Creativity. Focus. Risk.
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Have you ever sat down, felt totally overwhelmed by all the spinning plates you're balancing, and not known where to start? Me, too. That's what we're going to talk about today.

Follow Up from last week

Iterating in public
Many of you were kind enough to point out to me the typos and the lack of a web archive link from last week’s email. I learned a few things about MailChimp, and my apologies for the goofiness. But, hey, sometimes you’ve got to set that initial bar of quality just low enough so you can get off the ground, right? 


Thank you
There was so much positive feedback about last week’s procrastination article (if you missed it, you can find it here). Thank you for everyone who shared it on Twitter, linked to the article from their website, or wrote to me.

What is your biggest challenge related to focus?
Regarding the question I’ve asked you about your biggest challenge related to focus, there has been quite a bit of feedback. Thank you to all of you who’ve replied (you still can, if you want). The challenges people are facing related to focus range from constant interruptions in the work environment, to being mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the work day, to not knowing what project to work on and so choosing none, to not being able to put the phone down, and more.

I’m so thankful for the feedback you all have shared with me. Many of you shared some honest and difficult struggles.

Some of the questions I’ll be answering here on the newsletter in the coming weeks, and many of the common challenges will find their way in to The Power of a Focused Life book.

But I am also going to be answering the questions on Shawn Today, my member’s only podcast. In fact, I've already begun. Yesterday’s episode I talk about the “idea high” and answer the question, “How do I stop managing my tasks and start doing them?”

If you’re a current member and you’re not subscribed to the podcast, you can find the link here.

For those who’d like to subscribe to my Shawn Today podcast, a membership is just $4/month. You’ll get a link you can use to add the show to your favorite podcatcher of choice, and you'll find access to the entire archive of episodes dating back to 2011 (over 600 shows).

The Daily Plum Line

Yesterday I published an article about Honesty, Clarity, and Action. The premise of the article is that there are two sides to the coin of forward progress: leadership and management. Leadership equates to vision, values, goals, ideas. Management is all about doing the work and getting things done. And we need both.

We get there by having a commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.

A lot of productivity-centric writing revolves around the management stuff. In part, because for a lot of us, ideas seem to be so prevalent but action is not. Everyone has more ideas than time, yet we also seem to have more time than focus.

Last week I wrote about procrastination — why we procrastinate and how to overcome it.

Today I want to talk about making sure the work we are doing fits in to the category of “important”.

Yesterday I was talking with a new friend about our jobs. We just recently met, and so we were talking about what we do for a living. He is a self-employed rental property manager, and he was telling me about how he feels stretched thin at times because most of the time all he does is respond to urgent tasks. He feels as if he's never making any progress on important work because it usually doesn't have a deadline.

I shared with my friend this excellent quote by Henri Nouwen:

“If I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential.”

Urgent tasks will always find us. Which is why we have to be proactive about making time for the important tasks.

* * *

There are two ways to make sure the work you’re doing on a consistent basis is of the important kind.

  1. Know your Most Important Tasks: If your day is prone to getting the best of you, it’s often wise to identify 1–3 tasks that are the most important to get done today. That way, when something urgent or distracting shows up, you’ve got a concrete map for what you need to get done today that will result in making progress on meaningful work.

    But there's also a level higher than the Most Important Tasks themselves. And that's knowing the overarching goals (or values) for how you want to be spending your time and what you want to be doing. Which is why it's important to...

  2. Define your Most Important Goals: In this context, I am using the term "Goals" as being a level above Tasks. You could also use the term "values" or "habits" or "practices". 

    My daily goals help me define the things I want to spend my time doing as it relates to my work, family, and personal life. My daily goals aren't so granular that they define what my actual actions items are, but they are also specific enough that it's easy to know if I'm accomplishing them. 


Your Most Important Goals

These are the higher-level values for how you want to be spending your time. If you know what they are, then they can become the plumb lines that help you gauge if you’re spending your time well or not.

It can be easy to get caught up in the moment — to become distracted by something interesting or exciting or urgent — and to not even realize that we’re actually just wasting our time.

Sometimes when I sit down to work I will feel overwhelmed at all the plates I know I have spinning. I’ll feel unsure about what my next action step should be. This is not an ideal state to be in, but it happens. It’s not the end of the world, and there are ways out.

For the days when I feel as if I have nothing figured out, at least I have clarity about what my Most Important Goals are. Because the goals don't change from day to day. Therefore, I can still make meaningful progress on my projects and have a productive day, even if I'm not firing on all cylinders. 

Because one thing I can do for certain is to make sure that my next action is something that falls in line with my Most Important Goals. This way, when I'm feeling overwhelmed or prone to distraction, I have options other than to just zone out and check Twitter.

And thus, my day is almost guaranteed to be productive at least on some level.


* * *

Let me share with you what my Most Important Goals are.

My daily work goals

  1. Push the needle forward on at least one of my current projects. In short, a bias towards action. This mostly looks like spending time writing every day. It also includes answering important emails. This usually does not include “fiddling” with my to-do list, scrolling through Twitter, or watching cat videos on YouTube.

  2. Encourage and serve my team. Making sure the people I work with have the clarity, resources, and autonomy they need to do their best work; encouraging them when they do well, and correcting and honoring them when it’s clear they could do better.

  3. Spend time away from my desk. Reading, exercising, meeting and talking with friends or peers in the industry, running errands, etc.

My daily personal goals

  1. Have personal time to study the Bible.

  2. Have down time to think and let my mind rest. Oftentimes when I’m feeling restless, or find myself bouncing around between inboxes, I just stop and decide that it’s time for a break. I get up and go walk around for a bit. Or I lay down on my couch and listen to what my mind and imagination have to say.

  3. Learn something. This mostly looks like reading a book. I just finished Dale Carnegie’s book, and now I’m reading The Lean Startup. I’ve also just subscribed to Garrick van Buren’s weekly newsletter, Expand, and it’s fantastic.

My daily family goals

  1. Give my boys my full attention. My wife and I have two boys under 3. And since I work from home, we usually have all three meals together as a family. Also, every evening I make a point to play trains with them, play catch, or build a fort in the living room.

  2. Encourage and serve my wife. My wife, Anna, is incredible. Being a mom is the hardest job in the world, and she does it with grace every single day. I do my best to remind her every day how much I love her and how wonderful she is as well as to help her with the boys and other household responsibilities.

* * *

Don’t Quit

My 8 goals are important. They should not be delegated to weekly or “just whenever” tasks. If several days go by and I haven’t spent time in one of these daily goals, then I know I’m on the wrong path and need to get back on track.

Every single day I want to show up and do meaningful work. Every day I want to tell my kids and wife how much I love them. Every day I want to encourage my peers and teammates at how awesome they are. Every day I need personal time of quiet to think.

Though my goals are in different areas of my life (work, personal, family) they influence each other and overlap. When I allow myself time to think and rest, I make more significant progress on my work. When I make progress, I feel better about ending my work day to go be with my family. When I've spent quality time with my wife and kids, I am emotionally healthier which aids in the creative work I do.

If you’re not making progress on meaningful work because you’re too tired at the end of the day, that’s okay. But don’t give in. Don’t assume you’ll be too tired at the end of the day, every day, for the rest of your life. What is a goal you can set that will give you one thing you can do today to  make things just a little bit better for you tomorrow?



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As always, thanks for reading!

— Shawn
The Fight Spot is a weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk. Questions or ideas? Just reply back or ping me on Twitter.
+ If you'd like more content regarding creativity and doing your best work, check out Delight is in the Details -- my ebook and interview series for people who make things.

+ My upcoming book, The Power of a Focused Life, is about living without regret in the age of distraction. Since you're subscribed to my newsletter, you'll be the first to hear when the new book is out. Sweet!