“He’s not doing work…he’s doing the pretense of work.” This was the comment made by a visiting consultant after observing a then colleague of mine. The guy under scrutiny always looked busy, talked a good talk but accomplished very little. Pseudo-work – the illusion of actual work; to the untrained eye it looks as if you’re actually doing work…but you’re not. Yes, you are busy every second of the day – but what are you actually accomplishing?
As the year draws to a close, it’s as good a time as any for reflection. Perhaps you’re already mulling over the fact that you didn’t get to all the things you’d hoped to accomplish for 2014. You might have gotten a few things off your project list but I’m guessing that you’re still carrying a few of them with you.
Two questions I would like you to consider here:
- Can I still get some of those things done on my list BEFORE December 31st 2014?
- How can I accomplish more meaningful work in 2015?
According to Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, there is a belief that if you get just the right system, with just the right calendar technology, and to-do notebook, and task management philosophy, accomplishment will come automatically. You can just turn the system on and watch it churn out what needs to get done. Alas, this never happens. It’s like the first law of accomplishment thermodynamics: accomplishment can’t spring from nothingness. Effort must be expended. This cannot be avoided.
You have to be prepared to do “the hard things” even when you don’t want to. Cal summarizes “If you acknowledge the role of hard work, you can adjust your mindset to be one that expects and values this trait. This is what, in the end, will make the biggest difference in what you end up getting done — regardless of how you organize, break down, and schedule this work.”
The answer to question one is “Yes” you definitely can but you must not allow stress and anxiety to cloud your focus. Here’s a wonderful way to coach yourself through the stress and anxiety or to refocus if you’ve gone down a rabbit hole on Facebook, find yourself lost in a deluge of emails or kidnapped by some other distraction:
You feel the anxiety coming on and wonder if you’ll get everything done. As you begin to sink into overwhelm, take a deep breath and then use the following three phrases to coach yourself back on track.
- Remind yourself that “worry isn’t helpful.”
- “I can only do one thing at a time.”
- Then ask yourself “What’s the most important thing for me to be doing right now?”
Then get back to productive work – not pseudo work.
I got this simple coaching system from Rob Hatch, a Performance Coach, who used the 3 phrases with his oldest son who recently got behind in his school work. He’d let some things pile up and at the end of a long hard day, was looking at an even longer one as he faced the prospect of all the assignments he now had to get done.
“On the ride home, I could see his anxiety building” Rob shared, “I could see him getting overwhelmed at the thought off ALL he had to do. I walked him through the phrases and helped him identify which was the most important thing to work on first. Nothing else mattered because he couldn’t do more than one at a time. It narrowed his focus, relieved some of the pressure and instead of fretting, he got home and got to work.”
So before you succumb to the pressure and try to cram your way through the rest of the year, use these 3 phrases to coach yourself back on track and do the work you say matters and is important to you.
Based on his extensive research and interviews Cal Newport found out that the most common trait he consistently observed in accomplished people was an obsession with completion. “Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it. If they’re organized, this might happen in scheduled chunks. If they’re not — like many — this might happen in all-nighters. But they get it done, fast and consistently.”
Here is Cal’s simple system, which will help you cultivate your own completion obsession and get more things accomplished in 2015:
On a single page make an Active Projects List:
- List 6 – 12 of the most important projects in your life. Pull from all three relevant spheres: professional (e.g., school or work related); personal (e.g., home, family, fitness); and extra (e.g., big projects like blogging, writing a book, starting a club).
- Label Each Project With Completion Criteria – define clearly what action(s) must be completed for the project to be completed.
- Label the Bottom Half of the Page as a “Holding Pen” – This is where you can jot down new projects that enter your life while you’re working on the active projects. They can be stored here until you complete the current batch.
- Use The Daily Check-In – Each morning, look at your project page and ask: “What’s the most progress I can make toward completing this list today?” Your biggest goal should be to complete projects. If you see a way to do it (even if it requires a big push, perhaps working late) go for it. If you can’t finish one, think of the single thing you could do that would get you closest to this goal over the next few days. Harbor an obsession for killing this list!
- At the same time, of course, you should still reference your existing productivity system. Outside of your projects you probably have other, more mundane tasks that need to get done. Your goal here is to make as much progress on your projects as possible despite the other responsibilities you have each day.
- Be warned: Don’t start ANY new projects until you’ve finished the projects on your current project page.
- Once done, take a break for at least a week. Try to do a minimum of work during this time. Recharge and then, once you’re ready, build a new project page and start all over again.
Regardless of whether you use my suggestions or choose to use a different method it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the effort you put in and whether that effort is focused on “busy-work” – pushing paper – appearing to be productive or on work that is satisfying and fulfilling and gives you a sense that you’re making progress. As Cal shares “…accomplishment is not pretty. If you want to make your mark, you have to learn how to charge after things with a furious zeal.” The coaching phrases and this system will help you develop that trait. The rest will follow. Give it a try – what have you got to lose?