A sad fact of life is that you can't do everything. In fact, you can't do most things. The best you can do is just one thing at a time. And even that is possible only if you can get rid of all the clutter and focus on the single task in front of you right now.
Every little distraction can throw you off and cause you to lose your train of thought. Interruptions, such as phone calls and unexpected visits, come from outside. But inner disturbances can be an even greater hindrance. When you dream about your big goals, when you constantly remind yourself of all the other things you need to work on, or when you're worried you might forget to contact somebody, you aren't fully present in the action you're taking right now.
Are you still with me?
Devising Your Own Workflow System
David Allen developed a workflow system using the famous set of techniques called "Getting Things Done," and the UK's Mark Forster has come up with a different set of procedures under the name "Do It Tomorrow." As David Allen points out, once you fully trust your workflow system, you're free to think about one thing at a time. Perhaps even better, you can think about each thing just once.
You can use one of these methodologies, or you can develop your own. To get an idea of how you can set up procedures that allow you to be fully present in the action you're taking at any given time, let's put together a simple system.
- Goals > Projects > Tasks. Start by thinking about your strategic goals. These are things you want to do but don't have to do. Break each of your strategic goals into a set of projects. Each project has a set of tasks, some of which you can start working on this week. For example, you might set a goal of being promoted by your employer. To get promoted, one project might be to finish a deliverable early and under budget, in order to show everybody that you're a rising star. Another project might be to complete an executive management program at a business school.
- Obligations > Projects > Actions. Now consider your obligations. These things aren't part of your strategy; but since you can't avoid doing them, it's best to treat them like goals. Break these pesky mandatory goals into projects, each of which consists of a set of actions that you can take this week.
- A good example of an obligation would be to meet an aggressive deadline that your CEO promised for a customer. One possible project might be to keep your team happy so they don't leave the company—in spite of the unreasonable crunch imposed by the big boss. Another might be to stay in touch with the customer to make sure you understand that customer's needs, and so you have some chance of winning some "wiggle room."
- Unexpected events. Finally, think about a third class of activities: unexpected events that might arise. Of course, by definition you don't know what unexpected things might come your way, but you do have some idea of the types of surprises that occur, and you have a feel for how much time you spent on things that pop up. As much as possible, list what might come up—or at least an amount of time you need to set aside for the unexpected.
Go through this process of cutting your goals into projects and your projects into actions at most once a week. By doing so, you wind up with a set of actions you should take during the next seven days. Then put all the tasks into categories—perhaps differentiating between tasks that depend on somebody getting back to you, tasks that require you to get back to somebody else, quick tasks that are ready to start, and tasks that are ready to start but require more than five minutes. You can also classify actions along other dimensions, such as tasks with a fixed start time, tasks whose timeline is undetermined, and tasks with a hard deadline.
You can immediately note in your calendar all those activities that have fixed start times and end times. You might also block off slots for unexpected events just so you don't overbook. Remember to leave time for lunch, exercise, hobbies, and just goofing off.
Make a list of all the people from whom you're awaiting a response, and a separate list for people who are waiting for you to respond to them. Prioritize the actions that are ready for working, but don't have a fixed start time. Finally, create a "slush fund" of actions that take less than five minutes. When you have a little extra time between phone calls, you can work on the tasks from that list.
You should organize your actions in this way at most once a week. As you finish tasks, and as things change, make adjustments accordingly. For the rest of the week, all you have to think about are your lists. Whenever you have a free moment, get in touch with the people who are waiting to hear back from you. That way you aren't holding anybody else up. Go through your slush fund as time permits, and congratulate yourself as you quickly finish those short tasks.
Focusing Your Effort
What I've just described is only one example of how you might set up a system that allows you to keep track of all the things you want to do, working on one task at a time. There are many possible variations. Perhaps the most important ingredient is to separate goals and actions. Don't spend much time dreaming about the summit. Instead, get into the habit of going over your goals at most once a week, and breaking those dreams into meaningful chunks of work that you can carry out one at a time.
Multitasking is actually very inefficient, as I show in my article "The Real Cost of Multitasking." The quickest way to get from where you are now to where you want to be is by working on one thing at a time. Most tasks can't be finished in one sitting, but you can divide the work into smaller chunks, each of which has a well-defined completion. Work on one chunk at a time and bring it to a clean stopping point before moving on to something else.
Once you come to trust this system, you can relax, knowing that you've kept track of all your big goals. Since you've divided your larger objectives into sets of activities that will get you to where you want to be, you don't have to worry about anything other than what you're doing now.
By freeing yourself to think of only the action in front of you, you'll find you get more done. What's more important is that you'll do so with less stress and a heightened sense of satisfaction at having completed each small task and taken yourself that much closer to reaching your strategic goals.