- Posted by Nigel Edelshain
- On June 12, 2015
I started watching Psych last night. In the second episode, Shawn’s father forces him to finish building a doghouse he’d started 17 years earlier in exchange for checking some poisoned Chinese food with the crime lab. While that’s an unusually long period between the start and completion of a project, the same thing happens to us all the time, both in our personal and professional lives.
Let’s face it: Setting goals is easy, but achieving them is a whole lot harder. Whether the problem is a lack of time or a lack of motivation, seeing those unfinished projects pile up makes it even harder to focus on the things that need doing and get them done. And if the problem gets out of hand, it can have devastating consequences at work and at home.
What to do when this happens, then? These four tips will help you focus on what really matters and regain control of your to-do list.
1. Prioritize your goals
Recent studies have shown that the effect of drowsiness on our ability to concentrate on tasks is similar to the effect of alcohol and drugs, but you may not know that multitasking does the same thing. Participants in a University of London study exhibited declines in IQ scores of 15 points while multitasking, similar to the decline experienced if they’d stayed up all night.
Trying to do too many things at once is one of the biggest reasons for unfinished projects—and all the stress that comes with them. If you’re having a hard task focusing on all those things you need to do to accomplish your goals, prioritizing them so that only the most important ones are part of your daily routine could be the answer. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but the next step will help.
2. Balance urgency and importance
When you think about it, a large part of the day in any office is spent doing tasks that are urgent but not very important. Slogging through all the emails in your inbox, sitting through boring meetings, answering phone calls—it’s rare that the productivity of these tasks matches the time and effort that’s poured into them.
If they’re not helping you to accomplish your goals, then they’re burning up valuable energy and resources that could move along tasks that do. Delegating, eliminating, and automating these time-wasters will free you up to focus on what’s really important.
3. Set milestones for your goals
This one’s a bit of a psychological trick. Breaking up big tasks into smaller ones might not really help them get done any faster, but I’m sure you’ll agree that seeing a few items on your to-do list that are 100 percent complete is a lot nicer than seeing one item that’s only 20 percent complete. And on a more practical level, drilling down into those specific details is a much more effective way to get that next project started than staring at the big picture and wondering where to begin.
Milestones also serve as checkpoints. Evaluating your progress as your go along and comparing it to your short and long term goals will ensure that you don’t waste time on tasks that can be simplified or are no longer relevant.
4. Turn off the noise
Even as you work to prioritize your goals and eliminate waste, there are still a million different things that can distract you from what’s important. In the past you could just take the phone off the hook for an hour while you finished a task; now, you’re constantly bombarded by text messages, instant messages, and emails in addition to phone calls.
Relax—the world won’t end if you turn off your email and log off Skype for a little while, and turning off the ringer on your cell phone can be downright necessary to maintain sanity. When you come back, you’ll be able to focus on responding to the messages that came in and work more quickly and efficiently.