I have a bad addiction to internet browser tabs. At any given time, I have 2–3 Chrome windows open, often with 20+ tabs per window. There is never enough time to read or see all of the things I want to in life. This is merely a symptom of a larger problem I struggle with.
After years of chasing fleeting interests and ‘knowledge binging,’ as I like to call it, I realized that this unintentional approach was hindering my forward progress on the things that were important to me. It’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything of value without concerted, long-term effort. So I started constructing a process and habits to become a person who focuses and builds momentum towards the things which are important to me. This focus creates a compounding effect, where improvement becomes non-linear, and as Einstein said: “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”
Below you’ll find a description of this process as it stands today. To follow along yourself, all you will need is a piece of paper. I have a single notebook where I track these steps and my progress. If you find this works for you, I would recommend doing it in a notebook as it is very rewarding to see the weeks of effort pile up on one another.
1) Find your Focuses
For a suitably motivated person, deciding what not to do is far more impactful than deciding what to do. I needed a method to refine my focus, but also one which allowed me to continue to pursue multiple things at a time. Any practice which strictly confined me to focus on a single pursuit would be doomed to failure.
I stumbled across a great tool for this, which I’ve adapted and use as part of my quarterly or bi-annual alignments (unfortunately I don’t remember where it’s from, so can’t give proper credit). I will use this whenever I feel as though I’ve become to scattered, or that I’m feeling overly stressed from trying to do too much.
It looks like this:
- Start a new page of your notebook, write “Priorities” at the top of the page
- Take the next hour (or here and there for the next few days) and write down anything you can think of that sounds fun, interesting, or valuable to do with your time. These can either be finite projects, like “Build a table,” or ongoing practices, like “Learn to Draw.”
- Stack rank these from 1 to the end. I perform this part thus: 1) place my pen on the first item of the list and ask myself if the next item on the list is more or less important to have on my list of Focuses. 2a) If the 2nd item is less valuable to me, keep my pen on the first item and ask if the 3rd item is more or less valuable, and so on. 2b) If the 2nd item is more valuable, then I will move my pen to point to it and then ask this question again about the next item on the list. 3) Repeat this process until I reach the end of the list. Whatever item my pen is pointing to is now my #1 priority. 4) Repeat this process for #2, #3, …. Until every item on the list has a number. The precise ordering is less important after 15 or so items.
- Below this list, write “My Focuses”
- Copy your #1–5 items into this list
- Here is the trick now: those 5 are where you will spend your time. Anything below them on the list needs to be actively avoided. These are the things that are most likely to pull your attention away from your 5 most important focuses.
If you find yourself unable to stick to these 5 alone, I would consider two things:
First, would you rather swap something else from your top 5 off the list to make room for the item you find yourself drawn to? I consider this a reasonable action, so long as I’m not doing it every week or even every month.
Second, what are you hoping to accomplish? If you are not motivated by becoming better or accomplishing your Focuses, then perhaps this is not the method for you. If you are, then ask yourself if it’s worth some short-term discomfort to hold yourself accountable and stay focused.
2) Make progress on Focuses
Once I’ve got my 5 focuses, I need a way to make steady progress. For this, I have weekly check-ins. During these, I review my last week, then start a new page of my journal for the new week. At the top I write the date. In the upper left, I write S, M, T, W, Th, F, S and the associated dates for these days. I’ll also look at my calendar and note down anything I have planned outside of work on those days. This could be dinner with friends one evening or travel, for example.
Then, I write the names of each of my Focuses along the left side of the page, leaving several lines of space between each. For each Focus, I write 1–3 small-to-medium tasks which I will do that week to move me towards completion of this task.
Some examples of this:
Pick up wood at lumber yard (while making a coffee table)
Draw daily (for learning to sketch — in this case, I make 7 small circles for each day to track completion)
Here’s what it looks like for a week:
While each individual week I am only making small progress on these 5 things, this level of focus keeps my attention on these things for longer periods of time, the kind of timelines which allow me to start to build the flywheel effect and begin to see real progress or completion of my projects.
Dealing with getting stuck:
I would be remiss in not admitting that I follow this imperfectly. My goal is to use this process as a tool to allow me to live a more full and satisfying life. As such, I follow it when I see that it is serving these, but am willing to jump off the wagon on occasion. I also am not a robot, so some weeks I may not get all of my to-do items complete. I don’t beat myself up for this, I just continue on to the next week, confident that slow, focused progress is being made.
If I find that one item or one Focus is stuck for many weeks in a row, I will ask what it would be worth to me to accomplish this item. I try to be as explicit as possible. Why do I want to do this task? What does it mean for me to make progress on this Focus? What is stopping me and what can I do to remove that impediment. Be creative here. Can you get help from a friend, can you agree to a reward for yourself it it gets done, can you do it first thing and get it out of the way?
Give this a try and see if it works for you! I’d love to heard what works and what doesn’t. Feel free to comment or email me at email@example.com.