A new way to think about to-do lists and moving important things forward in your life

Lately, when people have asked me what I’m up to, I often talk about my “productivity experiment”: for six weeks I focus on six areas of priority in my life. I read about this method from the book “Necessary Endings” by Dr. Henry Cloud, and I’ve been enjoying the practice.

What this involves:

  • Pick six areas of your life that you’d like to move forward. Areas you’d like to focus on and pay closer attention to.
  • As much as possible, use any available time to focus on these areas.
  • Say no to everything else.

The first six weeks I tried this, my areas of focus included:

  1. Intentional connections: reaching out to people from my past (past jobs, volunteer experiences, conferences, etc.) that I want to stay in touch with, but haven’t connected with recently.
  2. Book interviews: identifying interview subjects and conducting a first round of interview for my ‘quiet’ changemaker book.
  3. Board strategic planning and recruitment: working on these two areas for the board that I chair.
  4. Yoga: using a pass that I hadn’t been using as much as I could.
  5. Travel: winding up a series of blog posts from my trip to Central Asia in 2010, finishing a scrapbook for a trip to SW USA from 2003, and sorting and posting photos from some past trips.
  6. Business file cleanup: sorting through and deleting/cleaning up business files, profiles, etc. Everything from Twitter lists to email folders to computer files.

In addition to these areas, I did other things of course. I spent time with friends, did client work. Did any other fundamentals that I was already commited to. But I said no to many events and meeting requests. I also put a lot of stuff on my to-do list for later, after the six weeks, without guilt (e.g. spring cleaning).

Why this is awesome?

So often, our time is spent doing things that are urgent, but not necessarily important. We have important things that we want to do but never dedicate the time to, and when we do have time, we fill it instead with piddly stuff that doesn’t add much value to our lives. I wanted to get rid of some mental clutter, some stuff that was holding me back, some stuff I felt guilt for not doing already. I wanted to move forward in areas that are important and enjoyable for me, but for I which needed a little push to do.

Will this work for you?

I’m not sure how this would work for someone holding down a full time job–I’m self-employed and work from home so have very high control over my daily life. It might translate well to 6 weeks/6 areas at work, or 6 weeks/6 areas at home. Or 6 weeks/3 areas at home. Or some other combination. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model–make it work for you.

How did I do?

  1. Intentional connections: Reached out quite a bit, had  very enjoyable conversations. But, I didn’t follow up with people I didn’t hear back from the first time.
  2. Book interviews: Reached out to a very targeted group of people, conducted 10 interviews, learned a lot about how I want to reach out and conduct interviews and research moving forward.
  3. Board strategic planning and recruitment: This was probably the area I spent the least time on. I did lots of board work, but not focussed enough on this area.
  4. Yoga: Went to 3 classes out of the 6 I was hoping to get to.
  5. Travel: THE BEST!! Got everything done I wanted to. Finished the scrapbook, finished old blog posts, sorted through tonnes of photos and shared them.
  6. Business file cleanup: Also did well. Fell back in love with Twitter because of how I arranged my lists and apps. Deleted a lot of old email (cut > 50% of my Gmail file space use) and files that I wasn’t going to reference again. Deleted website pages that were just clutter.

Wanna try? 4 tips for success

  • At the beginning of the six weeks, spend time outlining what you’d like to achieve in each of the six areas. It’ll help you use time wisely throughout the six weeks
  • Include a breadth of areas. i.e. if all of the areas focus on reading, or on manual labour, there won’t be enough diversity to keep you interested.
  • Really do say no to things. Meetings, events. Does the fridge truly need to get cleaned now?
  • If you are a part of a group (e.g. colleagues at work, or with family at home) gain the support of others so that you can say no to thing guilt-free (or guilt-less). I work and live alone so I had a lot of flexibility.

So what’s next?

I’m totally doing this again. The mix of the six (as was last time) is 1 “home/personal,” 1 health/fitness related, and the others are a mix of volunteer and business priorities.

Up next are:

  • Running: Every 2 days. I use a “couch to 10K” app.
  • Home improvement: Spring cleaning. Fixing my hissing toilet. Making plans for kitchen renovations. Refinishing a banquette. etc.
  • Board reduction: Reviewing all of the goals I personally have for the board, and identifying the ones that are not truly the responsibility of a board chair. Either
    1. do them (if it’s an area of interest to me)
    2. find someone else interested in leading the task, or
    3. make note of it for future chairs, but forget about it.
  • Thought leadership: In the areas that my business conducts research and strategy, writing and publishing some white papers and resources to share among my “market.”
  • ‘Quiet’ changemaker visibility and credibility: similar to above, but create and seek opportunities to build myself as a thought leader specific to the book topic.
  • Green listening and learning: I’ve been asked to run for CEO of a federal Green Party riding (kind of like a board chair), and the next six weeks are not about taking action, but learning about the current people and plans.

Would love to hear what you think, and what you would/will focus on!