I think we have all been there. Looking at our desk at home, at work, at our personal space anywhere and thinking “Do I really need all this? It is getting a bit cluttered here…” Then looking at our diary and to do list and wondering: “What should I prioritize? What`s the most efficient way of tackling this?”
A life uncluttered by most of the things we fill our life with - tasks or things, would leave more space for what really matters. Many of us know that feeling of tidiness and control that comes after a good clean-up or declutter session, being it for physical spaces or situations. Decluttering spaces and parts of our life is a good exercise for body and mind.
"A life that isn’t constant busy-ness and rushing, but leaves time for thinking, creating, finding new successful paths for your business and for your private life, connecting with people we love or simply admire" is probably the aim of many of us.
Decluttering your diary, your home and work space does lead to a less cluttered mind. Many of the distractions and commitments we have pull on us in more ways than we realize. I will post what I have learnt and I am experiencing with regards to “physical decluttering” in my next blog post.
For this week`s post, I have a question in mind:
How do I become more effective and avoid mind and life clutter?
I have attended a few interesting workshops on efficiency, focus and brain power in the past few years. I have been asked several times at work and in my private life how I manage to "squeeze" several key activities in a work day while dedicating time to nurturing and creating business relationships.
I do not manage to be successful on the above every day of course. But when I do it is often because of a few key suggestions I have picked up along the way and made mine.
A few key principles I have found very useful have been mentioned by different speakers and similarly expressed by Stephen Covey, American educator, author and businessman, in his most popular book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.
The “habits” or principles I like to keep in mind daily are the following:
- Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind. It means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination.
- Habit 3: Put first things first
- Habit 4: Seek first to understand, then to be understood
- Habit 6: Synergize. This is the habit of “creative cooperation”. It is teamwork, open-mindedness, and the adventure of finding new solutions to old problems.
From Mind De-Cluttering to Focus and Productivity
How can I clean up and declutter my mind from too many commitments and activities? Again I have found very interesting what I have learnt in past workshops on focus, efficiency and time management.
- Online distractions. There are a lot of amazing things we can do and find online. Learning from inspiring people, keeping up-to-date with the world news, keeping in touch with friends and family, but also wasting hours on social media, TV, games. As usual, we are in the driver`s seat of our lives so some self control and detached judgment of how we are using our time can help a lot.
- Time for what is important and over-committing. One concept that has often lately come up for me is the rocks, pebbles and sand metaphor. If you put sand into a cup of water first, and then the pebbles and the rocks, you won’t get everything in. But if you put the rocks in first, and then the pebbles and, lastly, the sand – the smaller items will fill in the gaps and you will be able to do all of them. The same goes in life – start with the big priorities and then do the medium and then the smaller items. We have to make time for what’s important to us: time with our kids, time with our friends, partner, time for creating, time for exercise. The rest should be pushed aside to make time. It’s easy to fill up our lives because there are so many things that many do which sound amazing, holidays, sports, get-togethers, projects, etc. And they are often amazing experiences indeed, but by adding so many things to our lives, we are subtracting space. Often I get carried away and would love to do so much more, then remind myself of the rocks metaphor and try and stay “centered” on mine and my family`s priorities and choices, at least for some time.
- It’s tempting to fill in every little minute of the day with productivity or distractions. Don’t. Leave some emptiness here and there: it turns out it is also a great different way of being productive.
- We often overemphasize productivity. Focus, priorities and effectiveness are more important. So is a nice walk home to reorganize thoughts. Even if catching that bus would have saved you 10 minutes. Do not always rush. It took me years to learn this, but I am getting there.
- Our attention and focus are our most valuable possession. Let`s give it as a gift to the people we love most and to the work that matters most. Distractions and downtime are also a good part of life, for me, they represent the sand of the quoted metaphor.
How many times have we written our to-do list for the day…and then got to the end of the day without having been able to cross off the list half of our to-do`s?
Leaving aside structured working days full of meetings, conversations, work lunches, phone calls, and so on, there are days in which we envisage full focus and productivity to get to the bottom of our to do lists. Then the end of the day comes and that list has probably even got longer.
Planning in detail our “less-structured” days can be a great habit, but not always is synonymous of daily productivity I have found. Why? Because there are too many variables in our days, new urgent priorities, a full inbox, a sick child, a traffic jam, a previous decision that impacts in the wrong way on our day, activities that end up being more time consuming than we had planned. So mostly, if we experience the above we end up our day with a feeling of frustration.
One trick that I have learnt for myself and that on most of my “unstructured” days works, is the “2 hours plan”. Two solid hours or two slots of an hour each during the day set apart for that to do list. Plan for these two hours and block them in your diary, ideally in the first part of the day. Plan also for some extra 30 minutes at the end of the day if you think you might need a backup plan. During these two hours try and respect every (realistic) activity you have planned, no room for distractions, emails, phone, procrastination, etc.
So what activities should be done in that time?
- Important but non urgent activities. Once done you will be able to spend time on the different “fire drills” of your day without feeling you still have all those important to do`s to cross off your list and enjoy that welcome and familiar “sense of control” for the rest of the day.
- Long and complex activities (see rocks, pebbles, sand metaphor)
- Core activites, ie, all the main activities of your job. If you are working mostly on a project, leave all the admin aside and focus part of the two hours slot on this project.
I won`t lie, it is not easy to stick to any of these and be always disciplined, but it helps a lot to have all this in mind on the one hand, and to let things go every once in a while on the other hand.
We are fully immersed in too often busy and imperfect lives, but we can learn (a lot) and keep becoming daily better and happier versions of ourselves.
Source: S.Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People