’ve completed some very important items that have been on my to-do list for too long, and that were previously shoved aside by spending too much time on email.  My inbox has consequently swollen in size as I write this, growing daily as unexpected items come in that others want my help with or feedback regarding.  Sadly, most of those will have to wait.  I intend to keep on getting the big-ticket important things done, devoting no more than one hour per day to responding to the other kinds of emails.  I suspect the world won’t end, even though some sending those emails may think it will.  Ultimately, I know it will take an additional body on my team to do everything that is expected of me, so I have to get the important things done first and let the rest slide.

Bottom line: don’t let others create your to-do list or divert you from the one you’ve created.

Don't Lose SightTwo months ago I wrote down the three words that serve as this post’s title: Don’t Lose Sight.  I do things like that occasionally when a random thought comes to mind that might serve as the basis for a future blog post.  Then I let it simmer for as long as necessary until it’s fully cooked in my mind and it’s time to pull it out of the oven.  This one has simmered long enough.

Unless you are in the most simple and casual of environments and lifestyles, chances are fairly good that you have many things clamoring for your attention.  Between work, family, other relationships, basic survival, education, entertainment, hopes, volunteerism, taking care of material possessions, discovering and living out one’s perceived purpose in life, and who knows what else, most of us do not lack for ways to invest the 24 hours we are given daily.  In fact, many are challenged to decide what doesn’t get done on a long to-do list.  What are the mandatory tasks versus items that will have to remain on the wish list?

When so many competing tasks vie for our attention, it is frighteningly easy to get distracted and off course.  It is simple to lose sight of the goal, of those things which are most important, and to wander off in some other attractive direction until we look up one day and realize we are no longer remotely close to heading in the direction we set out to follow.

When I consider the competing opportunities for involvement in my life, I am on one hand blessed to have so many interests and opportunities and ways that bring joy and gladness.  On the other hand, there are more of those available than time and physical limitations allow, so I must constantly prioritize and say “no” to some things that I’d really like to do.

The biggest single consumer of my time is my work, understandably, and that won’t change.  Still, I strive to limit it to the 50+ hours per week I average, even though there is always much more to do.  I set ambitious goals at the start of the year about reading and blogging and exercise and living out my faith – goals that at a high level exist to strike a healthy balance between body, mind and spirit.  Here at the mid-February point, I’m a little behind in some of those goals, so the challenge is not to stress about them, but to bite off daily what is reasonable and carry on without such goals becoming a burden that weighs me down and has the opposite effect from what is intended.  At least I know the answer should someone ask me to take on more right now: the answer is a resounding “no” until something else comes off my calendar.

Being busy does not guarantee that one is doing things that are meaningful and worthwhile.  Being busy may impress some onlookers, but it probably doesn’t impress the family member who feels neglected, the coworkers who aren’t seeing the results needed for the team, the neighbors or friends or passersby who feel invisible due to your lack of acknowledgement and attention, those in your community of faith who see you burning a candle at both ends but who don’t see much lasting light and warmth from your efforts, or the God who gave us life and is waiting for the time, worship and attention He deserves.

Being busy is tiring.  It is wrong to equate busyness with fulfillment or effectiveness.  It is better to do a few things really well than to do a mediocre job on many tasks.  It takes discipline and guts and wisdom to learn to say “no” to some things so that you can say “yes” to the most important ones, and do them well.  That is an ongoing learning experience for me that I don’t expect to master once and for all this side of heaven.

So what do I need to do?  I need to think daily about what is most important – not just what appears to be urgent.  I need to remind myself of my core values and principles and act accordingly.  I need to take positive action daily to live out those priorities and be willing to say “no” to opportunities that would be a distraction, be they pleasant and desirable or not.  I need to keep focused on the primary goal, on the prize.  Perhaps the same is true for you as well.

Don’t lose sight.

SevensI knew that accomplishing the goal of writing a brief lesson learned blog post for all 366 days of 2012 would be a challenge.  I had never attempted anything remotely close to that before, so the process itself was as much a learning experience as the subjects of individual daily lessons posted.  Having had a week to reflect on the completion of that 130,000+ word venture, here are seven lessons I take away from the experience:

1. It is more difficult to write few words than to write many words.  Each of my daily lessons was to be no more than 366 words, and for most of those I admit to having to rid them of too much written on my first draft.  Deciding what entire lines of thought had to be sacrificed and how to better phrase something in fewer words is difficult, but a very valuable lesson.  A well-known quote comes to mind: “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.” – Blaise Pascal, Lettres Provinciales (1656-1657), no. 16. (also attributed to Mark Twain and others – take your pick).  It also helped as I wrote to remember the words of Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

2. Reflecting on each day’s events is a constant source of learning.  No day comes and goes without the opportunity to learn something from what transpires.  Intentionally taking time near the end of the day to reflect on events, conversations, feelings, successes, failures, etc. makes that learning far more likely.

3. If you write it, they won’t necessarily come.  My writing was primarily for me and not for others.  Still, I am grateful for the more than 10,000 views the blog received during 2012.  That’s actually a very small number given the quantity of posts, so one of the lessons is that if a blogger really wants readers, he has to do more than just write.  I knew that, of course, before writing last year, but the experience confirmed that there is other promotional work to be done (one of my goals for 2013).

4. Writing is addictive.  Gloria Steinam (probably the only time you will ever see me quote her) said, “I do not like to write – I like to have written.”  While I understand her point, I confess that I really do like to write as well – to sit at the keyboard, think things through, write, revise, repeat.  If I could fill my days (and pay my bills) doing nothing but this, I would gladly do so.  After just one week of changing my pattern to blogging every other day instead of every day, I feel like I’ve slacked off tremendously.  The current pattern, though, allows me more time to write and reflect on particular posts than last year’s daily process, so this year’s emphasis is more on quality than quantity.  While I don’t expect to ever be a “professional” writer, I understand the sentiment of Leo Rosten: “The only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it.”

5. Ambitious goals can be met one day at a time.  Setting out to write 366 posts is daunting to say the least, but I didn’t have to write all 366 at once.  I needed to write one at a time.  That, I could do.  The same is true for any ambitious goal – break it down into bite-sized pieces and then take one bite.

6. If you get behind, don’t panic or quit.  There were a number of times throughout the year when I was one or more days behind in posting.  That’s OK.  I just needed to post two per day now and then (usually weekends) to eventually get caught up.

7. Engagement with readers is encouraging.  The periodic affirmation that comes from the occasional “like” of a post or reader comment is wonderfully encouraging.  It would be nice to help or touch many thousands with what I write, but connecting positively with one other person rejuvenates me and keeps me going.  So my thanks go to everyone who ever engages with me here or elsewhere in response to what I write.  You are a hefty part of my inspiration to continue.

Of course, the 366 daily lessons learned from last year were additional lessons already shared here about a host of subjects.  I wanted to reflect on the overall experience, though, and see what blogging itself every day for a year yielded.  The above seven lessons are that result for me.

Top 10 ListBelow are the most viewed posts on this blog during 2012.  If you missed one of them or have long since forgotten what it was about, check it out.  Most are quick lessons learned of 366 words or less (the exceptions being #2 and #9 – both posts from 2011 that still were among the most viewed in 2012).

1. Be There: Giving full attention to the people you are with and not being distracted by technology or anything else.

2. Trust: The importance of trust between people, and implications if trust is broken, especially in relationships at work.

3. Sometimes All It Takes Is 20 Seconds: Inspired by the movie We Bought a Zoo, thoughts about how 20 seconds of insane courage can change your life.

4. Companies Need Customer Service Like Granny Provides: Based on my regular experiences with a sweet, old lady when I donate blood at the Red Cross, this is what customer service should be like.

5. You Need Someone At Work To Relate To: Being the only person at your business doing your type of work can be very lonely.  Having one other person to relate to can help tremendously.

6. Kisses Are Priceless: From Valentine’s Day, 2012, read about two unexpected kisses, how they made my day and why kisses are priceless.

7. Exhaustion Can Hurt So Good: After an extreme Muddy Fanatic race with good friends, the mind and spirit can be so satisfied even if the body is spent.

8. Don’t Pre-Judge: Whether dealing with people or animals, you can easily make wrong assumptions and treat others differently if you pre-judge them.

9. More Questions Than Answers: Still-unanswered questions from 2011 regarding social learning and the use of social media in learning.

10. Evil Is Real, and So Is the Cure: Reflections following the tragic elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut from my Christian worldview.

Thanks to all the readers who made these the most read.  I look forward to seeing what interests you this year.

Bad EmailI read a brief article last weekend by Jeremiah Owyang that led me to try something new at work this past week.  The article was called “Pay Yourself First” and it dealt with being more intentional about getting your to-do list items done early in the day instead of allowing others to impose their to-do list on you.  Specifically, it suggested not opening your email at the start of the work day.  As someone has noted, email is a to-do list created for you by someone else.  It is a reactive medium that has the unintended consequence of producing more email for you the more you respond to others.

Instead, Owyang suggests doing something of significance to start your day where you can focus and get it done without the distraction of emails tapping on your shoulder for attention.  So that’s what I did Monday through Thursday this week.  (Friday was an all-day team meeting that demanded a different schedule.)  I didn’t open my email until mid-morning for four days except to find a conference call number for one call on Thursday.

How did it work out?  I got more backlogged things marked off of my to-do list this week than I have in the past month.  I also worked more hours than normal putting in some evening time to finally knock off those accumulating emails.  Still, the bottom line is that I got more done this week and I feel good about it.

For several months I have blocked out my mornings at work on my calendar to discourage people from scheduling morning meetings, thus allowing me to focus on getting my to-do list items done instead of theirs.  Now I think I’ve found an additional thing I can do in the first half of those morning hours to help me accomplish even more.  I plan to continue keeping my work email closed until about 10:00 a.m., concentrating on my important daily tasks and on tackling some backlogged but significant need that has been delayed far too long.

You might think about giving it a try for a week.  I promise the world won’t end.

Leap year lesson #343 is Pay yourself first.