My Plan for Ruthless Focus & Productivity in 2020

Ten years ago I decided to write a book. I actually did write one – a just-for-fun throw-away I wrote for the learning experience – with plans to get to work on my “real book” after that. Even started my own publishing company. And I have been writing. My to-do list of books has expanded to around a dozen. I’ve created titles, outlines, chapters, front matter, marketing copy, graphics, …

Know how many I’ve completed so far? Zero.

Lots of Movement… in Random Directions

I’ve gotten lots of other things done – closed the horse-keeping chapter of my life, worked with a contractor to renovate the house, earned several fitness pro certifications, started my Fit Coach Linda business, sold the truck and trailer, doctored a sick kitty, created business websites and graphics, helped a friend though his mom’s last few months, participated in workshops and networking meetings, and of course I’ve continued to train regularly in Aikido. 

But mostly for the past four years the bulk of my productive hours have been consumed with doing relatively low-paying hourly work for a handful of non-profit web clients. This is the kind of work I had to give up as full-time career because my body can’t take 8 to 12 hours a day working at a desk. But these were paying gigs, part time, on my own schedule. Good work if you can get it, right? So I took them on. 

Amazingly, I had two instances where I’d wrapped up a major project, sat down with coffee in hand the next morning to get reacquainted with my writing works-in-progress, and within hours got a call asking me to take on this or that new client. Ever feel like the universe is deliberately taunting you?

It’s Time to Regroup!

While the clients and the work have been great, it’s been frustrating to feel that I have an important contribution of my own to make, while having my plate full with tasks for others. For years I’ve been just about to really get rolling on my own work. Any minute now. Right after I handle this urgent e-commerce issue. And document these bugs. And take this phone call. I never seemed able to get any momentum going. 

“The key question to keep asking is, 
Are you spending your time on the right things? 
Because time is all you have.”

Randy Pausch
The Last Lecture

My dear husband noticed this pattern, too, and proposed a solution that’s going to change my life dramatically for the better: Stop doing outside work. My work offers no benefits, and we are fortunate to be in a position now where I do not have to bring in a steady (if small) paycheck. I sat with the idea for a week or so, to be sure it was realistic. It is. So at the beginning of December I gave 60 days notice to my web/UX clients: No more outside work after January 31st.

What a gift! It is thrilling and a little frightening. It feels fragile, precious, slippery. During school I had to work, and for a few semesters also cared for my ailing grandparents. With several employers I learned after years of dedication that I never really had a chance of succeeding there. I’ve made tactical career mistakes and wasted time on pointless projects. I’ve been through health challenges that knocked out a year or two here and there, too. I’ve been variously blocked, sidetracked, distracted, and thwarted. Now…?

“Your heart knows the way. 
Run in that direction.”

13th Century Persian Poet

Now, unbelievably, the road ahead is clear. No hindrances. No excuses. A chance to create exactly what I want, how I want. At 57 one doesn’t get many more do-overs. I can’t screw this up. I have work to do, and am determined to take full advantage of this chance to do it. I’m laying track now so on February 1st I can lock myself in my office, ignore my phone, and get down to business. I am so excited!

I really need to nail this.

This rare opportunity means taking a hard look at developing better ways of keeping my mind in my work. I need to be checking more things off my to-do lists than I’m adding. I have some longstanding habits that serve me, and some that don’t. It’s going to take an intentional effort to fully take advantage of this.

Are you with me? 

I know I’m not alone in this. In just the last few days I’ve talked to so many friends in similar situations. Some are realizing that another year has gone by without getting the really important stuff done. Others are setting out on brand new adventures. A couple will be starting new jobs in the new year. It seems there’s a lot of change in the air.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start. 
After that, things can only get better.”

Stephen King
On Writing

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to stay on track, how to actually accomplish the things I have in mind. So in case it’s helpful, here, in no particular order, are some thoughts I’ve been thinking on how to (finally, goshdarnit) stay focused and be productive.

Let’s get started.

Set goals, measurable, with deadlines. Yes, I know, this strategy is older than dirt, but it endures because it works. I am setting challenging but realistic process goals and performance goals. 

“Wait, what?” you say, “There are two kinds of goals?” Yes, two kinds. 

Process goals are about developing habits or regular patterns of behavior that support us. They are the means by which we succeed. “Sit down and write for 4 hours each day” is a process goal. Similarly, “meditate every morning,” “eat ten servings of vegetables a day,” or “write all my random to-dos and errands in a list to deal with on Wednesdays,” are all process goals. 

Performance goals, on the other hand, are about the ends we are trying to achieve. “Have my first book finished and printed by June, 2020,” is a performance goal. A single objective, with a deadline. More examples: “Finish a 5K by the end of October,” or “Earn x dollars by ___ date,” are performance goals.

Either way, they need to be specific enough that I can answer “Did I do that today, or not?” Did I accomplish it as planned, or didn’t I? I’ll be writing them down and posting then right where I can see them. They will be the compass by which I can tell if I’m going in the right direction. Moment by moment, are my actions moving me closer to my goals, or are they not?

Use systems, tools, and rituals to stay on track. I’ve already updated my calendar with blocks of uninterpreted work times. I’ll use timers, track my hours, whatever it takes. I’ve worked out what should be a sustainable weekly schedule, and will do my best to stick with it. If it’s unworkable, I’ll modify it and try again. I find it also helps to observe rituals like consciously turning on the right lighting in my office each morning in my office, starting music from my Writing playlist, and turning on a fan to keep the air moving. At the end of the day I deliberately close things down and move on to the next thing.

Be mindful of attention and generosity. I have lots of interests and hobbies. I love my friends. It’s fun to learn something new. It’s rewarding to help out with a project here and there. It is against my nature to be stingy with my time, attention, or money. But if I’m to reach my goals, I need to skip a few lunches, say no to some requests, shut my office door, and get to work. That also means judicious use of social media, video binges only on my off hours, no photo-a-day challenges…

Focus, or relax. I’ve discovered that, for me, stress is doing one thing while feeling I should be doing another. Catching up on gardening while ignoring the papers on my desk. Tidying my office while while the yard goes to weeds. My solution is to set aside reasonable time for those chores and errands that need to get done. They won’t happen by chance – they are going on the calendar. So when I’m working I can be working, and when I take time to play, I can relax. 

Magically wishing away distractions doesn’t work. It’s all well and good to block off interruption-free time. But the fact is one still needs to run errands, make appointments, return phone calls, shop for groceries, clean the house, and deal with paperwork. My plan, then, is to handle all those things, as best I can, on Wednesdays. Wednesday is a day set aside for handling personal business – not for trying to work, and failing in frustration. Need a few minutes of my time? Great, let’s set up a call on Wednesday. Want to do lunch? I’d love to. Are you free on Wednesday?

Shopping and meal prep supports health and productivity. Earlier this week, for breakfast, I ate some cold “leftover” salmon I had deliberately prepared the previous night at dinner time. It was delicious, and supported me in eating healthy. I was able to grab an easy morning snack because some thoughtful person made some good food ahead of time – me! When I can prepare several days’ worth of food at once, and stock up on easy, nutritious snacks, it saves me time and helps me eat better, too.

Let most of the “important” causes take care of themselves. When I recently saw a Facebook group against something that really annoys me I almost reflexively clicked “+ Join Group.” Then I remembered that if I’m going to make a difference in my chosen area, I can’t spread myself so thin. This battle would have to be fought without my help. I can’t save the whole world. I might be able to make a difference in a little corner of it, but not if I succumb to every “important” distraction that comes along.

That doesn’t mean I”m going to bury my head in the sand. But maybe listening to one good news podcast each day is sufficient. When more in-depth understand is called for, set aside time on the weekend to catch up. My personal moment-by-moment comprehension of political, scientific, or other matters is not going to change the course of things for anyone. My completing my chosen work, on the other hand, might.

Keep training, and keep sleeping enough. It’s the time-management version of false economy to skimp on rest or grab easy junk food just to get in a little more time on a project. It seems every day we are learning more about the importance of sleep for our physical and mental health. That tired “just get up an hour earlier” advice won’t lead to success (or good health) in the long run. And skipping Aikido is out of the question for me. Aikido is my daily source of physical activity as well as socializing, plus it keeps me centered and happy. Plus it’s the inspiration and primary topic for my books! 

Say no, and honor boundaries.It took me five days to write this, squeezing in an hour or two here and there. During that time a client’s online store required urgent attention, a neighbor wanted my input before her gardener trimmed a hedge, I managed to get a last-minute appointment only days before my doctor retired, and my foot was still slowing me down after a minor surgery a few weeks ago. I had to sort out how to exchange a gift that broke, my husband had a minor dental emergency, and there was a dinner with friends. On one morning alone, four phone calls resulted in my leaving for an errand two hours later than I’d wanted to.  

“This is your life. You are responsible for it. 
You will not live forever. Don’t wait.”

Natalie Goldberg
Author and Writing Teacher

Stopping my outside client work will open up many productive hours and free my mind from most of the urgent interruptions. But there will always be other distractions and emergencies. A business cannot become profitable (or stay open!) by consistently giving away product, I will not succeed if I’m not disciplined about how I spend my time, and where I focus my attention. The strategies above are only nice ideas if I don’t respect my own schedules and deadlines, and honor the boundaries I set. It’s going to take conscious, ongoing, intentional effort. Always asking “is this what I mean to be doing right now?”

Countdown to Launch

I have a little more than a month to finish handing off work and training colleagues. I’m doing my best to dump all my client knowledge into persistent documents where the clients’ and their staff will have easy access to everything that’s currently in my brain. This is taking even more of my time than usual, but is a good investment. They don’t yet know what they don’t know, and will undoubtedly discover that they need the information. 

I have told my clients I will be minimally available, rarely, by appointment on Wednesdays only, for any lingering questions. No “just a 5-minute phone call for a quick question.” Tempting as it will be to be helpful, there’s that boundary thing again. For me even a brief interruption in my working time is like a small hole bored through the hull of a ship – it brings all forward progress to a dead halt. A few of those scattered throughout each day? Disastrous. For me, it’s focus, or allow intrusions. It can’t be both.

Meanwhile, as I’m wrapping up loose ends I’m also bringing the writing parts of my brain back online. I’m excited to get back to work, and want to hit the ground running. I’ve been listening again to favorite audiobooks about writing, refreshing my memory of the tools I use, and reviewing my works-in-progress to see what state I’d left them in. I’m even writing a bit, which feels really good. Only 41 days to go…

“All writing is launching yourself into the darkness, 
and hoping for light, and a soft landing.

Paul Theroux
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A Few Extras

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