"How do I choose my ONE GOAL to work on?"

Which idea (of the many ideas I have) do I act on first?

Where should I begin when I’ve got a list of things I’d like to start doing or areas in which I’d like to start improving?

Over the past year, I’ve received messages from many of you that pose some variation of the same question. Although I love sharing my thoughts with each of you on a case-by-case basis (and I’ll always do so), I figure it’s time I answer this question here on the blog—for future folks to discover and hopefully find some resonance.

This question is such a good one! It really speaks to a universal and pervasive desire to Do All The Things Now, and it also tells me that one of the biggest, most common obstacles to starting is a feeling of having too many worthwhile options. Naturally, if you can’t suss out which thing on your list is The Right Thing to attack first (because everything seems important and deserving of immediate attention), it’s easiest to do nothing at all—and to hope that one day, you’ll revisit the list and some clarity will emerge on its own; you’ll know what you need to do.

To be fair, I do think that happens; I’ve seen it firsthand, the setting aside of the list, then the later revisiting of the list, and BAM! Clarity (usually because circumstances have changed and priorities have been revealed) and forward movement.

That being said, what an utterly passive way to live. I suspect what most of us really want is to stretch and challenge ourselves to create momentum and possibility in our lives, rather than sit around waiting for it to whack us over the head.

Another thing: Time is of the essence. I’m not implying we need to rush, but I am saying that we’ve got no control over how much time we get on this earth...and we’ve got a lot more control over how we spend what time we do have than this passive approach would suggest.

So, then: how to proactively choose a starting place when the list is long, worthwhile, and perhaps a bit daunting.

You’re going to hate me for this answer, but here it is:

CHOOSE.

I mean it. Pick one of the projects or endeavors on your list, and begin.

Why such an unscientific/un-coach-y approach? Why no pro/con lists? Why no weighing of priorities?

Because it doesn’t really matter.

How do I know it doesn’t matter?

Well, you’ve already proven this by the fact that you’re unable to decipher which thing is more important than the other things.

Obviously, none is more important—because if it was, you’d know.

You’d know that getting your body back to a healthy and fit place is the most essential thing you can do right now.

Or finally beginning your memoir.

Or decluttering your closets and dressers.

Or socializing more.

You’d know—without having to deliberate.

As for your deliberation—this constant hemming and hawing over your list—and your subsequent lack of action because The Right Answer feels too inconspicuous? It tells me a few things:

  1. Unfortunately and probably unknowingly, you’ve already made your choice (and it’s not a great one, to be honest). You’ve chosen fear over action. Fear of everything on your list, fear of picking the wrong thing, fear of failing at whichever thing you do finally pick to begin, fear even of the possibly wonderful changes that will come about once you commit and take the first step forward.

  2. You don’t actually want any of the things on your list. Not truly. Not enough. Or if you do want them, it’s because you want the outcome only; you want to have done them or achieved them—but you don’t necessarily want to put in the elbow grease that’s required to make them happen for yourself. In this sense, your wants are a bit more like fairy godmother wishes.

  3. No right answer exists...and on some level, you already know this. So, really, you can’t go wrong just picking one (eeny, meeny, miny, moe style works) and diving in. In all seriousness, you see that you’ve got nothing to lose, right? The alternative to picking one and diving in is doing nothing at all...and continuing to hope that some magic will occur and you’ll finally get what feels like a more concrete plan for moving forward. I promise you this concrete plan will never come. Not without your intervention, that is. You’re the only one who can take the first step, and then, with that initial ACTION, summon the next step to materialize.

So, if none of your options is heads-and-shoulders more important than the others, there is no method, no prescription, no best practice for how to choose what to work on first.

Rather, the method is a verb, a one-word directive, that’s embedded in that sentence: CHOOSE.

If you’re feeling even a little bit galvanized by this post, go ahead and declare in the comments below what you’re choosing to start now that you’re clear there is no Right Thing to do first (and no particular approach—besides taking action—by which you’ll uncover it). I’ll engage with you to see if we can get your next first-step mapped out, so that by the time you click away from this post, you know exactly what you need to do to get moving.


What to do when your email problem feels...bigger

One of you replied to me last week, letting me know that my 25-minutes-at-a-time tip for conquering unanswered emails was helpful—but it didn’t quite get to the core of your problem. You wrote: “My struggle with emails is not that I need to answer them, but there’s something in them I need to do. Follow up on, read, watch. And that takes longer than the 25 minutes.”

Gaah, of course!

I’ve been there—in fact, I’m right there with you most every day I open my inbox—but it hadn’t occurred to me until your note that that was the worthwhile thing to look at, from a strategic coaching perspective.

What’s the best way to handle those emails that require some action on your part?

If you work in an organization with others, it might be that someone’s asked you to do something, and then get back to her on it—and you know you’ll need to set aside a good chunk of time to do the task, a chunk of time that doesn’t exist on your calendar at the moment.

If it’s your personal inbox, maybe you’ve received a newsletter that references a podcast that sounds interesting—one that you’d like to give a listen to, but can’t make the time for right now because it just isn’t your priority.

If you run your own business, perhaps it’s a colleague’s email that announces an interview she gave with some big-time blogger; of course you want to read it, you even want to leave a comment on the post to show your support, but today’s to-do list doesn’t include such an activity. (Come to think of it, tomorrow’s and the next day’s don’t either. You simply don’t have a to-do list for these types of activities, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important to you.)

So, then, it’s these types of emails that tend to sit around and clog up your inbox. What’s the handy rule or trick to apply to them?

I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all approach (if only I had one!), but I can give you two sensible options based on my own experience and my work with clients on this very subject:

1. Go non-linear. From Steve Chandler’s Time Warrior, one of my favorite personal development books of all time:

Non-linear time management is a commitment to action in the present moment. It's looking at a task and choosing NOW or not now. If it's not now, it's got to be NEVER, or placed in a time capsule that has a spot on the calendar and therefore is out of the mind. The mind must remain clear and empty of all future considerations. All fear comes from picturing the future. Putting things off increases that fear. Soon we are nothing but heavy minds weighing down on weary brains. Too much future will do that. Only a warrior's approach will solve this. A warrior takes his sword to the future. A warrior also takes his sword to all circumstances that don't allow him to fully focus.

Okay, what does this mean when it comes to our inboxes?

Well, for starters, I’d say it means you have to make decisions when you’re inside your inbox. Become a ruthless decision-maker.

Will you handle this email right now?

Yes? Perfect. Do it and be done with it.

No? That’s great, too. Click over to your calendar and create a spot on the calendar for dealing with it, specifically.

You might decide to carve out an hour every week wherein you tie up the loose ends of your inbox, all at once; perhaps instead of every week, it becomes a biweekly thing (because let’s be realistic here). A recurring event on your calendar that’s titled, “LOOSE ENDS,” and in the description for the event, you make a list of the email subject lines that you’ve flagged as needing your attention at this specific later date.

Regardless, the idea here is NOW or NOT NOW. It’s an empowered vertical move instead of a horizontal one that says you have to respond to things as they come up, no matter if they derail your greater priorities for your life.

2. Catch and release. Now, this is a decidedly less organized technique than Steve’s suggestion to go non-linear, but I know for a fact that it can work for the right people. If the idea of assigning a date to everything makes your skin crawl, 1. that sounds like resistance and would probably be very interesting, and I dare say fun, to explore in a coaching conversation together, but 2. I get it, and would recommend experimenting with the following:

Start to keep a sticky note list (I use Google Keep personally, but if you want to go analog with this one, knock yourself out) of the stuff you want to scope out and will scope out when you find yourself in-between projects, needing a break from whatever’s in front of you, or at a loss as to what you ought to be doing next with your time.

This approach works best for articles to read and podcasts to listen to; it absolutely doesn’t work for tasks that have someone else waiting on you.

To give you a specific example, I’ve got a Keep list that’s titled, Books to Check Out the Next Time I’m At the Library. I add to this list whenever I see mention of a book that interests me immediately, but that I’ve no time or bandwidth to research in the moment.

As for podcasts, if it’s something new that I know I want to listen to, at least give it a try, I’ll open up the Podcast app and subscribe right away, in the moment (so, this is a little bit of Steve’s approach blended in). This way, the next time I’m out in the garden or heading out for a walk and I open up the app, I’m greeted with a visual reminder that there’s something new I want to experience.

Another Keep list you might create? Resources to Explore Instead of Scrolling Instagram. On it might be that friend’s interview with the big-time blogger or an interesting-sounding article that someone mentioned in her newsletter, but that you couldn’t stop to read in its entirety at the time. Maybe these are things you’d like to give your time to instead of the mindless scrolling while your waiting for the dental hygienist to call you back.

And if they’re not? If you find that you’d rather just have a zone-out moment with Instagram? That’s okay. Simply recognize that the enthusiasm you have for some new resource might have a natural half-life. It might be a rabbit hole that, if you don’t or can’t allow yourself to go down in the moment, won’t ever be as compelling to you as your usual apps and decompression outlets. And that’s okay! It can come off your list!

So, there you have it. Those are my two big recommendations for those of us who find ourselves with a backlog of emails that aren’t being dealt with because of something bigger than procrastination.

If you find yourself with a ton of unanswered correspondence, I’d suggest first that you separate out what’s what: Which emails can you conquer using my 25-minute egg timer method and which have an embedded action or interest that needs to be handled before they can be filed? Deal with the quick-but-delayed responses first (25 minutes is nothing! And you’ll feel better by the end of it), then crack open your calendar and pull up your Google Keep, and get to assigning a home for everything.

Have a better method, or one that’s totally unexpected and wildly helpful? I’m all ears! Share it with us in the comments below, and let’s learn something from each other.


Prioritizing, part two

Okay, so, since last week, I've done some fine-tuning of my sticky note method, and here's what I have to share:

1. Color coding. It helps! So do mnemonics.

  • I'm using blue for commitments and agreements, and also for business-related tasks that are important to my overall mission and to developing my work.

  • Green is for anything that is, or might become, a source of income. This makes it really easy for me to spot the activities I need to focus on during whatever hours I've dedicated to work. Money is green and so are the to-do items associated with it!

  • Social correspondence and connection, essentially everything that falls in the personal realm of my life, is pink.

  • The days of the week get orange, but that's only because it was the last color left in the four-pack I had on hand. ;-)

2. Once complete, tasks are plucked from their assigned spots and stacked in the lower corner; at the end of the day, they get moved to the trash.

Currently, I'm using a glass window as my board for arranging and rearranging the sticky notes (fingerprints and smudges abound!).

I like to keep the completed tasks up on the window until the end of the day, because then I'm able to track how much I actually accomplished. Otherwise, it'd be all too easy for me to whine, "I got barely anything done today!" because #chronicoverachiever and #victimoftime. I'd much rather have hard, irrefutable data that allows me to assess how ambitious I was at the start of my day and whether or not my strategy was solid enough to achieve those ambitions (and, also, I'd rather be a #timewarrior).

So, each completed sticky gets stuck to the previously completed sticky until I have a nice little chunk of stickies in the lower corner of my office window.

Right before I sign off for the day, I review the chunk (as well as whatever I didn't get around to) before tossing it in the trash can and situating the following day's tasks.

3. A sticky note that keeps moving from one day to the next is probably a sticky note that needs breaking down into its smaller components.

I'm finding that there's two sticky notes that have covered some serious territory on my window—traveling from Monday to Friday and back again. What does this tell me? I put too big a task on the sticky note and need to determine what mini-steps I can take toward it each day (and create sticky notes for each of those mini-steps), rather than hoping the overarching task will somehow transform into something that's easier or more doable to tackle tomorrow.

And there you have it. Those are my three biggest takeaways from almost two weeks of using this particular self-devised time-chunking method.

Thoughts? Questions? Best practices? Keep 'em coming—I'm learning a lot from your emails.

Prioritizing doesn't have to be so hard!

You want to take action, you want to dive in and complete something on your list (because it's gotten really old, really fast, to keep dragging the same tasks from one day to the next on your Trello calendar or in your bullet journal or wherever you keep track of what needs doing).

You know that once you kick it into gear, very often something becomes somethings nearly effortlessly, so it's really just a matter of starting.

But you haven't got a clue how to prioritize when everything feels urgent or when the list is so long, it feels impossible to discern what's urgent and what isn't.

This cluelessness has a big impact. It means you're either 1. starting by tackling some arbitrary task that isn't necessarily important in the big picture of what you want to do with your life, or 2. not starting at all.

A few of you have reached out and posed some iteration of this concern.

And while I can't promise to know your right answer, I can certainly share what's working for me at the moment.

If you're in the clueless camp, my hope is that you'll take my method and make it your own.

First of all, I don't believe prioritizing has to be hard. I even think it can be fun (and enlightening!) to move things around until there's some resonance in the arrangement.

Yesterday on Instagram, I mentioned a new time-chunking method I'm using that involves sticky notes. Lots and lots of sticky notes. Here's what I'm doing, using the 1.5 x 2 inch size in a variety of electric colors:

1. I take my time to think of All The Things that are crowding my mind and I write them on sticky notes.

This is perfect for those days when I arrive at my desk without a plan, but with what feels like an overwhelming list of things that need my attention.

2. I assign just one task per sticky note.

'Answer emails' is not one task.

'Reply to Emily' is. 'Reply to Sarah' is another. 'Reply to group message with availability,' and so on.

One per sticky, no exceptions.

3. I arrange the sticky notes based on a hierarchy of two questions.

Once I've gotten down everything that's top of mind and my desk's surface is covered in neon tiles, I ask myself two quick questions that help me to get clear on what actually needs to get done today. I rearrange the tiles accordingly.

Now, my two questions are particular to me, as a married and self-employed woman without children. Yours might be really different based on the particulars of your life. There's no shame in whatever your guiding questions might be; the important thing is to be honest with yourself about your overarching goals for this season of your life.

  • Do I have a commitment to or an agreement with someone to do something here?

    For me, this might mean my husband and I agreed I'd call for an electrician first thing; it might mean I've a paying client who emailed me in a tizzy the night before and requires a reply; it might mean today is the first day of a self-care commitment, and I need to get outside for an early morning walk. It helps me to first consider my commitments and agreements, and then to make sure those sticky notes get moved to the top for immediate attention. Even as a particular relationship is important to me, if there are no explicit agreements in place, I set aside its associated tasks for later. (Note the difference between agreements and expectations; someone might expect you to reply to an email or might desire a returned phone call, but there's no explicit commitment on your part to do so. Here's a fantastic article on this exact distinction.)

  • Is this, or might it become, a source of income?

    Because I'm self-employed, my priority throughout the work week must be growing my business. As much as I adore being in touch with family and friends on a regular basis (and need to be in touch with them in order to have a meaningful life!), I don't allow my personal life to outrank business-generating activities when I've got myself on the clock. This means that all those sticky notes that are decidedly personal in nature get moved to the bottom.

4. I create header sticky notes (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on) and then I distribute the individual sticky notes that didn't make the cut as commitments/agreements or sources of income.

I only concern myself with Monday through Friday because this system is about managing my work week as someone whose personal and professional lives intersect quite a bit; your needs might be different. It's worth noting that I don't distribute these remaining tasks arbitrarily; I rank them based on nature of relationship, urgency of request, and order received.

If this sounds heartless (spelled out, it strikes me as being a bit more matter-of-fact than I've ever actually copped to being), I suspect it's because there's a distinct discomfort around not operating from a place of accommodation (at least for some of us; fellow people-pleasers, I'm looking at you).

Having a system that acknowledges the fullness of my life and doesn't have me chained me to my inbox until bedtime is crucial for me.

So, if you're clueless, start here. Tweak as necessary. Report back.

If you have a system that beats mine in spades, don't hold out on us. Share!

And finally, hit me with any questions you have about time management, taking action, prioritizing, or starting and/or completing your Big Thing. I always answer, and I may even feature our Q&A in this space (provided I have your permission, of course).