Struggling to focus? Find what works for you
Don't fall for articles suggesting "THIS ONE THING ALWAYS WORKS" or the "MUST DO TECHNIQUE USED BY ALL CEOS"... Finding things that work for you takes a bit of exploration and support.
I love a to-do list - not least because I am always juggling about thirty different things, and need to keep track of what i've committed to doing, but also the feeling of scratching it off the list when I've completed it.
There's a proven positive psychological effect of getting something done - a dopamine hit which makes you feel good (and you should!), but often that feeling is short lived, and we're on to the next thing. Over the course of a day, a week, a month - it's easy to forget the things we got done, and we can find ourselves. looking back and thinking "I didn't get anything done this week!" - the todo-list provides a very visible reminder that actually we did get lots of things done.
But our to-do lists often only show a fraction of the picture.
They're the tangible tasks we need to do, but frequently don't include much of the work we do to complete those tasks, or the work around those tasks. We quite often use a calendar for scheduling meetings, and notifications pop up on our phone, which means we don't need to have them on our to-do list - yet that's a big thing we do. Our days can often be punctuated or even flooded with meetings, calls, conversations - scheduled or otherwise. But they're rarely on our to-do list, and we don't 'cross them off'.
It's time to change that, by adding those things you're doing which aren't tasks, but still use up portions of your time. This includes non-client / non-output activities too, perhaps you want to give yourself some time to think on a project, or read a book, or reflect on your pricing, or .. or ... or .... All of those tasks which go into doing the work you do, but don't have visible or tangible outputs. They go on your todo list too.
You'll start to notice that as you add more than just tasks to your todo list, that you're not always in control of what appears on that list. For example, perhaps someone calls you or emails you, and you need to react to it. That was never on the to-do list, but it's become a task. Adding those tasks that you've done that are already completed is another step in helping your todo list reflect what you've got done, but also your capacity for getting things done. You'll be able to observe what proportion of tasks are set by you, and how often things are set by others. All of those tasks you didn't set, but still got done, are likely valuable effort too. Capture them and strike them off the list immediately.
There's also a school of thought around 'Getting Things Done' where small tasks each day should just be done immediately, rather than prioritising them on your todo list: "Don't add it to your todo list, just do it now, and it's done". If you subscribe to this approach, that's fine - but add it to the to-done list at least, so you're still capturing all of those things which you've completed, that were never even on the list. You'll quickly see how much of your time/effort goes to those 'small things', adding up over time.
Spending some time at the end of each day and week to look back over your to-do / to-done list now gives you a more accurate reflection of your time spent and tasks completed, not just the things you'd planned to do, but also the things you actually did.
My to-do list uses some of the techniques from bullet journaling, where I mark the importance and size of each task too, so I can prioritise the things which are urgent, do harder/complex things at the times of day when I know my brain works best, and get the small / simple things done quickly when I'm spent mentally.
These 'big/complex' to-do items naturally take more effort and time, yet they're still only one line, or one strike out on my to-do list. It really helps to break those larger tasks into smaller to-do items, but even if you're not breaking them down, literally creating a larger block on your to-do/to-done list visually shows the size or effort of the tasks, so when you look back, you're reminded: yes, it's only one item ticked off, but it was one BIG item!
For anyone still struggling to feel motivated or focus on work after the months of impact from the pandemic, or just anyone who doesn't have 100% in the tank, reflecting on how much you're getting done each should not be an exercise in "Did I get everything done?" but rather "How much am I consistently getting done?". Let's say you have 100 units of task-energy each day. Some tasks take more units (those big spaces on your to-do list), some tasks are simple and smaller. If you're consistently only getting 60 units of tasks done, yet you're also adding over 100 units of tasks to be done - you're setting yourself up for a feeling of failure every day.
This is a concept from agile, and teams understand their 'velocity' (or the amount of task units they can consistently complete each week). That velocity changes over time, as does yours. You might be able to get 120 task-units completed on a Monday, only 50 on a Friday.
If you notice that you're consistently not getting everything done you've planned, you're putting too much on your to-do list (or too many things are being added) and you need to adjust the number of items you're putting on that list each day. You're not failing to do everything, you're setting yourself up for failure, and creating a continual feeling of underperforming, which only goes to make your to-do list for tomorrow more stressful.
If you are struggling with the things on your to-do list, and you don't have any choice to reduce the amount of tasks in one day, you'll at least be more able to reflect on what you're doing each day, to identify any tasks which aren't valuable to you, so you can start trying to prioritise those tasks, but you might also need to consider ways to give yourself more task-unit energy or space over the week.
This might be looking at your to-do list over a longer period of time, and putting the higher energy work in periods where you have more energy; or it might be using techniques like pomodoro to work in bursts or sprints of time; it might be using an accountability group like Pods; or it might be even be time to buddy up with others to tackle larger projects - but at the very least, getting started with capturing the things you've done, not just the things you've go to do, is a visible reminder of what work you're actually doing, not just the work you've planned for.
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