This is a guest post by Austin L. Church. Austin is a writer and consultant who runs a branding and content agency called Balernum. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his lovely and patient wife Megan, and their two boys and one girl. He would tell you that his family and his faith are the reason he is so gung-ho about improving his focus, his business, and himself. He wants his kids to say, “Go away!” not “Why is Dad always gone?” You can say hi on Twitter: @austinlchurch.
I can’t remember exactly when I first stumbled across the Covey quadrant.
You’ve probably seen it. It’s a larger square divided up into four smaller squares. You write “Urgent” in the top left and “Not Urgent” on the top right. On the left side you write “Important” above and “Not Important” below. Each task that comes to mind gets a home in one of the four boxes, and each day’s top priorities belong in the upper lefthand corner of the quadrant where Urgent and Important come together.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Decision Principle inspired Covey’s Quadrant, so using the quadrant system and playing air traffic controller for a Monday’s many to-dos is paying homage to two lucid thinkers and gifted leaders. I like that thought.
The problem is, the Covey Quadrant has never worked for me.
My experience went like this:
- I dutifully drew my squares and penciled in my tasks—you know, because ink feels too permanent.
- With head held high and swelling confidence, I strode out into my day.
- One, or two, or five hours’ worth of curveballs later, the day’s tight cluster of to-dos would burst apart like a covey of quail.
My mission became taking pot shots at anything and everything with hopes that some completed task or met deadline would fall out of the sky.
Anxiety doesn’t help either. A vague yet powerful pulse of menace, a restive feeling that you misjudged, misprioritized, and misfired. Too many misses and you’re out of business.
Of course I exaggerate. I had good days too. The birds aligned. One, two, three, twenty… I picked them off. “Only one hundred more days like this… ,” I’d think.
After awhile I noticed some patterns. The “good” days weren’t random. They didn’t just happen but rather were a predictable by-product of a “weighting” system I had devised without fully realizing it—that is, until I realized it.
My effectiveness boiled down to three ingredients: forethought, focus, and flexibility.
Anticipating bottlenecks and breakdowns, holdups and hand-offs, helps us line up tasks in a meaningful sequence.
For example, Balernum, my branding and content agency, makes, among other things, websites. Let’s say Mike Vardy, your friendly neighborhood Productivityist, hires Balernum to redo his entire site. We can’t add an About page unless we design around content, and we can’t finalize the mockups until we have some idea of the team photos, bio paragraphs or historical context for the business, and the strategy tying it all together.
Dozens of projects have taught us that this sequence: before code, design; before design, content; before content, perhaps a photo shoot or set of interview questions to generate team bios; or, perhaps the office manager has high-red headshots somewhere but she’s on sabbatical in rural Thailand. Awesome.
You see where I’m going with this. Seemingly unimportant and non-urgent tasks become Stonehenge-sized obstructions standing between you and on-time delivery.
“We can’t launch the new website until we change the nameserver records, and we can’t change the records because the last know shepherd of the credentials for the domain registrar left the company on bad terms?”
All too often, the contingency plan needs a contingency plan.
On the other hand, foresight helps you anticipate and circumvent potential blockers, both tiny and monolithic.
One practical way to exercise foresight is to develop checklists and standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Pilots use checklists because flying a plane can be hard incredibly complex. Companies create SOPs for the same reason.
What is your pre-flight checklist each morning? What SOP helps you remember all the crucial steps and best practices and avoid crashes?
I use Fofi cards. (More on those in a moment.) I also flex my foresight muscle by asking questions:
- What could go wrong?
- What could go right?
- What has past experience taught me about situations like this?
- What is within my control? What isn’t?
- How am I feeling about this? Why?
- What is the very next step? How much time will it take? When will I have that time?
- Do I need to do anything in the meantime?
- Could anything derail this task or project that I’m missing?
- If I can only finish one thing today, is this that thing?
- Who can I ask for help?
A methodical process for exercising foresight will help you anticipate derailments, swallow toads, and enjoy more peace of mind.
Swallow a toad every morning
Most days will have a “stressor”—a meeting, task, or deadline whose true import (or potential to cause headaches and delays) overshadows the rest.
Foresight insists that you devote your attention to stressors before anything else.
These are your toads. Swallow them.
This analogy originated with a French writer named Nicolas Chamfort, who captured a conversation with Mr. de Lassay, who for his part disliked the French aristocracy:
“M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.” (Source)
This core concept has found its way into our modern business literature. Brian Tracey’s book Eat That Frog! and Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing both touch on it.
Your day won’t really open up and your work won’t really be anxiety-free until you cross off that single most important, irritating, or stressful task.
- Make the call.
- Finish the report.
- Write the proposal.
- Have the trust issues conversation with the micro-managing client.
Get the toad out of the way, and the rest of your day is pleasurable by comparison. You’ll find it easier to focus.
Focus is one aptitude that comes the hard way through practice. It also happens to be one of the single most precious aptitudes you can develop.
Think about it… You don’t have to be the best or brightest, the fastest or fiercest, the strongest or scrappiest, if you can simply avoid multi-tasking, focus on one task, and finish it. Then, repeat. Then, calculate the compound effect of quiet, persistent execution over time.
Focus is precious. Focus is to achievement what chisels are to sculptors.
I like writing down the handful of tasks I must accomplish each day. Maybe I will squeeze in others. That would certainly be nice, and I can find more things to do in Balernum’s Asana dashboard ay any time.
But the physical artifact of a peach-colored Fofi card that I can fill out quickly and put in my pocket is a comfort, an anchor.
No matter how the day goes otherwise, if I can muster enough focus to finish this handful of tasks, then all will be well.
And that has been my experience.
I should avoid opening my inbox, diving into Asana, or skimming Slack until I have marked up my card. That’s what my team needs from me. That’s what my family and my friends need from me.
They need me to created a focused micro-plan, and then they need me to make it to the end. I can’t do that if I let technology-induced ADD and innumerable distractions and headlines blow up my morning.
I could make a strong case that you really only need to do 5-10 things each day to excel in your position, field, or niche.
Your core problem isn’t a lack of time, productivity, or VOLUME but a lack of focus.
The mad dash of multi-tasking and the volume approach to productivity won’t get you where you want to go. In fact, unfocused, frenetic activity is a surefire way to exhaust yourself and miss opportunities because you were moving to fast.
- A Stanford study showed that multi-tasking and the volume approach actually reduce cognitive function and inhibit performance.
- Multitasking drains your brain’s energy reserves, and refocusing on your primary task (after you chased a squirrel) can take up to 23 minutes.
- Less really is more because multitasking lowers your IQ. Multitasking is a biological impossibility.
Do you feel better? I feel better. All the research comes as a bit of relief because I was never good at even faking multitasking! What I can do is cut down on distractions and address your core problem: complexity.
- Clear off the desktop on your computer.
- Get rid of your surplus of messaging apps. Explain to your clients, colleagues, and employees or contractors how and where they can contact you. Delete all other apps.
- Or, if you don’t feel comfortable deleting Slack, then only check it twice a day the same way you do email.
- Spend less time cruising social media. Set a timer to limit your intake.
- Clean up your computer desktop several times through the day. The best chefs clean as they go. The best freelancers do too.
- Turn off desktop notifications.
- Stop using a desktop client for email. Use a browser window instead.
- Close out browser windows as soon as you stop using them.
- Stop following people on social media who rarely post or who get on your nerves. Duh.
- Listen to Focus at Will or another attention-sharpening soundtrack.
- Use RescueTime to see how you’re spending your time each day. An audit of your time investments will reveal the areas of true waste.
- Then, use a browser extension like Leechblock (for Firefox) or StayFocused (for Chrome) to remind you to get back to work when you’re wasting time on your most common distractions.
- Write down your daily to-do list on a 3×5 notecard instead of using a task management app. That way, you don’t have to go down the rabbit hole in the morning to find the day’s priorities.
- Circle each day’s most important task.
Schedule and do your most important work in the morning.
- Stop multitasking. Start monotasking.
- Avoid “context switching.”
- Combat decision fatigue in two ways: 1) Reduce the total number of decisions you make by picking routines, and 2) Make your important decisions before lunch. Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon.
- Work 52 minutes and take a 17-minute break. Or, capitalize on ultradian rhythms by working in 90-minute sprints and taking short breaks. Experiment with both, and go with whichever works best for you.
- Schedule margin. Make a one-hour to two-hour appointment with yourself at least once a week. This time is sacred. Use it to rest, to think through these five questions, to journal, and to dream.
- Record screencapture videos to teach your staff or contractors how to do important tasks. Put those videos in a Dropbox folder and share the link with your people. That way, they won’t have to interrupt you when they have forgotten the steps to a process.
Every realistic plan for your day, week, and month must have built-in flexibility. Eisenhower had something to say about plans:
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
You know that your plan will evolve as the day progresses. A sick child changes your priorities. A serendipitous conversation makes it possible for you to pitch to a dream client… tomorrow. In Turks and Caicos. And your passport is expired. (True story.)
After you receive an unpleasant email, you may want to go for a walk and pray or meditate. After a big win, you may want to cut out of the office early and celebrate.
If you’re so frazzled you can barely function, why not put away your plan and go be a human being at a picnic in the park for an afternoon?
Plans, planning, and productivity should propel you toward the life you want, toward significance and deeper purpose, toward peace and joy.
As soon as your plan gets in the way, jettison the thing.
Beyond unforeseen circumstances, I practice flexibility in a variety of ways:
- I sometimes go for a walk between work sessions to reset.
- I pay attention to my energy levels, and I often adjust my plan accordingly. For example, after I have eaten my daily toad, I might do some writing, answer email, or make a phone call, depending on what all I want to accomplish that day and which task I feel energy for in the moment.
- If I have been working A LOT, I might go home early and play with my kids. I can finish up any outstanding tasks after they go to bed.
- I have a process for capturing new tasks as they pop up. I write them on the back of that day’s Fofi card. They don’t keep rattling around in my brain, and I don’t clutter up the front of the card where I wrote the day’s top priorities.
- No matter where I go, I have the card with me. If during a lunch meeting I promise to share a blog post or send a quote, I can write down that commitment on the Fofi card rather than pull out my phone, which many people interpret as bad manners.
Flexibility in your schedule is like flexibility in your body. You don’t always need it, but when you do, you’ll be really glad you have it.
Does your productivity require that you follow strict methodology? Good luck with that.
In my experience tools that enable you to adjust dynamically to the day’s demands (while still keeping you moored to your own goals and priorities) end up being the most useful and durable.
Simple tools don’t break as often. An anorak holds up better than an umbrella in a downpour. It isn’t sexy, but it will keep you dry.
Rest, not Velocity
And if I had to land the plane of this blog post anywhere, it would be on that observation: The more complicated your process, the harder it is to sustain.
Is your current mode of productivity sustainable? Do your tools collapse when demands for your time increase? Does the complexity of your workdays leave you feeling frazzled and anxious?
Try simplicity. Simplicity is a competitive advantage.
Ask any elder that you respect whether he or she believes in shortcuts or “growth hacking” or “crushing it.” That person will probably tell you that what you ignore is just as important as what you pay attention to.
You can’t do everything, so don’t try.
Instead, exercise foresight. Put together a simple plan. Focus. Swallow a toad. Then, flex with whatever the day brings, knowing that working and leading from a place of rest, not velocity, is the most radical, humane, and effective habit you can adopt.
If you’d like to try the Fofi cards I developed to reinforce my simplicity habit, then you can order a month’s supply for $19 by clicking here.