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How To Achieve Anything

In order to achieve anything – and feel good about it – we must accomplish ‘stuff’. This can be goals we’ve set, solving big problems, or successfully handling crises. But how do we actually do this? How do we beat our goals, solve those tricky problems, or navigate the storms?

One small step at a time.

Those age-old sayings are not just fairy tales. More and more, I am beginning to realise the wisdom behind them.

“One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time.”

Whatever your mountain might be, the biggest move towards the summit is by taking that first step. And repeating that step until you reach the top.

Along the way there will be many stumbling blocks, issues, and points of excruciating frustration. How do you get past them? Continue those little steps.

It is amazing how far we get just by continuing to walk. One foot in front of the other. Stepping, walking, climbing. It all needs to be done in order for our goals to be met. Our problems to be solved.

“If there is no wind, row.” Proverb

I used to view my situations as huge, confusing, impenetrable masses. With no possible way to get to the other side. I’d try this, or try that, but by the end of the day, there would be no success. No success brought disappointment. Disappointment brought demotivation.

However, by breaking up these masses into smaller clusters, things became easier. The focus of each cluster being on a specific aspect, I found I could now tackle the situations one piece at a time. As I worked through these clusters, slowly but surely, the main muddled mass of a problem would begin to wear thinner and thinner. And eventually dissipate.

Success! What a fantastic feeling.

“Change your life by changing your mind.” Jeff Goins

Now, how does this apply to you? Simple really. Whenever you are presented with a pressing situation, or want to achieve a massive goal, or some other massive weight you need to get off your chest, why not try break it down into smaller, more manageable, chunks?

These smaller pieces equate to the ‘steps up a mountain’ mentioned earlier. Smaller pieces are ‘easier’ to achieve. And once the first piece is achieved, you will gain the confidence to tackle the next piece, and the next after that.

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” Alexander the Great

What you can take away from this today is that no situation is too big for you to tackle and focus on smaller areas that you can achieve. Eventually (and before you least expect it) you will reach the successful outcome you are yearning for.

How To Focus And Churn Through Tasks Faster

You have a million tasks to get through. Many of them high priority, many of them not. Some of them quick and easy, others are most definitely not. You sit and ask yourself “Where the hell do I start?”.

So you pick a task, and start working on it. After a number of minutes, an email comes into your inbox. You have a look at it, and start working on that email. As you’re working on this new email, you have a thought about something else, and open up your browser to investigate further. You carry on like this for a while and before you know it, it’s been a couple of hours, you’ve been busy, but none of the tasks you started have been completed.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Most of us work this way every single day. We work work work, but don’t actually get anywhere. There is a way to work smarter, not harder. A way to start – and complete – tasks like a machine.

And that is by using focus periods to complete tasks.

In it’s simplest form, these focus periods are chunks of time that you set aside to complete a task, or set of tasks, that you have prioritised to be completed. You focus on the task, and only that task. No reading of email, no going off on a tangent when your thoughts wonder. Only. The. Task. At. Hand.

I recently discovered this method through my research for more effective productivity, and came across the Pomodoro Technique as well as a few similar concepts. The Pomodoro Technique is comprised of strict 25 minute sessions (or pomodoros), 5 minute breaks in between, and a 20 minute break every fourth pomodoro. However, in my daily schedule, this simply does not work. In turn, the method I use is a hybrid of the Pomodoro Technique, whereby I’ve adjusted the lengths of the focus periods slightly.

I personally find 25 minutes per focus period is just too short to accomplish any decent tasks. In turn, I use 35 minute chunks. I’m also not as strict on the breaks, as there isn’t a long enough period where I’m at my desk for a given length of time – either through meetings or assisting my team.

In summary, this is how I churn through my tasks. I’ve found a huge increase in my productivity since using this method. And I sure hope you can too.

  1. Specify a task, or tasks, you wish to complete in the focus period.
  2. Start the timer.
  3. Complete the tasks.
  4. Don’t get distracted by thoughts or emails
  5. NO DISTRACTIONS
  6. Have a 5 minute break after the timer has ended.
  7. Repeat as necessary.

TIP: A handy little application that I use for timing the focus periods is Focus Booster.

[image source: Dart by Asif Akbar]

Get Tasks Sorted With These Proven Tactics

In a previous post, I described the 3 core methods I use to manage my email. I described an efficient system I use to manage and file my emails.

However, it is all well and good having a system, but that is all it is – a filing system. In this post I will expand on the foundation previously mentioned, and go over an additional 3 methods I use to efficiently and effectively read, prioritise, and action incoming emails. A lot of things we read about ‘productivity’ tell us to “use this application or that one”. “Use a notepad for your to-do lists”. “You have to use something else to manage your time”.

Stuff that.

I’m a huge fan of keeping things simple. Why use multiple applications and trinkets to achieve something, when one application will do? Email applications – especially Microsoft Outlook – are premium task management suites that contain functionality in order for you to fully optimise your tasks, in addition to the usual email functions.

Right, enough time wasting. Let’s move on to getting stuff done.

1. Read

Read as they arrive

Many productivity tips tell you to only read emails once or twice a day.

Again, Stuff that.

In some industries, it is just not viable to close your email application. Services rely on it, systems rely on it, deadlines rely on it.

For me personally, I hate opening my email after a number of hours (as recommended elsewhere), only to find 20-something unread emails that I need to attend to. My heart sinks, my stress spikes, and it seems like I have too much to do.

A much simpler option is to check when you need to, or after a focus period (I will expand on this in another post).

What I do recommend, though, as a substitute to closing your email completely, is to disable alerts. I don’t have any alerts, but simply check email only when necessary. This can range from a few minutes to half an hour, but never more (unless of course I’m in meetings). Yes, some of our job roles require emails to be attended to as soon as they arrive, but this is rectified as simply as configuring desktop alerts to appear only for those emails required.

TIP: Use your smartphone to check emails during downtime while away from your desk. Read, delete, or file as necessary. This will reduce the amount of reading required when returning to your desk.

Once you’ve read all the email, what next?

2. Prioritise

We have no unread email in our inbox now, wonderful! But how does this help with task management and getting things done? Prioritisation.

Microsoft Outlook has functionality to assign Categories to your emails and tasks. Create a simple list of categories according to priority. I personally use the following four:

  1. !Next
  2. <5 Minutes
  3. A
  4. B

!Next – This means an email is of the highest priority, and needs to be dealt with after your current task.
< 5 Minutes – A task that will take less than 5 minutes. For those times when you have a few minutes to spare.
A and B – Lesser priorities than !Next.

Every, yes every, email must be assigned a priority. Without a priority, how do we know if one email is more important than the next?

TIP: Adjusting the view to show a Category column, will draw attention to the associated priorities of the emails.

Delete anything that you know is not needed. Seriously. Newsletters, notifications, nude pictures. Anything that you know that will not be queried in future. Why clutter your folders with unneeded information?

Archive anything else that does not require your attention. Remember, the objective we’re trying to achieve here is ‘the less you see, the more focus you can give to what is there’.

3. Set a deadline

Wow, our inbox is starting to take shape now. Only email requiring our attention can be seen. We also know which emails are more important than others. But now which one do I attend to first? This is where deadlines need to be set.

Microsoft Outlook has a nice feature whereby we can assign a follow-up date on emails. This is handy, because now we can assign deadlines to our prioritised emails.

Go ahead and do that now.

Sorted

Your inbox should look quite content now. Everything you see should only be emails that need attending to. Every email should have a priority and a deadline. Without deadlines, they’ll never get done.

One other thing I highly recommend, is to keep your email list as short as possible. Preferably to a number short enough so that there is no need to scroll to find emails. The scrollbar is a dangerous thing. If there is a scrollbar, emails will get missed.

By using these methods, I have a constant handle on what tasks I need to do, how important they are, and when they need to be done by. My inbox is my task hub. I’d be dead in the water without it.

3 Ways To Immediately Manage Your Inbox Better

How many emails do you have in your inbox today? 3, 30, 300, 3000? Every day we have to deal with the constant demand of email. Constantly streaming into our account, constantly distracting us from our real tasks at hand. Below are 3 sure-fire methods that I have found to maximise my inbox manageability. I use these methods every day, and truly believe they help me manage my email quicker so that I can get on to bigger and better tasks. Read more »

Riding The Task Tidal Wave

Those age-old sayings about busy times coming in waves are completely true.

“Everything comes in waves”

Up until a few days ago, I was focused. Focused on the end goal and what I needed to do to get there. Now? Who the hell knows. An avalanche of tasks and requests have come through at work. This is at around the same time that my mind is working overtime outside of the office – working on future plans for me and my family.

“When it rains, it pours”

The focus I had has been lost in the noise of many work and home priorities jostling for first priority in my to do list. Where do I begin? Which of the many urgent tasks do I attend to first while I’m in the office? How do I get through the goals at home? These are questions all of us face every day. How do we deal with it? How do you deal with it? Read more »

How I Use The Commute To Be Better

In a previous post, I mused on what fellow commuters do during the travel time of their commute. How some use the time wisely, and others not so much. Although I gave my opinion on how I perceived their time not being utilised, I didn’t digress on what I do. So let’s move that spotlight and judge what I do and whether it’s worthwhile (which is almost certainly not the most correct way). Read more »

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