Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Simplify Your Routine

Our life is frittered away by detail. … Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. … Simplify, simplify. ~ Henry David Thoreau

Out of necessity I have to simplify everything in life, because by nature I’m pretty much as disorganised as you can get – not great at prioritising, quite easily overwhelmed and stressed. I lack the organisation gene.

But if I tried to manage my time in a To-Do list, diary, time-scheduled kind of way, it would represent just another layer of red tape to my innately disorganised mind; an unnecessary extra burden which would just serve to convolute my life further.

In all honesty, I don’t want to manage my time; that’s the basic truth. I simply don’t have the patience, or the inclination to live my life like a member of the Royal family; burdened by the inflexibility of appointments and externally imposed schedules.

Instead, I want a system that transcends time management, that cuts to the chase. One that lets me focus my mental energies and my time on the right things – the important things – without a sense of time harried pressure.

How do I achieve that?

Well in a nutshell, by doing as little as possible.

By simplifying both what I do and how I do it. By focusing on quality over quantity, By rejecting trivialities, and by focusing my time exclusively on just the things I feel are important.

Culling all but the essential:

I ask myself one very simple question when I’m confronted by any task:

‘What will happen if I don’t do this?’

With most things, the answer is simply, not a lot.

There will be no repercussions if I delete every unread email and answer phone message that’s stockpiled after I’ve been away for a week. There will be no negative repercussions if I don’t answer my phone or the door when it rings. There will be no negative repercussions if I say no to requests on my time – made by people who are trying to shirk a problem or ask for an unsolicited favour – when they have no relationship with me and offer no reciprocation.

In fact a lot of good will happen if I avoid those things:

I won’t have my concentration shattered by someone trying to convert me to a different branch of Christianity, trying to sell me triple glazing or trying to press-gang me into setting up a direct debit for another charity. I won’t be sidelined with tasks I don’t really want to do – losing half a day’s worth of productivity for a favour which should’ve only taken ‘five minutes’. I won’t be subject to reactive demands that eat into my valuable time, cause me to lose focus, and collectively, take a heavy toll on my productivity.

One of the most useful little bits of wisdom I have ever come across is this: just because somebody sends you an email, or rings your on the phone on knocks on your door or makes a request, doesn’t mean that they own, or can make a claim to a little bit of your life.

Like the message Blackadder told his servant Baldric to pass on to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, when he knocked at the front door, ‘Tell him I’m Jewish!’

You have the inalienable right to maintain full autonomy over what you do.

If something is really that important and you really are the vital link in the chain, you can guarantee one thing: that they’ll email, telephone or knock on your door again. And even then, if you seem to have mysteriously vanished into a Bermuda Triangle-like ether, your requester will sooner or later find somebody else to harass with their requests.

With the above in mind, I focus the important part of my day – the productive bit – purely pursuing my chosen goals of the day.

I refuse to respond, for the most part, reactively to external demands; and I have – again, to a greater degree – shed that misplaced sense of obligation that often leads us to comply under a strained, reluctant ‘Yes’.

Maybe that sounds a little selfish, that I’ve shed every last ounce of Mother Teresa like altruism. 

But that’s not the case.

I’m still prepared to put myself out for other people. But I do appreciate that before I can give of myself, I have to look after myself; that my life has to be running efficiently – with a clear focus on my own objectives – before I can be of effective use to anyone else. That’s not something I or you can achieve if we allow ourselves to be at the constant whim of reactive demands.

No. Proactively pursuing tasks and goals that add long-term value to my life is the only way I can achieve that happy equilibrium.

Long-Term Value

So the second question I always ask myself before I do anything is:

Will this task have a long-term positive impact on my life?

Will it propel me nearer to the realisation of an important long term goal? Alternatively, is the task in line with my core values and purpose, one that gives me a sense of meaning?

But even then, time is too limited to do absolutely everything which will have a long-term positive impact.

I find reading and playing my guitar very therapeutic, I could do those things all day, as far as I’m concerned doing so would have a long-term positive impact on my emotional well-being. I could quite happily write an article a day, in the full knowledge that it should have a long time positive impact on my life. I could spend hours exercising a day, both because I enjoy it, and because I know that it will have a long-term beneficial impact on my health. I’d happily spend all my time with with my fiancee, with friends, with my family, staring at the sea.

All those things as far as I’m concerned, provide long-term value to my life.

I can’t do them all of course every day; and I can’t do them all for as long as I’d want to do. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day; and quite frankly, my concentration and willpower are far from infinite – barely outstripping a two-year-old who’s ingested too many numbers.

Bearing that in mind, I have no choice but to ruthlessly rationalise my time.

Most Value

So refined, the question really is, what task will have the most valuable long-term positive impact on my life today?

Is there really any point in me writing another article today regardless of the fact that it’s a positive activity, when I’ve already written three this week? Although doing so might seem a prima facie constructive use of my time, maybe in reality it’s just a superfluous and extravagant over-indulgence that doesn’t really add any more long-term value. Maybe objectively, another aspect of my business- marketing, research, networking – deserves my full attention right now.

The key of course, is not to do things simply out of routine, or because you feel comfortable doing them – even if they are intrinsically positive activities. The key is to do what you know, on reflection, is the most valuable and constructive use of your time.

It involves honestly answering questions each day such as:

‘What today represents the most valuable use of my time?

What today will add the greatest long-term value to my life?

What task done today, will build a better future – and offer the biggest potential impact on my long-term income, my self-fulfilment, my future success?

The simple truth is that a lot of the things we do on a daily basis, we do simply because we want to feel busy, or because we feel comfortable doing them. We don’t necessarily reflect objectively and consider whether what we’re doing is really the most valuable use of our time.

Sometimes we get so caught up in being busy in fact, that we don’t even consider whether what we’re doing is constructive at all. We may be so of the path of productivity that we’re metaphorically polishing the decks of the Titanic, when we should be getting out the water pumps and welding gear.

To maintain maximum productivity – or at least to avoid the above fate – you must ask yourself over and over, and answer honestly, objectively, and constructively:

What is the best use of my time today? What’s will add the greatest long-term value?

Laser Focus

You might be one of the lucky ones who has boundless focus, energy and enthusiasm; you glide through countless important tasks each day with all the graceful panache of an Imperial Russian Ballet ballerina. A virtuoso of ‘most important, valuable task’ productivity.

I’m not. I’m a slow worker. What’s more, my focus is extremely limited. I have to choose what I do wisely.

Because of that, I limit myself to just one primary task each day that I believe above all others, will make the greatest long-term positive impact on my life.

That task then becomes the focal point of my day. 

I don’t deviate, I don’t allow myself to be sidelined, I simply focus on the one task that I’ve deemed to be of paramount importance.

Maybe that’s working on a specific website, maybe that’s writing an article, maybe that’s focused on research, maybe I’m writing a chapter of a book, maybe it’s clearing out the garage; whatever it is, it forms the core of my working day.

And I keep on going until I’ve either finished that task in its entirety, or taken a small, but substantial step towards the completion of a larger goal.

Impractical?

Of course, you might not be in a position where you can single-mindedly focus on just one important task each day; you’ve got demands flying at you from every which way at work, the dog needs feeding, the kids need picking up from school.

But despite the realities of life, you can still buy into an ethos:

You can still appreciate that time is mercilessly limited; far too limited in fact to waste on the trivial. You can appreciate that most of us simply don’t have the mental stamina to work at our peak hour after hour. That being busy isn’t the same as doing something constructive; and that in order to focus on the truly important, you have to cull as much of the insignificant as possible.

Most importantly, that you consistently distinguish effectively between the two – the trivial and the vital – by asking yourself constantly, ‘Is this task a valuable, and long-term beneficial use of my time?’

All those arrangements and obligations we seem to find ourselves getting involved in over the years and keeping up, not because they give us any sense of purpose or rewards, but simply because we’re afraid of offending or upsetting other people, of letting them down. All those reactive responses we make, jumping through hoops like performing dolphins at a water park, to answer the phone, to quickly respond to email, to respond to a letter because it’s tells us that we must respond now.

You decide whether or not you’re going to do these things, you decide whether or not they’re important; that’s a responsibility and right that you simply can’t afford to abdicate.

Just One Task???

Of course you can’t just do one thing a day – one important task – and then switch off comatose in front of the TV.

There are numerous things we have to do day in day out to keep our lives on track, both in our personal and professional lives.

Leisure activities, eating three square meals a day, exercising, keeping on top of finances, dropping kids off, picking them up, tidying the house, keeping up-to-date with whatever you need to keep up-to-date with, meetings with colleagues, dealing with customers, responding to select emails and letters and phone calls, it all still has to be done.

But these things need not interfere with your most important activity of the day – the activity that adds the most value – unless you allow them to.

That’s your challenge, to prevent them from doing so – to find an oasis of time, somewhere, to focus on the important. 

Personally, I’ve got into a routine whereby I tackle my most important activity first thing after my morning routine.

I’ll get up, have a cup of tea, exercise for 15-30 minutes, shower, and then have breakfast.

Then, following that pretty much set-in-stone morning routine, I focus exclusively on my most important task for the next two hours. I often take mini breaks within that two hours – maybe five or 10 minutes every half an hour – but within those two hours, my mind remains fully engaged on my most important task of the day.

I’ll do the same in the afternoon. I’ll dedicate another two hours – with frequent breaks of course – exclusively to my most important task of the day; or if I completed that in the morning, to whatever I consider to be the next most important on the list.

I single task, I switch off from the rest of the pressures of the day and my life, I attempt to focus all my energies on the task and on the present.

I attempt to take Dale Carnegie’s advice, when he wrote:

Get on the bridge [as though a captain of a great ocean liner], and see that at least the great bulkheads are in working order. Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting out the Past – the dead yesterday’s. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the Future – the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe – safe for today!

And for the moment… To focus exclusively on that one most important task.

The Itty-Bitty Important Stuff

The rest of life’s and work’s mundane activities – the paperwork, the corresponding, the dealing with money – I do after those two, two hour slots of high-value activity.

I never allow them to impinge upon, or pollute those four valuable hours. Instead, I’ll batch the smaller administrative stuff up, and do them all at the end of my working day.

Avoiding the Trivial

It does take discipline to focus without diversion on just one important task for two hours and then to do the same again in the afternoon. It’s easy, for example, to think ‘I’ll just check my emails quickly’, ‘I might as well response to that telephone call now’, ‘I’ll just pop out to grab a sandwich and a coffee’.

The problem is however, those things are never the quick diversion they were intended.

Start looking at your emails, and you can guarantee that you’ll start wasting minutes responding. And once you’ve responded, what are you likely to do? Get straight back to your most important task? No, the chances are that one triviality will lead to another and another… You might find as I do, when I fall into that trap, that Facebook, texting and looking at pictures on Flickr, end up taking up most of that valuable time.

The best thing is to put those things totally out of temptation’s way; to establish an uncompromising rule that such distractions are off limits until you’ve prioritised your most important task.

The bottom line is that such distractions only ever hinder; they creep in at the expense of your priorities. You lose focus on the main task, you get sidelined, you waste time.

Of course, fighting the urge to get embroiled in trivialities can leave you feeling as if you’ve got an itch in desperate need of a scratch. But, if you are able to make that commitment, you’ll reap tremendous rewards in terms of efficiency and productivity.

You’ll get more of the important stuff done, you’ll feel increasingly motivated and in control for having done so.

Believe me, if someone like me can do it – with the same attention span as a kid with a bottle of Ribena forced to sit through a four hour rendition of Hamlet – anyone can do it.

So simplify your routine…

It’s vital, as a first step, to distinguish between the important and the trivial.

When confronted by any task or demand, ask yourself the following question:

What are the long term consequences if I don’t do this?

If the answer is not a lot, then you just identified a trivial task that you need to cull.

Pay close attention to reactive tasks – that is those tasks that are pressed upon you by others. They can often feel important or urgent. But the truth is, they’re often not. Admittedly it might be important to somebody else, but that doesn’t make them important or urgent to you. The telephone rings, it might feel urgent to answer it, but is it really important? A letter comes through the post which states it demands your urgent attention, is it urgent to you?

Never allow such trivialities to impinge on your productivity. Again, keeping busy can often feel like work, but unless it adds tangible value to your life, whatever you’re doing is a pointless waste of time.

To that end to be proactive: ask yourself every day, ‘What task today represents the most productive use of my time? What task will add the greatest long-term value to my life?’

Find a block of time to devote to that task, and during that block focus your energies without interruption on that one thing.

If every day you can find the time to just focus one or two hours on the one task that will make the biggest difference to your future, you can’t but help to secure your future success. If at the same time you can cull the trivial, you’ll also keep your sanity and infinitely boost your productivity.

Whilst everyone else runs around like headless chickens, just filling the days with trivialities and urgencies, you’ll have been working persistently day after day – methodically and objectively – on the important.

And most importantly, you’ll feel calm and in control.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth