How to Stay Focused in 2019
In this blog, we’ll discuss what focus is and how to stay focused, why it’s so important, and— most importantly—how you can get more of it. Resist the temptation to flip the pages ahead, put your phone on vibrate, and let’s get started.
We all know we’d be more productive if we’d do what we know we’re supposed to do, but a variety of reasons including laziness, lack of motivation, Facebook, and funny cat videos tend to foil our plans.
How can we sit down and do the work we’re supposed to do? How can we overcome our addiction to animated feline antics and kill procrastination dead in its track?
It all starts with a focus
There is no big secret to productivity. If you want to be more productive, you need to get more work done faster. Now, being productive doesn’t guarantee you’ll be effective. This blog explores 25 Ways To Improve Your Focus in your work and studies.
Producing a lot will make you very productive, but getting the right work done will make you effective. But for right now, we’ll just focus on being productive; I’ll assume you can solve the problem of choosing what to work on, once you can produce consistently.
How do you get more work done…faster? Well, it all starts with focus. The focus is critical to getting any task done. Right now, I’m focused on the task of writing this blog.
I’ve got my headphones on, I’m ignoring my email, I’m looking at my screen and typing because I know this blog could take me all day to write, or it could take me a couple hours. It all depends on focus.
What is the focus?
Put simply, the focus is the opposite of distraction. The problem is we live in a world that’s so distracting that many people don’t actually know what true focus is. It’s easy to work an entire day and never reach a point of focus.
The constant bombarding of emails, phone calls, text messages, distractions, and interruptions tends to rob us of focus and make us forget what it even feels like to be focused. Let me take a second to remind you what true focus is—in case you’re having trouble recalling the last time you had it.
Remember the last time you were working a really hard problem? Perhaps you were trying to fix some bug or trying to figure out why your code didn’t work. Time seemed to fly by as you forwent food, drink, and sleep laboring at your task. Anyone who dared distract you were greeted by an angry growl and you poured all your attention into a single task.
That’s the focus. We’ve all felt it from time to time, but the problem is that most of the time we aren’t focusing. Most of the time, we’re in quite the opposite mode of working—we’re easily distracted and can’t seem to settle down into the task we know we should be doing.
Focus, like many things in life, is a game of momentum. It’s harder to get focused, but relatively easy to remain focused once you’ve pushed the ball up the hill.
The magic of focus
I don’t usually believe in magic pills, but I do believe the focus is the magic pill for productivity. If I could buy a focus, I’d whip out the credit card and max it out, knowing full well the return on my investment was all but guaranteed. The focus is that important.
The problem is, without focus, tasks end up getting stretched out over a very long period of time. Distractions that break our focus—or prevent us from ever getting it—end up costing us more than the time they take away.
When we talk about multitasking, but many tasks we take on have a context-switching cost. When we switch from one task to another, we end up having to regain some lost ground before we can begin again.
The focus is important because it keeps us from having to keep laying that foundation over and over again when we’re trying to work on a task. It can take some time to get everything set in our mind so that we can actually perform at our peak. Think of it like a car getting up to highway speed. It takes a few gear shifts before that car can maintain highway speed.
If you have to constantly stop and start, you’ll be forced to go at a much slower speed overall. It takes time to get that car back up to highway speed again and shift it into fifth gear. But once you’re there, you can cruise along with very little effort.
Focus helps you maintain speed.
I probably don’t have to take any more time to convince you of how important focus is. But you’re probably wondering how you can get more of it.
In fact, it’s pretty critical that you learn how to get focused because most of the rest of this section will be of little help to you without the ability to stay focused. I can tell you all the productivity hacks and techniques in the world, but if you can’t sit down and focus on a task, it won’t do you much good.
My personal productivity plan
The basic idea of my productivity plan is to plan out my entire week in small tasks that take no more than two hours. I use what is called a Kanban board to organize my week. The Kanban board is a simple board that has different columns that you can move tasks between.
In the Agile world, Kanban boards usually contain columns for the various states some work could be in. Typically, there will be states like “not started,” “in progress,” and “done.” But my Kanban board has columns for each day of the week.
I utilize the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused when I’m working on my tasks and to estimate and measure how long they’ll take.
My planning starts at the quarter level. I divide my year up into four quarters of three months each. When I plan out my quarter, I’ll try to come up with one big project that I want to get done during that quarter and I’ll also plan out some smaller goals.
I’ll also think about what things I’ll do on a weekly or daily basis. This planning is usually done in a list in an application like Evernote. I’ll create a high-level outline of what I want to accomplish during the quarter. This gives me a good idea of what my one major goal is and how I’ll achieve it. It also keeps me focused.
Every month, on the first day of the month, I print out the calendar for that month and try to plan out where I think work will fall on the days of the month.
I can’t be very exact here, but I can estimate roughly how much work I can get done that month based on how many days are available and any previous commitments I made. I’ll simply take items from my quarterly outline and see what I can fit on the calendar.
I’ll also plan out anything that I want to do on a monthly basis. For example, I batch-create all my YouTube videos for the month at the beginning of the month and that usually takes me a whole day.
Every Monday morning, I’ll start my day by planning my week. I was using a tool called Trello for the Kanban board I
Sample Kanban weekly schedule
use to organize my week, but lately, I’ve been using Kanbanflow to create my Kanban board because it has a built-in Pomodoro timer. My Kanban board has a column for each day of the week and also has columns for “today,” for what I’m going to be doing that day, and “done,” for any tasks that I’ve already completed.
I also have a column called “next week” where I move any tasks that I couldn’t get done this week or anything I know I need to do next week and don’t want to forget.
I start off by going through the list of things that I need to do every week. I have a checklist I created in Evernote that lists everything I need to do each week. For me, it includes
Writing a blog post
Producing a YouTube video
Creating a blog post about the video
Recording two podcasts
Creating a blog post about the podcast
Getting my podcast transcribed and edited Writing a newsletter email
Scheduling my social media content for the week
I schedule all of these tasks by creating cards in Trello or Kanbanflow. For each card, I estimate how long it will take in pomodori (which are each 25 minutes of focused work). I assume that I can get about 10 pomodori done each day. I make sure to add these tasks first, because I know they need to get done each week.
Once I’ve added the mandatory tasks for the week, I go through my calendar and see if there are any fixed appointments that will take up time during the day. For those days, I’ll either create cards to represent those appointments—if they’re work-related—or I’ll reduce the number of pomodori I expect to complete that day.
Finally, I’ll slot in whatever work I plan to get done that week. I’ll add cards for each task I’d like to get done that week, filling in all the available slots. I usually leave myself a small amount of slack by only scheduling nine pomodori worth of work each day.
At this point, I’ll have a pretty good idea of what I can accomplish during that week. I find this prediction to be very accurate. I have the
Schedule your weekly tasks.
power to shift around cards to prioritize certain tasks that I think are more important and I want to be sure to get done. I’m also able to see clearly where my time is going each week and I’m able to control where I spend that time ahead of time instead of looking back at where I actually spent the time in retrospect.
Daily planning and execution
Each day I’ll start off by getting my workout done before I sit down to work. I do this so that I won’t have an interruption during my day that might break my focus. Once I’m ready to sit down and actually work, the first thing I do is plan my day.
To plan my day, I move the cards from the corresponding day into the “today” column and put them in the order of importance. I make sure that I work on the most important things first each day. I’ll also adjust the tasks for that day and give them a bit more detail if what the task entails wasn’t clear enough from the card.
Dealing with interruptions
There are many interruptions that can come at you during the day. As soon as you sit down, the phone rings. Your email notification pops up on your screen. Someone has liked your post on Facebook.
Another big thing I do to avoid interruptions is to basically ignore email during the day. During breaks, I’ll often check email just to make sure there isn’t something urgent that has to be dealt with immediately, but unless there’s something truly urgent, I’ll only reply to email at one set time in the evening.
By batching up all my email correspondence at one time, I’m able to get through my email much more efficiently.
I also either log out of or make myself unavailable on all the chat programs that can be a source of constant distraction. I find chat programs to be a complete waste of time. In most cases, an email works better because I can respond at my leisure instead of being interrupted while I’m trying to focus.
Breaks and vacations
Working like a machine on a tight schedule every single day isn’t something that can be maintained in the long run, so I make sure that I have some time off and some weeks I’ll do what I call “free work,” which is basically a week where I don’t use pomodori and I don’t plan the whole week out.
I just work on what I feel like working on during that week. Those weeks are usually pretty unproductive and I’m eager to get back to my system, but they give me a break from the monotony and help me to remember how important having a system is to be productive.
I also take a day off every once in a while to recharge or do something with my family. I just schedule my week around it accordingly. Tomorrow I’m taking my daughter to Disney World, so I’ll be just doing three pomodori worth of work when we get home. I take a longer break every few months for a couple of weeks or a month at a time.
During that long break, I either queue up things like blog posts and podcasts, or I do the minimum I need to get done to keep up with my weekly commitments. I find that this kind of break is needed after working hard and being productive for an extended period of time.
I’ve tried quite a few productivity techniques over the years, and although I use a combination of parts of different ones, the one that has the biggest impact on my productivity is the Pomodoro Technique. If there’s just one productivity habit that I’d encourage you to develop, it’s the Pomodoro Technique.
I wasn’t always sold on the Pomodoro Technique, though. The first time I tried it I thought it was far too basic to be effective. I didn’t really see the point of it until I tried using it for a week and immediately began to see results.
Pomodoro Technique overview
The basic idea is that you plan out the work you’re going to do for a day. Then you set a timer for 25 minutes and work on the first task you’ve planned. You work only on a single task at a time and give it your complete focus for the full 25 minutes. If you’re interrupted, there are various ways of handling the interruption, but generally, you strive to not be interrupted at all. You never want to break focus.
Pomodoro Technique process
At the end of the 25 minutes, you set a timer for 5 minutes and take a break. That’s considered one Pomodoro. After every four pomodori, you take a longer break, usually 15 minutes.
Technically, if you finish a task early, you’re supposed to dedicate the remaining time to “overlearning.” That is, you continue to work on the task by making small improvements or rereading material if you’re trying to learn something. I tend to ignore this part and move on to the next task immediately.
And that’s basically it. The Pomodoro Technique is really that simple. Francesco originally used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to time the pomodori (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato), but there now exist plenty of apps for tracking and recording pomodori. I use the built-in Pomodoro timer in the Kanbanflow app for tracking my pomodori.
Using the Pomodoro Technique effectively
When I first started using the Pomodoro Technique, I didn’t do it properly. I simply tried to do some pomodori during the day by setting a timer for 25 minutes. I didn’t pay attention to how many I got done or do any estimation of how many pomodori a particular task would take me, so I didn’t get much out of it.
I figured that the whole technique was about focusing for an extended time period. I thought it was a good idea, but I didn’t see why I’d need to do much more than remember to focus for 10–15 minutes to get into my work.
I didn’t see the real value of the Pomodoro Technique until later when I decided to apply a bit more rigor to my use of it. A friend of mine, and fellow software developer, Josh Earl, had been using the technique very effectively and convinced me to give it another try.
What he was doing that was so effective was tracking how many Pomodoro he was getting done in a day—and setting a goal for how many to accomplish. It turns out this makes all the difference.
The real power of the Pomodoro Technique is using it as a tool to estimate and measure your work. By tracking the count of pomodori done in a day and having a goal of how many to accomplish in a day, you’re suddenly given the power to truly gauge how hard you worked in a day and what your true capacity is.
Once I started applying the Pomodoro Technique in this way, I found that I was getting quite a bit more out of it than before. I was able to utilize the Pomodoro Technique, not just to stay focused during the day, but to plan my days and weeks, figure out where I was spending most of my time, and motivate myself to be as productive as possible.
Using the Pomodoro Technique, you can start thinking about your week in terms of a finite resource of pomodori. Want to get a certain amount done each week? Figure out how many pomodori you can do in a week and prioritize accordingly.
You no longer have to feel like you didn’t get enough done because you can be sure of exactly how much you got done during a week by measuring the amount of pomodori you completed. If you didn’t get done what you wanted to, but you completed your target amount of pomodori, the problem isn’t doing enough work, it’s one of prioritization.
Using the Pomodoro Technique in this way taught me the true value of prioritization. When I have only so many units of work I can assign to each week, I have to be careful with how I dole out that precious pomodori. Before using the Pomodoro Technique, I’d always imagine I could get a lot more done in a week than what was actually possible.
I was overestimating my time and underestimating the length of time tasks would take me, but once I started using the Pomodoro Technique, I knew exactly how much time I had to work with during a week and I had a good idea how many pomodori tasks would take. I can’t even begin to tell you how valuable that is.
In fact, I know with a precise degree of accuracy how long it will take me to finish this blog. I have a good idea how many pomodori each blog takes to write, and I know how many pomodori I’m willing to assign to the job each week.
The mental game
So far I’ve only really talked about how the Pomodoro Technique can make you more effective by increasing your ability to plan, but the Pomodoro Technique is also very powerful because of the psychological impact time-boxing has on you.
One huge problem I’ve always had with my work is that I always feel guilty that I’m not doing more. It doesn’t matter how much I work in the day, it seems like I can never relax. I always feel like I should be doing something.
I’d sit down to play a video game (one of my favorite pastimes) and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, because I’d feel like I was wasting my time and should be doing more work. Perhaps you have this same feeling as well.
The problem stems from not being able to accurately assess how much you’ve accomplished in a day and not having a clear goal of how much should be accomplished. Perhaps, like me, you’ve tried to solve this problem by defining a list of things you wanted to accomplish for the day.
This seems like a good idea until you hit a day when the tasks you estimate take way longer than they’re supposed to take. You’ve been working like a dog all day, but you didn’t complete the tasks on your list, so even though you’ve put in a herculean effort, you still feel like a failure. That sucks.
We can’t necessarily control how long a task takes to complete. All we can do is control how much time we dedicate to the task—or any tasks—during a day. If you put in a hard day’s work, you should feel good about yourself.
If you’ve slacked off and it turns out you ended up getting everything on your list done because the tasks turned out to be easier than expected, you don’t really deserve a pat on the back. Making a list of things is arbitrary; what really matters is the volume of focused work that gets done in a day.
That’s exactly where the Pomodoro Technique saves the day. When you have a goal of x Pomodoro for the day and you get that goal done— a goal you can actually control—you know you did what you were supposed to do that day and you can give yourself permission to feel good about it—and more importantly—relax.
This realization has made a huge improvement in my working life and has helped me to get much more done while enjoying my free time. Once I’ve hit my goal for the day, pomodoriwise, I’m free to do whatever I want.
If I feel like it, I might get more work done, but if I want to sit down and play a video game or even waste time watching a movie or some other mindless activity, I can do it without guilt, because I know I’ve put in a hard day’s work.
We’ve already talked about focus, so I won’t drive too hard on that topic here, but there’s a huge difference between doing focused work and unfocused work.
The Pomodoro Technique also forces you to focus, so when you do a full day’s worth of work using the Pomodoro Technique, it ends up being a lot more work than you might normally be used to. The good news is that you’re more productive.
The bad news is that you feel it. I’m not going to lie; it takes some getting used to. Focusing for a majority of your day is hard—probably a lot harder than what you’re used to.
Landmine: I work in an office and I can’t just focus for 25 minutes at a time
Just because you work in a regular office doesn’t mean you can’t start using the Pomodoro Technique. I often hear the complaint that the Pomodoro Technique sounds great, but I’m constantly interrupted throughout the day.
Coworkers stop by my cubicle, my boss wants to talk to me; I can’t just hold up my hand and tell them to wait 10 minutes until my timer dings.
Ah, but you can. Well, as long as you give people notice ahead of time. If you’re having trouble with too many interruptions, try telling your boss and coworkers what you’re planning to do and how it will increase your productivity.
Tell them that you’ll never be unreachable for more than 25 minutes at a time and that you’ll respond to any requests as soon as you’ve completed a Pomodoro.
How much work can you get done?
One thing I’ve discovered after using the Pomodoro Technique is that I have a definite cap on the amount of pomodori I can get done in a week or a day. That cap has grown over time and I’ve gotten better at focusing and used to the increased amount of work, but if I overstretch my bounds and exceed my capacity, I always end up paying the price.
The actual cap might be a surprise to you. You might figure that in a given average work day you have 8 hours, so theoretically, you should be able to do about 16 pomodori in that time, because each Pomodoro takes about 30 minutes to complete. Realistically though, getting 16 pomodori done in a single day, even in 12 hours, would be a ginormous effort.
When I first started doing the Pomodoro Technique, I found it difficult to even get 6 pomodori done during a day. You’d be amazed how time just seems to disappear during the day and the amount of dedication and mental strain it takes to stay focused for most of your day.
My goal for the week is about 50-55 pomodori. If I hit that range, I know I’m doing well and I can count on making consistent progress each week toward my goals. If I go even just a little bit above that range, I feel it next week. It hits me hard.
If you’re going to adopt this technique, make sure you have a realistic expectation of what you can actually accomplish. Just because you work 40 hours in a week doesn’t mean you can get 80 pomodori done.
Many other famously productive people, like Stephen King, have said similar things about the maximum capacity of focused, productive work a person can hope to achieve in a day. You only have so much time—it’s up to you to choose what to do with it.
Give the Pomodoro Technique a shot. For now, don’t worry about setting a goal for how many pomodori to get done in a day, but try using the technique and chart how many you get done for an entire week.
Once you have an idea of how many pomodori you can get done in a week, set a goal for the next week and see if you can reach it. Pay attention to how much work you end up getting done and how it makes you feel to accomplish the set number of pomodori for a day.
My quota system: How I get way more done than I should
I’ve already told you about the basic system I use to stay as productive as possible, but there’s another part to it that I haven’t talked about very much. This part of my productivity system is unique—as far as I can tell. I haven’t ever heard anyone else talk about it or seen it in any productivity systems. I call it the quota system.
I use the quota system to make sure I make definite, measurable progress toward my most important goals on a daily and weekly basis. In this blog, I’m going to tell you about the basics of the quota system and how you can use it yourself.
One of the major problems I had with all the productivity systems I tried is that none of them seemed to do a great job of addressing repeated tasks that occur every single day. I also wanted a way to handle big tasks that might take weeks or even months to complete.
I found that I have many different tasks that repeat each week. Every week I need to produce a blog post, several podcasts, exercise and make progress toward my major goals. I even have daily tasks that I repeat every single day. I’m sure you have similar weekly and daily commitments.
I was always slipping on getting these kinds of repeated tasks done because I’d either forget about something I was supposed to do or I’d end up not having as much time in the week as I had expected. I never quite got as much done as I planned and I always felt like I couldn’t get traction because I wasn’t consistent.
Perhaps you’ve tried to do a workout program and you found that you just didn’t get to the gym as much as you had expected. Maybe you have a blog and you’d like to update it regularly, but months go by without an update.
You know that if you could just consistently blog, you’d see much better results, but even though you mean well, you never actually end up having the time to blog as much as you’d like.
I began to realize that the only way to guarantee that I’d make consistent progress in something I was pursuing was to create a defined goal for how much progress I needed to make in a predefined time period.
I originally had some success with my workouts by creating quotas for how many times I needed to run in a week—three—and how many times I needed to lift weights during the week, also three. I decided that every week I needed to meet this quota of three runs and three weightlifting sessions.
I started applying a weekly quota of doing one blog post per week and added quotas for other things I wanted to make sure I got done regularly, like creating YouTube videos and podcasts. I created a quota for everything I did that I needed to do more than once.
I quantified exactly how frequently I’d do any repeatable task. It could be once a month, four times a week, or twice a day. If I was going to repeat it, I was going to define how often, and I was going to make a commitment to it. Rain or shine, I was going to do what I committed to. I took these quotas very seriously.
What I began to find is that I was producing much more than I ever had before. And the best part was that I was doing it on a consistent basis, so I could measure and chart out my progress over time. I knew exactly how much volume I’d produce in a given amount of time.
One of the biggest successes I had with this system was in my production of Pluralsight courses. I set a quota for myself to get three modules done every single week.
By setting this quota for myself, I was able to complete over 55 courses in under three years, even while taking some time off. I quickly became the top producer and had three times more courses than any other author for the company.
I will run three times each week.
I will create one blog post each week. I will write one blog each day.
I will get 50 pomodori done each week.
Try it yourself. Take some time now to come up with your own list of quotas. Think about what you’d like to accomplish each week or each month and write them down. You don’t have to commit to it now, but just doing the exercise can be helpful.
How the quota system works
You might be wondering how this quota system works. It’s actually pretty simple. Just pick some task that you do repeatedly and set a quota for how often you’ll get that task done in a given interval. Your interval could be monthly, weekly, or daily, but you have to have a clear interval of time in which so much work must be done.
If you have a large project, you need to find a way to break it into smaller repeatable tasks. For my Pluralsight courses, I was able to break the work into modules.
Once you’ve defined what you’re going to do and how often you’re going to do it, the next step is to commit. This is the really important part because without really committing, you aren’t going to be successful.
True commitment means you’re going to accomplish what you committed to so far as it’s humanly within your possible ability. It means there’s virtually nothing, besides physical incapacity, that’s going to stop you from completing the task.
This idea is the core of the system. You don’t leave yourself any choice but to do what you set out to do. In your mind, failure can’t be an option. Because if you’re willing to let yourself slip once, you’ll slip again, and pretty soon the “quota” won’t mean anything at all.
The whole system falls apart if your commitment is weak, so you have to choose attainable and maintainable quotas. Don’t commit yourself to something you know you can’t do; otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Start with small commitments and make them bolder as you become successful at reaching them.
If a quota is too high, I only have one rule about it: you can’t quit in the interval in which the quota must be completed. At one point I committed to doing five modules for my Pluralsight courses each week. I was able to meet the quota for a few weeks, but it was very difficult to do and required me to work on Saturdays and Sundays most weeks.
When I decided to reduce the quota, I made sure I completed the quota of five for the week and then reduced the quota to three for the next week. I didn’t stop midway and change the rules, because I knew that doing so would cause me to lose respect for the quotas in the future.
QUOTA SYSTEM RULES
Pick a repeatable task.
Define an interval in which that task must be done and repeated.
Define a quota for how many times the task should be done during a given interval.
Commit. Make a firm commitment to meet your quota.
Adjust. Make your quota higher or lower, but don’t adjust during an interval.
Okay, now is the time to act—to make your own commitment. Pick a task that you came up with a quote for and commit to it. Go through the quota system rules and apply the quota system to just one thing at first.
Why the quota system works
The secret of why the quota system works goes back to the story of the tortoise and the hare. It’s better to work at a slow and steady pace than to go really fast at times but lack consistency and follow-through.
The problem most of us face when it comes to long-term productivity is maintaining a consistent pace. Over time, small bricks put perfectly into place each day eventually build up a wall.
It can be discouraging to focus on the large task at hand, but it’s easy to think about just laying a single brick. The key is putting a system in place that ensures you lay that brick each day, week, or month.
The quota system also helps you overcome willpower weakness by pre-setting a course for you to follow, eliminating the need to make decisions. Because you’ve already committed to doing a task so many times during a set interval, you no longer have to make a judgment call of whether or not to do a thing—you know you must do it.
Any time you’re required to make a decision during the day, you’re forced to tap into the limited reserves of willpower you have left. Eliminate the decision by making it mandatory, in the form of a quota, and you eliminate the willpower drain.
Make a list of all the tasks in your life that you repeat. Especially focus on things that you don’t do consistently right now, but you know you'd benefit from if you did.
Pick at least one task and commit to a quota for a specific interval of time. Take this commitment seriously. Try to keep the commitment for at least five intervals. Imagine what would happen if you continued the quota for months or years.
Holding yourself accountable
There are two kinds of motivation that can cause people to get work done: internal—the motivation that comes from inside us—and external—the motivation that comes from outside penalties or rewards.
Internal motivation is much more effective than external motivation. When we’re motivated internally, we get much more done and we tend to do a better job as well. The trick is getting your primary motivation to come from inside you instead of from the outside.
That’s what this blog is all about. Motivating yourself by holding yourself accountable to…you. Making promises to yourself does you no good if you can’t keep them.
Most of us show up to work each day and on time at least to some degree due to the fact that we’re accountable to our employers. The accountability of having a job requires us to do certain things we might not otherwise do if they were left up to us.
If you currently work for someone else and you’ve had the opportunity to work from home for a day, or perhaps you’ve ventured out on your own and worked for yourself, you’ve probably quickly realized how powerful this concept of accountability is.
This experience exposed a critical flaw in my work ethic that was hurting me in terms of productivity. I was influenced by external motivations rather than internal ones. Being accountable to my employer kept me in check, but once I was out on my own, I didn’t have my own sense of accountability to control my behavior.
It’s important to develop a sense of self-accountability to be productive when no one is looking. You could also call this having character or integrity because they’re all part of the same idea.
Without this sense of accountability to yourself, you’re always dependent on external motivations to get you to perform. You become easily manipulated by a carrot promising a reward or a stick promising…a beating if you fall out of line.
Self-mastery is the art of self-motivation, and at the heart of self-motivation is self-accountability. You have to learn how to be accountable to yourself if you want to have predictable, reliable results that aren’t dependent on someone else’s influence.
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Becoming accountable to yourself
I struggled with this problem of being primarily influenced by the external motivation for quite a while. I had to learn some self-discipline to be effective at my job and productive when the results were totally up to me. Eventually, though, I did figure out how to tame the wild beast that was dwelling inside me.
To develop self-accountability, you need to first develop some kind of structure in your life. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, you can’t really hold yourself accountable to anything.
When you go to work, you usually have certain days you’re supposed to work and a starting and quitting time. Even though some of these things can be flexible, they’re rigid enough to be clearly defined. You know when you’re in violation, so you can be held accountable by your superiors.
Make rules for yourself so you can develop structure in your life. Think about how you’d schedule your life if you didn’t have to do the activities yourself.
Steps for self-accountability
You have to put that same kind of structure in place in your own life, voluntarily, by making rules for yourself. You need to create your own rules that govern how you’d like to live your life, and you need to make these rules ahead of time when you’re able to think clearly and your head isn’t clouded with bad judgment.
You probably have some rules you’ve already defined for yourself, like brushing your teeth every day or paying your bills on time. But it’s a good idea to put rules around any areas of your life that are trouble areas for you or are critical to your success. This added structure can help you to stay on task and do what you’re supposed to be doing rather than being ruled by whims and emotions.
Sometimes it can help to step outside of yourself and think about how you’d schedule your life and your activities each week if you didn’t actually have to do the activities yourself. Imagine if you were playing a video game where you had to plan the activities for your character for each day. How would you plan out and schedule the time?
What kind of diet would you put in place? How many hours of sleep would your character get? Answers to these questions are good candidates for rules that you can use to hold yourself accountable.
You may find that it’s easy to violate your own rules when you’re only accountable to yourself. It may help to have a little bit of external help in those situations. You can still define your own rules and, thus, the motivation is still internal—because you’re the one making the rules— but you can have someone else help you enforce them.
There’s no weakness in getting others to help you hold yourself accountable to something you’ve agreed to. It can be helpful to recruit an accountability partner—ideally someone who shares a similar goal.
You can tell the person your rules or the goals you’re trying to achieve and you can keep each other accountable by reporting your progress— both successes and failures—regularly to each other.
Often the thought of having to report a failure to your accountability partner can be enough to discourage self-defeating action. It can be the difference that’s the tipping point in making a good choice over a bad one.
You can also run important decisions by your accountability partner to ensure that choices you’re making are truly in your long-term best interest and not shadowed by temporary bad judgment.
I have a mastermind group that functions as an accountability group. Our group meets weekly and we each talk about what we did each week and what we planned to do.
By discussing our plans in the group, we hold each other accountable to follow through with them. No one wants to let down the group by not following through on their actions. Since I’ve started this group, my productivity has increased tremendously.
It can also be a good idea to make your actions as public as possible. I publish blog posts, YouTube videos, and podcasts every week. If I miss a week, I’ll know that it won’t go unnoticed, so I don’t feel like I can be lazy and not do what I know I’m supposed to do.
It can be helpful to expose your own work to public scrutiny because it can motivate you to action due to either embarrassment or let down other people who are relying on you.
The important thing is to make sure you have some kind of accountability for your actions. You’ll be much more productive when you’re holding yourself to a standard you’ve created.
Decide how you'd like to live your life and spend your time and create some rules to help you ensure you’re heading in the right direction.
Create an accountability system that will help you to enforce your rules.
Multitasking dos and don’ts
Ah, multitasking. Some people call it a bane to productivity and others swear by it. More and more, though, the sentiment has turned toward eliminating multitasking completely.
I don’t think it’s quite that simple though. I think some tasks are suited for multitasking and others aren’t. If you really want to maximize your productivity, you’ll have to learn when to multitask, when not to multi-task, and how to multitask effectively.
Why multitasking is generally bad
Most of the recent research on multitasking seems to indicate multitask-ing almost always results in reduced productivity even though multitask-ers themselves may think they’re increasing their productivity. Take a look at this article from the American Psychological Association to see a summary of some of that research.
This task-switching seems to be the culprit for the hit on productivity. The more you switch between tasks, the more time you waste getting your brain ramped up to work on a task.
True multitasking means to do two or more things at the same time—and that can be effective, as we’ll talk about a little later on— but most of the time, we’re actually doing task-switching.
This makes sense when you consider how important focus is to productivity. When you multitask, you tend to break your focus and end up having to take time to get back into that task. You’re also more likely to procrastinate or allow other interruptions to distract you when you aren’t in that focused mode.
If you consider that you’re most productive when you’re “in the zone” and it takes a period of focused work to get there, it makes sense that rapidly switching tasks wouldn’t be effective.
Now, this is only true for certain kinds of work where you can’t actually do two or more things at the same time or doing so breaks your focus. If you can actually manage to combine tasks together, you can get quite an efficiency boost, but we’ll get to that a little later on. For now, let’s talk about a more effective strategy for dealing with tasks that we’d normally try to multitask.
Batching is much more productive
I get quite a few emails during the day. I used to have notifications on my computer to tell me when a new email came in. Almost every time a new email came in, I’d stop what I was doing and read and respond to that email. It wasn’t very efficient, because I was interrupting my focus all the time and I never got into “email mode” either.
It’s pretty obvious in that case that I wasn’t actually multitasking. I was simply interrupting whatever work I was doing to deal with email. I was task-switching. It wasn’t possible for me to answer email while writing this blog, for instance. I simply don’t have enough keyboards or fingers to accomplish that task.
The way I handle email now is in batches. I might check my email a couple of times each day and answer any urgent emails. But in general, I process all of my emails at a single time during the day.
I go through my entire inbox and deal with it all at once. I’m much more efficient because I’m not interrupting my other task and I can get into the “email zone” where I can deal with emails much more quickly than I can when I’m just opening my inbox.
What’s my point in telling you this? Well, if you’re having trouble with multitasking during the day because there are multiple tasks you have to get done, you’ll probably be better off learning how to batch those tasks and work on a series of related tasks all at once rather than splitting them up throughout the day.
Email is a great place to start, but anything that you do in small intervals is a good candidate for batching.
POTENTIAL AREAS TO BATCH
Dealing with email Making phone calls Fixing bugs
Batching related tasks instead of working on them at different times during the day have two major benefits. First, you don’t break your focus on bigger tasks you’re working on during the day.
Second, you’re able to get into a deeper focus on the tasks that you’d normally not spend enough time on to get into a focused mode. Answering a single email doesn’t afford you enough time to get focused on that task, but answering 20 emails in a row can put you in the zone.
Take a moment now and think about some areas of your life that you might be able to batch together. What types of activities do you do a lot of but are spreading out over time? Can you set aside a bigger chunk of time and do those things all at once?
What about true multitasking?
Okay, so now that we’ve got the multitasking hate out of the way, let’s talk about true multitasking when you’re actually doing two things at once, not just switching between tasks rapidly.
I get quite a bit of a productivity benefit out of doing true multitasking. It only makes sense that if you can combine two tasks and actually do them both at once, you’ll be able to get much more done. The trick is figuring out what tasks can actually be combined without reducing the productivity on each task more than the overall gain.
I’ve found that it’s possible to combine a brainless task together with a task that requires some degree of mental focus. Right now I’m listening to music on my headphones while I’m typing this blog.
Now, arguably listening to the music itself isn’t a productive activity, but it turns out that listening to music while writing makes me more productive at the task of writing. The music seems to help me get my words flowing and reduces the chances of other distractions stealing my attention.
How about a more productive example? I usually try to combine fitness activities with educational ones. When I’m at the gym lifting or running, I’ll often listen to an audiobook or podcast.
I’ve found that I can do physical activity while listening to something educational without any negative impact. I’ve been able to get through many books by listening to audio versions while running or lifting weights.
But imagine what would happen if I tried to listen to an audiobook while writing this blog. I’d either not be paying attention to the book, or I’d be unable to write. Our brains can’t do two mentally taxing things at once.
The key is to find time during your day when either your brain or body isn’t engaged. Driving in the car is a great time to listen to audiobooks. You don’t have to focus to drive. You can almost do that on autopilot, so you might as well learn something while you commute.
It’s too hard to do two mentally taxing things at once.
Flipping it around, I’ve got a treadmill that has a little shelf that I can put my laptop on. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be walking while I’m typing replies to emails. I’ve found, though, that I can’t do a good job of writing code while walking on the treadmill—unless I’m going very slowly.
Batch together any smaller tasks that can be done at one time instead of multiple times throughout the day or week.
Look for areas where you can implement true multitasking. Any time you’re doing a non-mentally taxing activity, try to combine it with something else. Any time you’re doing a mentally taxing activity, try and combine it with physical activity.
We all hit a wall in our motivation from time to time.
When you first start a new project, your interest is the highest. But just like that new-car feeling, the interest level drops down rather quickly. Interest seems to be fueled by hope and anticipation. We’re most interested in things before we actually start doing them.
Motivation tends to start out low, but as you make progress doing something, your motivation level starts to rise. Early successes make you feel more motivated. Momentum pushes you forward.
Over time, though, the slow pace of results starts to wear on your motivation. You eventually find yourself at a point where your motivation and interest are both close to rock bottom. This is the wall.
Push through the wall
Yes, it’s that simple. And yes, I’m serious. Take a glance back at the figure of interest, motivation, results, and the wall. Notice what happens right after the wall, if you can manage to get through it? All of the sudden, results shoot up extremely fast. Motivation and interest come right along for the ride.
Before you get too skeptical, let me explain what happens and why the wall is there. Like we discussed earlier, most people quit when they hit the wall. They don’t try and go past it, because they feel like they’re burned out.
Before you hit the wall, the competition is fierce. There are many runners in the race. Everyone is enthusiastic and excited. The road is easy. No one has been filtered out.
But because so many people never get past the wall, the other side of the wall is very sparse. There isn’t much competition. Most of the runners have dropped out of the race. Each runner on the other side of the wall gets a bigger share of the reward because there are so few runners left.
If you can just make it to the other side of the wall, suddenly things will start to get easier and your motivation and interest will pick up again. We have a high level of motivation and interest in new endeavors we undertake, but we also have a high level of motivation and interest in things we’ve mastered.
You’ll eventually hit more walls, but every time you push through one, you’ll get a burst of renewed energy and motivation. Plus, the number of people you have to compete with gets fewer.
Pushing past the wall
Okay, so maybe you’re a little unsure of what I’m saying. I mean, you really do feel burned out. When you wake up in the morning, you seriously don’t feel like typing on your computer. You just want to get away to a cabin in the woods where you’ll never have to see a computer again.
But perhaps…just maybe, you’re willing to give it a try. Perhaps you’re willing to see if there really is a pot of gold on the other side of the wall.
Good. Then let me tell you how to do it.
You’ve already gone through the first step, which is realizing that there’s something waiting for you on the other side. Most people give up because they don’t realize that things will get better if they just keep pushing through. Knowing that your efforts aren’t in vain can help you to hold on and eventually make it through.
Unfortunately, though, that isn’t enough. Trying to push on when motivation is at an all-time low is really difficult. Without motivation, you don’t feel like pressing on. You feel like doing exactly the opposite.
Take this blog, for example. When I first started writing it I was extremely excited. I couldn’t imagine what could be more fun than sitting down and writing “my book” all day. It didn’t take long for that initial excitement to wear off. But the fact that you’re reading this proves that I made it through to the end. How did I do it when my motivation
You need to push past the wall. and interest eventually faded? I set a schedule for myself and I stuck to it. Rain or shine, no matter how I feel, a blog gets written each day. Some days it’s more, but it’s always at least one blog.
How you’re wasting your time
We all do it. We all waste time. In fact, if we could learn to stop wasting time, by definition, we’d be as productive as possible. If you could maximize the hours of your day so that there was absolutely no time waste, you’d be operating at maximum capacity.
Unfortunately, you can’t squeeze every minute out of every day—that’s too unrealistic of a goal. But you can figure out the places you’re wasting the most time and eliminate them. If you can get rid of your one or two biggest time wasters you’ll be in pretty good shape.
The biggest time waster of all
I’m just going to come right out and say it. Stop watching television!
Now, you might not watch much TV, or perhaps you don’t watch as much as the average American, but it’s pretty hard to ignore this kind of data. It indicates we all may be watching much more TV than we think.
Take a moment now and track your own TV watching. Think about all the shows you watch and track how long you think you spend watching TV each week. Be honest with yourself. Add up all those hours over a year’s worth of time.
Giving up the TV
I probably don’t need to tell you why watching TV is such a waste of time, but you might need a little more convincing to give it up completely or at least cut it back.
I didn’t start to back off watching TV until I started working on side projects of my own. I started out creating an Android application to help track my runs. I was setting aside a couple of hours each day to work on the app.
I found that by replacing the time I was spending watching TV working on this project that I enjoyed, I was getting a lot more done and I was feeling better about it.
By finding something else to occupy my time and by breaking the control over my schedule that regularly scheduled TV programming had on me, I was able to eventually break my addiction to TV, freeing up 20–30 more hours per week.
Other time wasters
I primarily set my focus on TV, because for most people it’s the biggest time waster. Just eliminating that one-time waster can potentially double or triple your productivity—not to mention save you some money. But there are some other major time wasters out there that you might want to learn how to eliminate from your life as well.
One of the major one's today is social media. It’s definitely important to have a social media presence, as we talked about in section 2, but it’s easy to waste countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites when you’re supposed to be working or you could be doing something productive.
One good strategy, which applies to email as well, is to batch up your social media activities to one or two times during the day. Instead of incessantly checking Facebook during the day, try only checking Facebook at lunchtime or in the evening. Trust me, you won’t miss out on much.
If you’re working a corporate job, one major time waster that can make you less productive is meetings. I probably don’t need to tell you about how much time meetings can waste. I’ve worked jobs where I was in at least two to three hours of meetings a day. Needless to say, there wasn’t much time left over for actual productive work.
One of the best ways to stop letting meetings waste your time is to simply not go to them. I know this sounds a bit heretical, but I found that many of the meetings I was going to were meetings where I was an optional attendee or where my presence truly wasn’t needed.
You might also be able to reduce the number of meetings you go to by getting the meeting organizers to cancel a meeting if the agenda in that meeting can be handled over email or another medium. I found that calling a meeting is often chosen as the default action because it’s so easy to do.
Try to use a meeting as a last resort if an issue can’t be handled via a less time-consuming medium like email or even a quick phone call.
SOME OF THE BIGGEST TIME WASTERS
Watching TV, Social media, News sites
Unnecessary meetings, Cooking
Playing video games, (especially online games), Coffee breaks
Landmine: Are cooking, coffee breaks, and other things you like doing really wasting time?
Tracking your time
If you’re having a problem with social media distractions, you might want to track just how much time you spend on social media sites. You can use a tool like RescueTime to track what you’re spending your time on during the day and generate a report that will show you exactly how much time you’re wasting on social media sites and doing other nonproductive things on your computer.
The best way to eliminate the time wasters in your life is to identify them. You have to know where you’re wasting your time before you can start claiming that time back.
I’d recommend implementing some kind of time-tracking system to see exactly where your time is going each day. When I first started working for myself, I didn’t understand where all my time was going.
I felt like I should be able to get much more done in a day than what I was actually getting done. I started meticulously tracking my time for about two weeks and eventually was able to find out many areas where I was wasting the most time.
If you can get an accurate read on where you’re spending your time, you’ll be able to identify and eliminate your biggest time wasters. Try to figure out exactly how much time you spend on different tasks each day. Even track how long you spend eating meals to really get an idea of where your time is going.
Developing habits: Brushing your code
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. —Aristotle
We all have habits—some good, some bad. Good habits propel us forward and help us grow. Bad habits hold us back and stunt our growth. Developing and cultivating good habits can help you be productive without conscious effort.
Just like routines help us to slowly but surely build a massive wall a brick a time, habits also can move us forward or backward by an accumulation of our efforts. The big difference is that routine is something we can control, and habits aren’t.
In this blog, we’re going to talk about the value of having good habits and how to develop those habits. We don’t have control over our habits, but we do have control over forming and breaking them. Learning how can be one of the most effective things you can do in your life.
Before we can dive into changing your habits and building new ones, we need to discuss exactly what habits are.
Habits basically consist of three things: a cue, a routine, and a reward. A cue is something that causes your habit to be triggered. It might be a certain time of the day, some kind of social interaction, a particular environment, or just about anything else. I’ve got a cue of buying pop-corn whenever I’m in a movie theater.
Next up is the routine. A routine is something you do—the actual habit itself. A routine might be smoking a cigarette, going for a run, or running all your unit tests before checking in your code.
Finally, there’s the reward. This is the anchor that actually keeps the habit in place. This is the good feeling you get from executing your habit. The reward might just be a feeling of satisfaction, a “ding” when you gain a level in World of Warcraft, or that sugary taste of your favorite treat.
Our brains are really good at forming habits. We automatically form habits around things we do. The more we do a thing, the more likely a habit will be formed. The strength of the habit is often based on the value of the reward. We like to do things that give us better rewards.
Strangely, though, variable rewards are more addicting than a known standard reward. This is why you see so many people in casinos. Not knowing if you’ll get a reward or how big that reward will be can create some pretty bad habits, also known as addictions.
Habits consist of three things: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
You probably have hundreds of habits that you aren’t even consciously aware of. There is probably a particular routine you perform each morning when you get up. You probably brush your teeth every evening, and you likely have all kinds of habits that influence the way you work and how you work.
That’s what I really want to focus on in this blog because developing those habits are going to help you increase your productivity the most.
Recognizing bad habits and altering them
It’s often easiest to start by taking bad habits and turning them around to create good habits out of them. If we can identify what our bad habits are, we can gain a double boost in productivity by taking negative habits and making them positive ones.
I’ve got a bad habit of immediately checking my email and then checking a few internet deal sites and my social networks when I first sit down to my computer each day. I’d venture to guess that you have some similar routine that you do each day as well.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still in the process of breaking this habit and changing it around—it’s not exactly easy to do. But it serves as a good example of a bad habit that I know I could turn around and change into a good one.
Let’s examine that habit and break it down into three parts. First is the cue. Sitting down at my desk seems to be the cue. Once I get in front of my computer first thing in the morning, the habit begins.
Next comes the routine. The routine is checking email, seeing if there are any good deals on Slickdeals: The Best Deals, Coupons, Promo Codes & Discounts, checking Facebook, checking Twitter, and so on. Finally, there’s the reward. The reward is two-fold.
It feels good to check all the internet sites I like to check—sometimes there are likes on my posts or shiny new emails just waiting for me. I also feel a bit of stress relief, because I can distract myself from what I know I need to get done that day and take a few moments to relax.
I could try to stop this habit completely, but it would be rather hard to do. I’d be constantly tempted by its alluring call, and half the time that I’m doing the habit I don’t even realize it; it’s just automatic. But
It’s important to have good habits.
instead of trying to completely eliminate it, I can change the routine. Instead of checking all those internet sites I like to check, I could leave the cue in place and have the cue direct me toward another action—a more productive action.
What if instead of checking internet sites the first thing in the morning, I decided to plan my day and cherry-pick the one task for the day that I enjoyed the most? I’d be able to get more work done and I’d start off with the work I enjoyed instead of the work I enjoyed least.
Sure, I wouldn’t be working on the most important thing first each day, but I’d be working on something productive rather than waste half an hour doing something completely unproductive.
It might take me a while to make the switch to turn the bad habit into a good one, but eventually, the good habit would replace the old bad habit and it would start to become part of my daily routine.
You can apply the same approach to the bad habits of your own, but first, you have to identify them. The best way to identify your bad habits is to try to find things in your life and routine that you feel guilty about. What are the things that you want to stop doing, but you always put off for another day?
Try starting small. Pick a single bad habit that you’ve been able to identify and don’t try to change it right away. Instead, try to identify exactly what triggers the habit, what exactly it is that you end up doing, and what the reward is that motivates you to execute on that impulse.
Sometimes, you might even find the reward is a phantom one—a promise you expect to be fulfilled but that never really is. Many people buy lottery tickets habitually because they think they might win, even though they never do.
Once you have a good handle on the habit itself, you’ll find that you’ll become much more conscious of it. You might even be able to break or change a habit just by examining it closely.
Next, try to figure out if there’s some other routine you can substitute for the one you’re currently doing for that habit. If possible, try to find something that you can do that will carry a similar reward or even the same type of reward.
Finally, the hard part is forcing yourself to stick with this new change of habit for a long enough time period for it to take over the old one. It helps to know that the new habit will eventually become easy and automatic as long as you can stick with the change long enough.
Forming new habits
In addition to changing old habits, you’ll want to form new habits around the things you want to do. In the previous blog we talked about the importance of having a routine, but you won’t be very successful with a routine unless it’s made up of habits that will keep you doing it.
You might be successful in forming new habits by just sticking with a routine long enough. I was able to develop my habit of running and lifting weights three times a week mostly by sticking with the routine for a couple of months.
After a couple of months, I automatically felt compelled to get outside and run or to go to the gym, depending on what day of the week it was.
The idea of forming habits is similar to that of creating a routine. Try to think of one big goal you want to accomplish and see if you can form habits that will move you in the direction of it. The more positive habits you have, the easier it will be to progress toward your goals.
Once you’ve picked out a habit that you’d like to develop, think of a reward that will help motivate you to start the habit. You might decide that you want to develop the habit of running all your unit tests before checking in your code.
Perhaps you decide that if you run the unit tests before checking in your code, you’ll give yourself a nice five-minute break to check your email. Just watch out to make sure the reward you give yourself isn’t a bad habit in itself. I wouldn’t recommend eating a candy bar every time you work out.
Next, figure out the cue for your new habit. What’s going to trigger the habit? Make this cue something constant that you can rely on. A certain time of day or day of a week is a great cue that will ensure you don’t put the action off until another time. If you can piggyback off of another habit, even better.
I had a habit of reading a technical book for 30 minutes every evening to keep my skills sharp. I decided I could create a new habit of walking for 30 minutes a day by combining the two. Now when I want to read a book I feel compelled to walk on the treadmill as well.
Track your habits. What are the most influential habits that currently make up your life? How many of them would you consider good habits and how many would you consider bad habits?
Take one of your bad habits and try to turn it around into a good habit. Before you do it, visualize what the net result will be in your life one week from now, one month from now, and one year from now.
Breaking down things:
One of the main reasons for procrastination—which is the bane of productivity—is problem admiration: being so busy admiring the size of a problem that you don’t actually try and solve it. When we look at tasks in their entirety, they can seem much larger and intimidating than they really are.
In this blog, I’m going to talk about a productivity hack that can help you overcome procrastination: breaking things down. By breaking down big tasks into smaller ones, you’ll find that you’re more motivated to get them done and you’ll make much steadier progress toward achieving your goals.
Why bigger isn’t always better
The bigger a task, the more intimidating it appears to be. Writing an entire software application is difficult. Writing a single line of code is easy. Unfortunately, in the field of software development, we tend to encounter more large tasks and projects than smaller ones.
These large tasks or projects can psychologically hurt us and our productivity, because of our inability to see far into the future. A large task can seem almost impossible when you look at it in its entirety. Think about incredible feats like building a skyscraper or a bridge that spans for miles.
Many skyscrapers and bridges have been built, so we know it’s possible, but if you look at any of these kinds of projects as a whole, it seems like no one could possibly accomplish them.
I struggled for a long time to complete a large project like building an application from scratch. I started many different applications, but never ended up quite finishing any of them until I started learning to break things down.
It seemed that I’d always be enthusiastic about a project at first, but pretty soon I’d get bogged down in the details. I’d get caught up in thinking about how much work there was left to do and I’d never quite make it to the finish line. The bigger the project was, the more likely I was to fail.
I’ve found that I’m not alone in this regard. In my various roles in the software development field, when I’ve given out work to other developers, I’ve invariably found that the biggest indicator of the success of a project was the size of the task that I doled out. The bigger the tasks I asked someone to do, the more likely they were to not do them.
We’ve already talked about one of the reasons why this is true: the psychological burden of a large task. When faced with large problems we tend to spend more time thinking about the problem than taking steps to solve the problem.
Humans tend to take the path of least resistance. When faced with a big task, checking your email or getting another cup of coffee almost always seems like the easier path, so procrastination ensues.
But procrastination isn’t the only reason why bigger tasks aren’t better. The bigger a task, the less it tends to be defined. If I ask you to go to the store and get me eggs, milk, and bread, that task is well defined and you know exactly what to do. Executing on that task is easy and chances are you’ll execute correctly on your mission.
On the other hand, if I ask you to create a website for me, that’s a much bigger, less defined task. You might not know where to start and there are many unanswered questions.
You’re less likely to know exactly what to do to get that job done. I could write up a description of what exactly creating a website for my means and what I expect, but that level of detailed description would take some time to read and understand and there would be a high probability of error.
Big tasks also tend to be very difficult to estimate. If I ask you how long it will take you to write an algorithm to find the biggest item in a list, you can probably give me a pretty accurate estimate.
But if I ask you to tell me how long it will take you to implement a shopping cart feature on a website, your estimate is probably going to be closer to a wild guess than anything else.
Bigger tasks are mentally challenging, more likely to bring about procrastination, generally less descriptive, error-prone, and more difficult to estimate than smaller tasks.
Breaking down things
Don’t lose hope. There is a solution. It turns out that most big tasks can be broken down into smaller tasks. In fact, almost every large task can be broken down into an almost infinite number of easier smaller tasks.
Breaking down large tasks into smaller ones is one of the techniques I use all the time to get more work done and to have more accurate estimates of how long the work will take me to do.
In fact, it’s no coincidence how this blog is structured. You may have wondered why there are so many small sections in this blog. When I set out to write this blog, I purposely chose to create many small blogs broken up into several sections instead of a few large blogs. The reason is two-fold.
First, you as a reader will have an easier time digesting this content. I know that when I read books with long blogs, I’m more likely to avoid picking up the book and reading unless I have enough time to get through a full blog.
The task of reading a book with longer blogs seems more intimidating, so I’m less likely to do it. Hopefully, you’ve found that each blog of 1,000–2,000 words are easier to read and less intimidating than a much larger, less broken-up text.
Second, it’s easier for me. I know that writing a blog is a challenge. I know that most people who sit down to write a book don’t finish it. I’ve sat down to write blogs myself and never completed them.
Having small blogs that are each the size of a long blog post makes the task of writing a blog much more manageable. Instead of having one big task of writing a massive blog, I have 80 or so small tasks of writing blogs.
When you break down tasks into smaller pieces, those tasks become easier to do, your estimates for completing the tasks are much more accurate, and you’re more likely to perform them correctly.
Even if a smaller task is done incorrectly, you have more opportunity for correction before you get too far into a large project or undertaking. I’ve found that it’s almost always a good idea to break down any large task into smaller ones.
How to break down things
It turns out that breaking things down isn’t all that hard. Most tasks can be easily decomposed into smaller tasks by taking them one step at a time. The quote about how to eat an elephant is very true. The only way you can conceivably eat an elephant is by taking one bite at a time.
The same goes for almost every large task. Even if you don’t consciously break down a large task, you’re still limited by time’s linear progress. One thing must be done before another thing can be done and so forth and so on.
If you want to take a large task and make it less intimidating, you need to start by determining what steps need to be done to complete the task. If I’m given a large task to work on, the very first thing I try to do is figure out if I can chop that task into smaller sequential pieces.
I broke down the entire project into small tasks like these and suddenly the insurmountable beast looked like a little mouse. Each little task seemed trivially simple, even though the whole project seemed like a very difficult problem to solve.
Breaking down a large task into smaller tasks makes more sense.
One thing you’ll probably find when you’re trying to break down a large task into many smaller ones is that you don’t have enough information about exactly what you’re supposed to do. Remember how I said that bigger tasks are usually less defined?
A critical step of breaking down a large task into smaller ones is identifying what information is missing that’s preventing you from creating smaller, well-defined tasks. If you’re having a problem breaking down a large task into smaller ones, chances are it’s due to lack of information.
This isn’t a bad thing, though. It’s much better to learn early on in a project that you’re lacking the information to complete it than it is to find that out when you’re already far into a large undertaking.
When you break down large tasks into smaller ones, make sure each small task has a clear goal. Trying to identify these goals will often reveal important information you might have otherwise missed.
When I work on Agile teams, I often try to use this technique to get the right information out of the customer. Customers often have a hard time stating exactly what they want when they’re asking you to perform some large task like adding a shopping cart to their site. But if you can break down the large task into smaller ones, you can make it much easier for them to tell you what they want.
Breaking down problems
This same approach to breaking things down can be applied directly to code and problem solving as well. Many new developers get overwhelmed with trying to solve what they perceive as a difficult piece of code to write or a difficult problem to solve because they try to tackle too big of a problem at once—they don’t know how to break things down.
We naturally do some of this to manage the complexity in our code. That’s why we don’t have one large method with all the code in it. We break down our code into methods, functions, variables, classes, and other structures to help simplify it.
No matter how difficult a programming problem may be, it can always be decomposed into smaller and smaller pieces. If you’re trying to write a difficult algorithm, instead of plowing ahead and writing code, it can help to break the problem down into smaller pieces that can be solved independently and sequentially.
No matter how large and complex an application is, it can always be distilled into lines of code. A single line of code is never beyond the complexity level of any programmer to understand or to write, so if you’re willing to break down a problem far enough, you can literally write an application with only the ability to write a single line of code.
What large tasks are you avoiding right now because the size of them intimidates you? Are you procrastinating on cleaning the garage, writing a blog post, or tackling that difficult algorithm?
Pick a large problem you're facing now and see if you can figure out a good way to decompose it into smaller tasks.
The value of hard work and why you keep avoiding it
Everyone is always looking for a shortcut in life—some way to get out of doing the hard work required to succeed—myself included. We all want to find some way that we can enjoy the results of hard work without actually having to do it. I’d like to have this book be magically finished with-out me having to do the hard work of sitting down to write it.
The reality of the situation, though, is that everything that’s worthwhile comes as a result of hard work. In life, and especially in your software development career, you have to learn how to sit down and do the work you don’t want to do—and do it consistently—if you really want to see results.
In this blog, we’ll dispel some of the myths of the charlatans that promise you great rewards by working smarter instead of harder, and we’ll tackle some of the motivational challenges behind doing hard work.
Why is hard work so darn…hard?
It’s a mystery to me why some things are so much harder to do than other things. Why is it that I have no problem playing a video game for hours at a time—which arguably may involve quite a bit of mental strain.
But I can’t seem to get myself to sit down and type out the words to a blog post? Does my mind really care what kind of work it’s doing?
I know that to my brain, the machine that runs the show, it’s all work. Does my brain really care if it’s mashing buttons on a video game controller or mashing keys on a keyboard? But to me, one is work and the other is play. One is hard and the other is fun.
I’ve never met a person who really enjoys doing hard work. There are plenty of people who will say they enjoy hard work and most of us enjoy the work once we get into it or once it’s finished, but hardly anyone ever wants to start doing hard work.
To be honest with you, I don’t think I could give you a good reason why this is so.
I can’t tell you why it’s much more difficult to get your brain to send the electrical signals to your hands to write the code to fix that bug you need to fix than it is to get that same brain to send those same electrical signals to your hands to type a comment in Facebook or the address of your favorite time-wasting website.
But the reality is that certain work is hard and other work is easy.
It seems to me, though, that the work that we consider hard is the work that’s most likely to benefit us. It’s the work that’s most likely to advance our careers or open up new opportunities. All the work that doesn’t have any benefit always seems so easy.
I’ll just work “smarter”
All the time now, it seems, I hear someone preaching the idea of working smarter rather than harder. While I agree that we should work as smartly as possible, I don’t agree that working smarter is a substitute for hard work.
Everyone who promises greater results with less work is trying to sell you something, or they have forgotten how hard they had to work to get to where they are.
There is a major fallacy in the idea that smarter work can overcome harder work. It’s true that to get ahead you have to work smart, but a hard worker will consistently pass a self-proclaimed smart worker any day. The truth of the matter is that if we want to actually see results from our actions, we have to be willing to work hard.
If you really want to be effective, you have to learn how to work both smart and hard. Being smart isn’t enough. There is a certain amount of gumption that’s required, a certain amount of perseverance in the face of obstacles that’s necessary to actually succeed.
Hard work is boring
If I had to speculate as to why we avoid hard work, I’d say it’s because hard work is generally boring. When I first started writing my blog I was excited about it. I was enthusiastic about this new opportunity to express myself.
The things that we perceive as difficult are actually the things we don’t want to do because they aren’t exciting or they aren’t glamorous. It’s very tempting to fly through life going from one passion to the next, only doing the things that interest you. As soon as something stops interesting you, you fly on to the next thing.
But there’s a problem with this kind of thinking. The problem is that your peers who are willing to stick with a single thing over time will eventually surpass you. At first, you may appear to be ahead of them.
At first, your passion for what you’re doing will give you a temporary boost, but the person who is willing to put in the long, hard hours and do the boring work necessary to get a job done will eventually pull ahead…far ahead.
The reality of your situation, of all our situations, is that nothing comes easy. If you truly want to succeed, if you truly want to be successful, you’re going to have to pull some all-nighters. You might have to spend a few years of your career doing 60- or 70-hour weeks.
You might have to forgo watching TV or hanging out with friends for a few years to pull ahead. You can’t cheat the system. You get out exactly what you put in. In one season you plant, in another season you reap. You never reap what you didn’t plant.
But it doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to take it easy. Success begets success. The more successful you are, the easier success will come. It’s just that the first hill you have to climb is a long and steep one.
Few people ever make it to the top. Few people ever actually see real success. Most people go through their careers being mediocre. They aren’t willing to put in the time and the sacrifice necessary to truly succeed.
You could follow all of the advice in this book, but if you weren’t willing to work hard, it would do you no good. No good at all. You have to be willing to work. You have to be willing to put the things you learn into practice to make them effective.