I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Steve is one of the best teachers I know at breaking things down to make them easy. It’s a real gift.
How to Take Action
Since the first half of this newsletter is on more spiritual topics, I’ll balance out this issue by sharing a very practical and down to earth article.
Let’s say you already have pretty good clarity about which goals and projects you’d like to move forward. (If you’re not there yet, visit theArchives page on my website, and you’ll find numerous articles to help you gain clarity and set quality goals.) Let’s also say you have good clarity about which actions you must take, at least in a general sort of way. How do you actually get yourself to take action and complete those tasks efficiently?
Let me share with you a step-by-step process for taking action. This method can do wonders when you want to sink your teeth into your work and make serious progress, especially if you’ve had issues with procrastination.
Strong execution begins with intelligent preparation.
Many execution problems occur because of poor preparation. With good preparation the execution phases will flow more smoothly. If you find yourself struggling to take action, it may be due to nonexistent or sloppy preparation.
Here’s the process for preparing:
- Make a thorough list of the tasks you desire to complete the next day
- · Break larger tasks into smaller action steps (ideally no more than 30 minutes each)
- · Select tasks based on a balance of importance to your goals and relative urgency
- Estimate the time required to complete each task, and write that estimate next to each task
- · Use your time estimates to select a reasonable number of tasks that you genuinely expect to complete that day
- · For creative tasks that are difficult to estimate, feel free to usetimeboxing, but still specify concrete action steps when possible
- Assemble tasks into a reasonably logical order
- · Group similar tasks together, such as by project, location, or type of activity
- · Now you have a list of specific tasks to be done in linear order
I currently use a spreadsheet to manage my daily list. In different years I’ve also maintained my daily list in word processors, dedicated apps, paper templates, and spiral notebooks. Use whichever format you prefer. I find that the most important thing is that I enjoy the system I’m using, so I presently do this in Numbers on my Macbook Pro (the crisp Retina display reminds me to pick crisp action steps). I also use a visually pleasing color scheme that makes the list look very pro, so I take it seriously. And of course I can take advantage of the summation feature to automatically add up my time estimates for each task, which makes it easier to fill out my day without grossly overestimating how much I’ll get done.
Be specific. Don’t clutter your list with unclear, wishy-washy tasks. If a task is well-defined, it will be obvious where to begin. “Research web design” is a poorly defined task. What does that even mean? A more specific version would be: “Review the featured templates on the front page ofwordpress.org/themes, and list at least 10 website design ideas I like that I can potentially use to improve my own site.” You don’t have to be so wordy in listing your tasks, but make sure it’s clear what you’re actually going to do to complete each step. “Research” is unclear. Where do you begin? When are you done? Who knows? On the other hand, going to a specific website and looking at specific pages there is a clear action step that you can begin, traverse, and complete.
I cannot emphasize this last point enough. When other people share their goals, projects, and task lists with me, I frequently see the most vague drivel imaginable. Adding tasks to your list that look like “Research business ideas” or “Eat healthy” or “Be more social” are meaningless. Why even bother creating a list if you’re going to populate it with fluff? You’d be better off hiring a boss to create your to-do lists for you.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for knowing that you have a quality task list: Could you hand your list to a complete stranger with the appropriate skill set and expect them to understand it and complete it? If another person would be baffled at what your tasks actually mean, perhaps you’re going to be equally baffled.
A clear and specific step-by-step daily task list is motivating. A sloppy list is a recipe for procrastination. If you feel that getting through your tasks requires tons of pushing and discipline, it may be because you’ve created an unnecessarily murky situation. When you make a sloppy list, you postpone many decisions to the action phase. I’m suggesting that you make those decisions about what is to be done when you create your list, so that when it comes time to act, you can focus on action, not on making decisions about which actions to take. This reduces the cognitive burden and frees up more energy, which leads to flow.
Run this preparation process at the end of your workday to prepare yourself for the next workday. This is important. It’s better to prepare your work for the next day in advance because then you’ll preload this work into your mind before you sleep. Your subconscious mind will go to work on it while you’re sleeping, which will lead to better insights and smoother execution the next day. By planting clear expectations about what you intend to do the next day, you’ll set yourself up for success.
I notice a real difference in my productivity when I prepare for each day in advance, as opposed to creating my to-do list in the morning of the active workday… or worse — trying to wing it with no clear plan of action.
How long does this preparation process take? The first time you do it, plan on spending about 30 minutes. With practice you can get it down to 15 minutes or less. (Of course there’s some variation here depending on the type of work you do.) If you’re rushing through the process in a couple of minutes, you’re probably not breaking your tasks down into clear and concise action steps, and you’ll pay the price during the execution phase. Taking the time to create a quality list of action steps can save you hours in execution, sometimes days.
The following day when you’re ready to get to work, here’s the process for taking action on your task list:
- Select the next appropriate task from today’s task list
- · Choose the highest priority task (closest to the top of the list) that you can reasonably do next
- · Consider constraints of time, location, energy, mood, and alertness
- Ask yourself if you’re ready to complete the task now without distraction
- · If hungry then eat first to make sure you won’t be hungry during the next task
- · If sleepy take a 20-min nap with an alarm timer to refresh yourself
- · If you feel you need a change of venue, feel free to move to another room or location to work
- · If the task needs more clarity, chunk it down further to specify additional steps with time estimates
- · Inform anyone nearby as needed: Please don’t interrupt
- Decide and resolve to do the task now, ideally without interruption
- Prepare for the task
- · Start a timer (to measure how long the task actually takes)
- · Prepare your work environment for the task (materials, music, water, lighting, etc.)
- · Imagine the task going smoothly and being completed successfully
- Begin the task
- · Identify the first micro-step, and do it
- · Once the first micro-step is completed, proceed immediately to the next step
- · Continue until the task is complete
- Stick with the current task only
- · Stay with the task until it’s 100% complete; don’t jump into other tasks
- · If other unrelated action ideas arise, write them down to consider later; don’t distract yourself from the current task
- Complete the task fully
- · Finish the task in its entirety, so you can put it behind you; leave no loose ends
- · Put away materials for the task (file papers, neatly organize related computer files, discard trash, etc.)
- · Stop the timer; record the actual time for the task to mark it as done; note the accuracy of your estimate
- Take breaks as needed (ideally between tasks, not during tasks)
This is a very general action plan. Feel free to add details that are relevant for the specific type of work you do.
At the end of your workday, do these steps:
- Process any notes you made during the day
- · Consider each new idea in the context of your current goals and projects
- · Add actionable ideas to your goals or projects lists
- · Add ideas that aren’t actionable yet to your someday/maybe list
- Reflect on your performance
- · Rate your productivity for the day on a scale of 1 to 10
- · Consider what you can do to improve; tweak your systems accordingly
- · Journal about your day to discover more insights (optional)
And then of course run the Preparation process to prepare for the next day.
If you didn’t complete as many tasks as you expected, that’s okay. Bump incomplete tasks to the next day as needed. Also use your actual task completion times to improve your estimates.
For recurring projects you may want to save a copy of your task list. Then you can copy and paste it into your daily list each time the project comes up. I have such a task list for creating newsletters. Documenting the steps makes it easier to focus on doing the steps instead of wasting mental energy remembering the steps and their proper order.
Sometimes you may find the above process overkill. For simple tasks of course you can just dive in and do them. But if you find yourself stuck or procrastinating on a more challenging or poorly defined project, this process will help you break the project down into clear, simple action steps, especially if you can get each step down to 30 minutes or less.
On a typical daily task list, I might have around 20-30 action steps. Some of these steps take less than 5 minutes. I find this motivating. I can always put in 5 minutes to get started on a project. Most steps are 10-30 minutes, long enough to make a dent but not so long as to seem overwhelming. I do my best to keep each step under 30 minutes except when I feel confident that I can flow through a longer chunk.
Lately I’ve been using this process to refresh my programming skills. In my 20s I was an exceptionally skilled programmer (coding several published computer games), but I haven’t done much serious programming work in the past decade, so my skills in that area have atrophied. Adding the goal “Refresh programming skills” to my goals list got me nowhere. What does that even mean? Where should I begin? By itself that goal was too vague and nebulous to inspire action. I needed to chunk it down into specific projects and actions — steps I could actually traverse and complete.
For certain long-term goals, you may find it helpful to combine the processes above with the approach from Goals Into Habits. I’ve turned my programming skills refresher goal into a daily habit by doing a few lessons after breakfast each morning. I’ve done this for several weeks now, so it’s already a habit. At the end of each day, I list my next action steps for this time block on the following day. For instance, this morning my action steps were to complete Python lessons 13, 14, and 15 from Codecademy, which took me 97 minutes.
All this time I thought the Python language was named after the snake… when it actually got its name from Monty Python.