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The Power Of The Master List

The Power Of The Master List

My brain functions in overdrive mode 99% of the time. It is as if I have a 6th gear just beyond my reach which it auto slips into, without me willing it in that direction. I am highly responsive to stimuli in my environment and I find that most events, people, and discussions spark a myriad of ideas off inside of me. My brain races with these concepts, builds legs onto them and before I know, a fully fleshed out, actionable plan is making itself at home. If this crazy web of ideas is not contained or channeled, my productivity nosedives and I struggle to pull myself back into a place of focus and directed work time. I have learned to develop a system that helps me to not only manage the flow of ideas, but also to stay focused to get the critical work out the door.

The master list is the most important part of the system I have developed:

The master list has come to define my every day working life. It has in fact come to form the very backbone of my week. The master list is the list of all lists, the list that ties all other smaller lists back together. It is the place of consolidation where your brain can dump its over-stimulated, multitasking self and have a cup of tea.

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A Master List Needs to Be:

  • Accessible at all times
  • Within easy reach
  • Easy to edit

Think: “What object is always with me?” In most cases, it will be a diary or mobile phone. My preference is a digital list on a mobile as notebooks and diaries often get left behind on desks, in drawers, next to beds and in vehicles. Your mobile tends to be with you for the greater part of every day.

I use my Master List as follows:

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  • I add every possible item in my life that needs doing onto it (yes, it’s a long list).
  • In order to clear my mind, I jot down ‘to-do’ items systematically according to work/business/clients, family, relationship, friendships, home, fitness, admin, hobbies, and travel.
  • Every Sunday evening or Monday morning before I do anything else, I take out my master list and determine which 10 items relating to work and business I am going to focus on for that week.
  • I then create a new ‘to-do’ list specifically for that week and transfer these items onto it.
  • I prioritize these items according to their revenue value, the closer they are to revenue generating, the higher prioritize they are.
  • I then transfer five other admin or personal items from the master list onto my weekly list.
  • Every Friday I review my list to either carry forward or mark complete the items that were done.

I own a business so sales and revenue are very important for me. If you work as a creative director in an advertising agency, other activities such as client briefings, brief write-ups, sourcing of artwork suppliers and team management will be the core functions within your workweek. These core work functions are what should be priorities on your list no matter what your vocation is. To determine what your core work functions are, ask, “What was I employed to do?” and “Why am I here?” Make your core functions the highest priority in your working week. After this, you are able to pad up the week with peripheral ‘to-do’ items that matter but are not critical to your core job.

I choose to transfer 10 items at the start of every week because I have found this to be my optimal productivity space. If I complete two highly critical tasks for the day that lead to revenue and then attend to less urgent matters, I am able to bring in a good revenue stream and still experience a work/life balance. You will need to analyze your own rhythms to see what your optimal space is. This takes time but soon becomes very apparent when you are either completing your to ‘do-list’ by Tuesday or only getting to three items out of the 20 you listed every week.

I have discovered many benefits from using this system. The benefits specifically related to productivity include:

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  • I can empty my mind of everything that is whirring around inside of it
  • I can focus on what really matters on any particular day without stressing that I will forget something
  • It is always with me
  • It syncs up to all my electronic devices when I update it on one device
  • I can easily share it with other people who need to be kept up to date with a particular list
  • I can assign lists to freelancers and employees that I am working with
  • I can create multiple lists in one place without losing any of them
  • I can back my lists up
  • I can share interesting lists with blogs and Twitter people who highlight interesting lists
  • I can use a tool like idonethis.com to see visually over a year how many items on average I cross off every day, which are my most productive days and which are my least productive days.
  • I can view the word clouds in idonethis from my lists to see what activities dominate over others.

I use two tools to manage my Master List:

  1. Wunderlist: This is an iPhone application that allows you to very easily create, share, and manage lists.
  2. idonethis: This is an accountability tool that sends you an email at the end of every day, asking you what you did for that day. I decided to use it to keep myself accountable. I look forward to replying to the email with all the items I ticked off of my list for that particular day.

Implementing this system has not come naturally to me but I have increased my productivity (which I track using Rescue Time) by 34 percent to date. That has reflected back onto my revenue that has also increased by approximately 30% since I have deliberately become more sales focused. I find that I have to keep reminding myself to come back to Wunderlist and idonethis. My natural inclination is to revert to sticky notes, scraps of papers and journals that all just amount too many plans and no actions. However, I remind myself that this way, I am happily moving forward ten steps every week.

Tell us about your lists. Do you use them and if so, how do you manage them? (Ed: We’re building Listible to help you create lists)

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Featured photo credit:  Young dark woman writing on notepad via Shutterstock

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Last Updated on October 23, 2018

Easily Distracted? Here’s Your Solution

Easily Distracted? Here’s Your Solution

Are you reading this article because you’re currently searching for a solution or method to help improve your focus? Trying to find a way to concentrate better so that you can get more done in your day? Or, do you feel like you spend a lot of time easily distracted on things other than what you’re meant to really be focusing on?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone! As our society becomes more and more advanced, there is much more information for us to digest and more opportunities to experience. This can definitely be overwhelming and distracting! Whether it’s a work proposal that you’re trying to focus on writing, or a goal in life that you’re striving for, distractions do get in the way of your focus towards those important things in your life. And, the distractions come in a wide variety!

For example, many of us are easily distracted by our mobile phones. Whether it’s the constant notifications popping up, or the need to scroll through your social media news feeds, these are all distractions that cost us time. There are also bigger distractions like wanting to go to a game on a beautiful day, or taking a weekend holiday even though you have a deadline due on Monday.

What are Distractions?

Let’s go deeper to break down and understand how distractions happen in the first place. Distractions are things that divert away your attention from the action that you’re trying to do. They make you lose focus and put you off track. The problem with distractions is that they not only cost time, they dilute your energy, too. Repeated interruptions of this sort can lead to demotivation, because you’ll feel like you’re overwhelmed… yet not getting anything done!

Contrary to popular belief, our brains perform best when we’re focused on one objective at a time. We’re generally not good at constantly switching our attention between different tasks. Multiple studies have shown that when we do this, the performance of each task suffers compared to if we focused on them one by one. So multitasking isn’t the best option when it comes to wanting to get more done quickly.

How Much Do Distractions Cost?

As I mentioned previously, in today’s society, we’re faced with so much information that it’s easy to be bombarded by distractions.

If you’re a typical working American, you’ll be distracted every 11 minutes; and, it will take you 25 minutes to settle down again to your task. Additionally, the more complicated your project, the longer it will take to regain your focus. This happens because your brain has to put in considerable effort when switching between complex objectives.

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Distractions have a huge cost on our focus and productivity. If you want to improve or increase your focus, you need to learn to deal with the distractions in your life.

What are Internal Distractions?

When it comes to distractions, we tend to think of them as external occurrences: your phone starts ringing, someone talks to you and interrupts your train of thought when you were immersed in something important, or the sudden onset of construction noise when you’re in an important meeting.

It’s very easy to blame external distractions as the cause when you can’t focus. But, there’s actually a hidden type of distraction beneath the surface that is just as, if not more, responsible for taking away your focus. These are Internal Distractions.

The problem with internal distractions is, if you’re not acutely aware of them, you can be wasting both time and energy without even knowing it. So, before tackling external distractions effectively, you first have to take care of your internal distractions.

Priority Chaos

There are a few types of internal distractions, but let’s start with probably the most common one: the concept of Priority Chaos.

One of the most common distractions we encounter is that we have too many options on hand. This can cause priority chaos.

For example, some people may find it hard to focus at home because there are too many options to choose from. You can choose to feed your dog, read a book, watch TV, have a snack or take a nap.

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Besides the costs of distraction mentioned before, priority chaos is a big demotivator. When there are too many potentially attractive options, it’s hard to focus your energy and choose one of them – ideally the one you should be doing.

Priority chaos is also a demotivator because it makes you feel guilty. When you let your internal distractions overtake your focus, you’re the one who chooses to divert your own attention and energy away from your task. So when the task you wanted to complete doesn’t get done, you can’t blame an external factor. Whether you do it consciously or not, you’ll end up blaming yourself!

Why Does Priority Chaos Happen?

Your brain subconsciously prioritizes tasks based on three factors.

  1. To fulfil an existing need. For example, you need to go to the bathroom urgently, so your brain is guaranteed to prioritize it.
  2. To achieve a certain feeling of satisfaction, such as the satisfaction of eating a delicious chocolate fudge cake.
  3. The perceived cost of achieving the benefit. What is the effort, energy or time required to complete this action?

The brain automatically take these 3 factors into account even when you’re not thinking about it.  

Unfortunately, unless you’re consciously making an effort, your brain is not always the best at making accurate judgement calls. It tends to have a bias towards short term benefits and short term costs.

As there are often many more options our brains link to short term benefits, when you’re trying to focus on a task that gives you a long term benefit, that task usually becomes low priority. This is the essence of Priority Chaos.

How to Overcome Priority Chaos?

The good news is that it’s not so difficult to overcome this common internal distraction.

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The first step that you can take is to identify what task needs the most focus to get accomplished. Once you have that figured out, simply break down the that task into smaller, bite-sized tasks. Each bite-sized task should have a very clear short term benefit (something that you can easily describe in one sentence), and a very clear short term cost (something that you can quantify, such as time spent).

For example, let’s say you have a grant proposal to write for an upcoming project at work. The first bite-sized task that you can accomplish is to outline the grant proposal and split it into 4 different categories. This will ensure that you cover everything that is needed, and allows you to focus on each section one at a time.

Also, set a time limit or duration for each bite sized task. The time limit should be short enough so that it’s a no-brainer to want to check it off. Remember, the brain has a bias towards short term benefits, so it’s likely you’ll find it hard to resist checking off a bite-sized task!

The next step would be to evaluate your other options. Besides focusing on your grant proposal, what are all the possible things that you could be doing that would divert your attention away? Be realistic about what they are! Write them all down, and list out the benefits and the costs associated. You don’t have to write them down in detail, just a general description will do.

For instance, instead of writing your proposal, you could spend 20 minutes watching a comedy series on Netflix. The benefit is that you get entertained and have a good laugh. The cost is that you’ve just lost 20 minutes of your time, and that comedy series did nothing to help you with the grant proposal.

Once you have your list completed, start prioritizing them. You have a time limit, so you need to order your tasks by priority, starting with the focus task as your top priority. Then fit the others around it.

For any remaining tasks on the list that won’t fit within your allocated time, don’t worry. You don’t have to give them up. Just schedule them for another time.

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Long and Short Term Benefits

As explained earlier, our brains are not good at evaluating and comparing short term and long term benefits.

Short term benefits usually have a relatively low cost and are concrete, allowing our brains to easily grasp them. We usually associate long term benefits with high cost, and these perceived costs are usually not as clear cut. The longer term it is, the more effort it takes to imagine the benefits. This automatically creates a mental barrier and resistance in our brains. As a result, we tend to trade long term gain for short term gains.

This is the reason why you might know that something is good for you in the long term, such as losing weight and exercising, but for some reason, you can’t force yourself to feel excited about it. On the other hand, you might know that something is bad for you, such as binge eating junk food. But, the anticipation of short term satisfaction overwhelms your conscious ability to resist it.

This is the next type of internal distraction that we face, and it is called Short & Long Term Mismatch. Thankfully, this can be tackled, too.

If you’d like to learn more about this internal distraction and how to overcome it, subscribe to our newsletter today, where you will automatically receive more of this knowledge that will allow you to be in greater control of your situation and actions.

There is More Than Focus alone!

Whether it’s wanting to increase your focus to be more productive, or wanting to manage your time better, here at Lifehack, we’re committed to helping you find and become a better you. If you’d like to truly transform your life around, you shouldn’t be focusing only on one area of your life–such as changing a career or learning to manage your time better, and expect life-changing results. Instead, you must focus on changing yourself in several areas at once–which are what I call the 7 Cornerstone Skills.

These 7 Cornerstone Skills will help you to build a long term foundation. It’s not teaching a set of independent skills — it’s one system with different aspects. Here at Lifehack, we’ve created the perfect course that will enable you to learn all 7 skills, and as you go through the course, we’ll connect the dots into a single cohesive whole. You’ll progress on a journey of personal growth and transformation with each module that you complete. So if you’re feeling stuck in any area of your life today, why not start this journey with us?

Featured photo credit: Erik Lucatero via unsplash.com

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