Goals Let You Know If You’re Succeeding

Even though Summer is fading, I’m sticking to my #Constructive Summer reading goals. Sometimes projects take longer than you expect, but I’m still learning a lot and that’s what matters.

At this point I’m still working my way through Carson Tate’s Work Simply and here’s what I’ve learned so far: cultivating awareness of what distracts our attention is the only way to avoiding distraction and maintain focus; our ability to remain focused on tasks until they’re completed is the key to making the most of our finite resources of time and attention.

I’m thinking of it like exercising at the gym: cultivating awareness is your strength training, building a set of mental and emotional muscles strong enough to keep the force of distractions at bay; focused attention is your cardio workout, building endurance to keep moving forward at a comfortable pace with enough reserve on hand to sprint when we need to. Our muscles, heart, and lungs all work together, and the stronger they are, the more we can do.

So I’ve taken a look at my distractions, and I’ve begun to improve my ability to focus attention on the tasks at hand. But these are just the foundations to being more productive with our time, because we can have all the control over our attention and focus we want, but if we’re not putting that to a purposeful end, how do we know if we’re succeeding?

There is no measure of success without goals.

In general terms, we think of productivity as the number of tasks completed divided by the amount of time it took to complete them – widgets per hour, stitches per minute, etc. The higher the rate, the more productive we are. If we want to increase our widget productivity, we can set a goal that is a higher number than what we have and make adjustments until our output matches that goal.

But what if you’re not making widgets, but designing websites? What if you’re an editor or producer or photographer or accountant? What if you’re not making anything directly, but managing a whole team of makers? What you have now is project-based work, where the driving factor isn’t quantity but quality, and a deadline for when it should be done.

Here’s where goal setting becomes more complex and stressful for the modern “information worker” because we don’t have easily quantifiable quotas to meet (10 widgets per hour) but just a pile of tasks and projects that we need to complete by a certain time. In fact, that’s not even just how we work, but how we live, because the projects and tasks of our lives at home are structured pretty much the same way: there are always ongoing projects, chores, and needs of others to meet at home just as there are at work.

This is why we’re stressed out about getting stuff done. And this is where the latest lesson I gained from Work Simply gives me hope:

You can’t create an effective plan for getting things done until you know the goals you’re trying to accomplish, and the goals you set should be goals you know you can actually achieve.

In the book, Carson Tate calls these READY goals, because they should follow five basic criteria if you’re going to actually achieve them: they should be Realistic, Exciting, Action-oriented, Directive, and Yours. In other words, these are things you know you can achieve over time, that you’ll be engaged in, that can be broken into tasks, that keep steering you where you want to go, and that you have a personal stake in. These aren’t someone else’s goals for you, and they aren’t vague, unrealistic fantasies.

Defining these goals — actually writing them out on paper — is the first step to understanding the why behind how we’re spending our attention each day. It brings intentionality to our actions, and motivates us more strongly than merely wanting to get stuff done just so it’s done.

Tate recommends setting READY goals for an entire year at a time, right on New Year’s Day if you can. Her four primary categories for goal setting are:

  • Professional (career goals, team goals, improving skills)
  • Personal (strengthening relationships)
  • Health (improving how I feel, exercise, eat, and rest)
  • Spiritual (nurturing inner spiritual needs and values)

Once you have READY goals within each category, your priorities become clear. And that is when you can get to the hands-on work of investing time, building habits and scheduling your days to reach these goals.

That’s the next big step I’ve hit as I keep making my way through this book, and the part that I probably need the most. At the rate I’m going, it looks like that will be my big goal for September.

What’s yours?

Focus is Trending

I thought I was done thinking and writing about the importance of focus after my last post, but over the past week I kept seeing echoes of the topic in new things I was reading that were in most ways unrelated. A blog post here, a magazine article there, all had something to say about focus and productivity that jumped out to me.

Being aware of our how well we focus our attention on a task at hand, and stay focused without distraction or interruption, is the most important skill to learn if we want to be more productive with our time. But no matter how skilled we become, we’ll never be able to actually create more time.
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Finding Focus

It’s only been a week since my last post about paying attention and my attention has already drifted. But in a good way. That is to say, as my #ConstructiveSummer reading of Work Simply has continued, I’ve moved from being more focused on my attention, to paying more attention to my focus.

I was focused on my attention; now I’m paying more attention to my focus.

There’s a lot of subtle detail in that shift. Attention and focus seem to go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin, but the more I read and observe about myself at work and through my daily routines, the more I realize the difference in scope that attention has compared to focus. Mainly that I can “pay attention” to a lot of different things and still be distracted and unproductive, but when I am really focused on a task I don’t distract easily and will find it hard to do anything else until what I’m working on is done.

I’ve known for years now that my biggest daily challenge is with keeping focused on a task. Call it “monkey mind” or just A.D.D., staying focused on a task that isn’t naturally engaging often takes extraordinary effort for me, and it’s something I’ve struggled with since elementary school. My parents could tell you stories…

Over the years I have invented all kinds of tactics for coping with this, and for the most part I improved. But recently, moving into a new career brought out my weaknesses in ways I haven’t had to deal with in a long time. I started falling behind, losing track of deadlines, and failing to complete important tasks. Frankly, it was embarrassing, and depressing.

But I have found some improvement from medication over the past few years, despite my initial resistance. Taking a pill has such a strong stigma for me, something associated with being sick or broken, as if it was a crutch; something for short-term assistance until it can be overcome by willpower and discipline. But in the past couple of years I’ve worked with my doctor and found a formula and dosage that is consistently beneficial and sustainable. It’s not a crutch anymore, but more like eyeglasses for my brain: I can see and operate in the world without them, but everything is much more clear with them on, and my natural forces of resistance are drastically diminished. In a word, I feel more normal.

Of course, there is no magic pill to solve the larger problem of getting things done. I’m glad to have found that extra tool that helps, but there’s no point in having focus if it’s not being put to good use. Focus is how we burn the fuel of attention, and we pay for all that attention with time.

Focus is how we burn the fuel of attention, and we pay  for that attention with time.

Time is a finite commodity we are spending every minute of every day. How we choose to spend that resource, especially as it applies to our natural desire to be productive, requires attention and focus. And, more importantly, it requires understanding our goals in all aspects of our life. Without understanding what is really important to us, even if that evolves and changes, we are just losing time.

Those goals are what I plan to focus on next.

“Attention Must Be Paid”

As I have continued to pursue my Summer School reading of Work Simply over the past few weeks, three things have become very clear:

  1. This book is full of simple, practical tips and exercises rather than just advice and theory, which is just what I was looking for. But that also means it’s not a book that can be read through quickly if one is to make the most of it.
  2. Finding time during the workweek to prioritize self-development “homework” amidst all my other daily tasks has not been as easy as I thought it would be.
  3. Finding time to follow-up on that reading and put my thoughts and feelings about it into a blog post feels almost impossible.

I had been hoping to get through about 20 pages a day in this book, which is a pretty modest goal; I often read as much as 50 pages a day for a book I’m really into. But I didn’t take into account the difference between merely reading a book vs. studying a book. The whole point of this project is to be learning and improving, taking notes from the text and applying ideas, which actually makes Work Simply a great place to start.

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