"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.


Three things that feel like productivity 'hacks'...but aren't

Taking action is rarely, if ever, a thing that can be hacked.

Save for 'to kill two birds with one stone'—which is really more of a statement about the fact that occasionally, we're lucky enough to have one action accomplish multiple objectives—our best and most reliable action-taking isn't particularly sexy or clever.

In fact, it's usually pretty banal.

It's a matter of doing the thing now as opposed to later (or never).

It's heroic only in the sense that choosing to do anything (e.g. bathing) is heroic.

Someone who takes action consistently is no more special than someone who struggles to take action consistently; the difference between them is that the action-taker isn't stopped by her feelings on the matter of the undone thing.

However, there are folks who buy into the belief that the action-taker knows something that the rest of humanity doesn't; these folks further complicate things by attempting to 'hack' productivity...only, they do so in some pretty self-defeating ways.

Here are the top three faulty 'shortcuts' that seem to show up regularly:

1. Multitasking

Successful multitasking isn't possible, so I beg you to please stop trying for it.

So many of us are absolutely convinced that we're the exception to the rule here. "But I'm actually really good at multitasking!" No, you're not. You believe you are, but what's actually happening here is, you're not giving anything your full presence.

While you might be doing multiple things at once, maybe even finishing them and checking them off your list, 1. it's obvious to anyone with whom you're interfacing that she doesn't have your complete attention, 2. you're very likely doing one or more of these things sloppily, in a way that would probably embarrass you if you were aware of it, and 3. your concept of time is getting more and more screwed by the minute.

Full presence is a time bender; you know this from your own life: how time seems to slow and actually, oddly, expands when you're all in (whereas when you scramble around and rush and give only half of yourself to a thing, the clock's hands seem to mock you by moving twice as fast).

Slow down to speed up.

2. Operating on a wide-open timeframe

Ever wondered why an easy-breezy thing like writing a three-line bio for an article takes all damn day?

Psst: It's because you gave it all damn day.

Tasks take as much time as you have available for them. I'm telling you, this is so much a thing that there's even a name for it: Parkinson's Law (anyone who's been with me from the beginning will remember my writing about it here and here).

When you swing to the opposite of multitasking by giving yourself unlimited time to accomplish something, you're actually slowing yourself down to the point of inefficiency. Even if it seems like a good idea not to schedule anything for the day you write your weekly blog post ("I think most clearly when I don't have any commitments on the calendar!"), unless you truly want to kill an entire afternoon on that one task, consider scheduling it for a decisive pocket of time.

In other words, tell the task how long you have for it—don't allow it to decide for you.

3. Forgoing your humanness

Skipping dinner, and, instead, wolfing down tortilla chips while editing client photos? Staying up into the wee hours after everyone in the house has gone to bed to reply to the eleventy-bajillion emails in your inbox? Not leaving the house for two or more days to create that email series for your new online offering?

Nuh uh, not good. ("But I only do it once a month, before deadlines! No big deal!") We've all been there—remember pulling all-nighters in high school or college?—so we all know this isn't a sustainable method for taking action consistently.

Sure, in the moment, this absolutely presents itself as The Remedy to The Not-Enough-Hours-in-the-Day Phenomenon. I'll give you that.

But—and this is a big 'but'—it feeds into an insidious belief system that's very dangerous to foster: that your basic human needs for adequate nutrition, sleep, and exercise are negotiable. (And once your requirements for living well become negotiable, you can pretty much kiss efficient action-taking goodbye.)

Draw a line in the sand and decide, once and for all, that your basic needs aren't called 'basic wants' for a reason. Honor your humanness instead of looking for loopholes and ways around it.

Are there any proposed 'hacks' or 'shortcuts' out there that trigger your goggles of skepticism?

What my tidy bookcase has to do with you

The first week of October was National Get Organized Week in the United States.

The National Association of Professional Organizers (yep, that's a thing) started it back in 1992.

I say 'was' because, in 2005, they moved National Get Organized Week to National Get Organized Month (January, big surprise).

So, here we are, in the final quarter of 2017, with the ghost of a national awareness week hanging around, collecting dust and convincing us that we don't need to concern ourselves with order until January 1, 2018.

I'd probably let it go except this past weekend proves that synchronicity is alive and well in my neck of the woods.

Also: As your favorite action-oriented life coach, it'd be a shame to pass up any opportunity to shower you with encouragement to Do The Thing Now! And a national awareness week, ghost or not, is one such golden opportunity.

Anyway, back to synchronicity:

For those of you who are new here, my husband and I bought our first home together this summer—after two years of living on the road and keeping our possessions in storage and in the spare closets of our generous parents. We've been unpacking steadily since early July, but made our most impressive progress in the past four days.

Our shared office now houses two desks (which we picked up and assembled Saturday evening) and a bookcase (which means our books are no longer living on the floor, trading stories with the spiders); lamps are arranged (bulbs replaced for efficiency) and in use; a filing cabinet is ready to receive the stuff that's been living in plastic totes in my mother-in-law's closets; the printer and speaker and internet cables are coiled and twist-tied into submission.

In short, we got organized.

Then, as if to say, Keep going, Helen!, my own coach announced her free, week-long Turning Pro Challenge, which began yesterday.

In today's email, she writes about creating sacred space: "Where you work has a huge impact on how you work."

She goes on to quote Steven Pressfield, whose book, Turning Pro, is the inspiration behind the challenge: "When we raise our game aesthetically, we elevate it morally and spiritually as well."

Huh. So, I guess there's something to be said for this environment thing after all.

You see, I used to care A LOT about how my surroundings looked and functioned. Too much, I'd say. And not in any of the ways that might've mattered where my career was concerned.

I was a writing student, enrolled in an MFA program and avoiding my little writing table and writing chair because my closet was a mess. Or because I needed better kitchen storage solutions. Or because my plants needed dead-heading.

My neatnik tendencies could've been innocent (maybe? I'm still not entirely sure about their true innocence), except that they kept me busy—they kept me from creating, from being prolific, from turning pro in the one area of my life where I was supposedly wanting to turn pro.

I fussed over the details instead of immersing myself in my work.

I fussed over the details so that I didn't have to immerse myself in my work.

That's quite different from the pro approach of squaring away a sacred space (read: not perfect, but dedicated—and, more importantly, functional) in order to really up one's attention and focus and performance.

Living on the road for two years was HUGELY instrumental in my turning pro in my working environment.

I had to learn to work everywhere.

I had to learn to alter a space just enough to meet my immediate needs...but not to get lost in rearranging and adjusting.

I had to learn not to be so precious about my stuff (most everything was in a storage unit in central Virginia).

I had to learn to stay focused on the thing I was creating—my service-based business—even and especially when I wanted to make it about something, anything, else (such as finding and purchasing the holy grail of all planners, creating my perfect logo, tweaking my website fonts for the umpteenth time).

Those two years on the road, I got organized somewhat inadvertently: by removing from my field of vision all the normal noise and stuff to the point that there was nothing to do...except my work.

And even now that those things are back in my field of vision—the bookcase filled with books, the filing cabinet and the plastic totes of files, the washi tape, the round pebble collection, you name it—they don't distract me as they once did (or as I once allowed them to).

What's different now is that I'm committed to my business. I'm committed to making my vision happen. So committed, in fact, that I won't let my fear stop me.

Now, just to clarify: You don't need to become nomadic in order to turn pro. You don't need to get all #tinyhome or #vanlife in order to clear a sacred space that's devoted to your work.

You need only to decide to turn pro. You need only to commit to making your thing happen. You need only to refuse to let your fear get in the way of taking action.

And you might need to tidy up a little, to make space for your pro self to work.

Your third distinction for making the most of September

To jog your memory: We're using the month of September to bust our mental blocks—you know, those thoughts, belief systems, and inactions that stand between us and our creating the thing we want to create before the end of 2017. If you missed it, here's where I give the full scoop on what we're doing, here's the first distinction, and here's the second distinction.

All right, you're up to speed! Let's dive into the third distinction of the month:

The Busy Action/Clarified Action Distinction

This one is deceptively simple.

To be busy is to be occupied. To have lots to do—often some combination of tasks and time commitments—and to focus your attention on the thing at hand (with, perhaps, a peripheral awareness of all the things that need your attention next).

When you're busy, your overarching objective is to strike through as many items on your list as you can, and to do so as efficiently as possible.

You might say the objective is to become less busy.

It's pretty vague as far as intentions go (and it's such a fleeting outcome!), yet we're all guilty at some time or another of using it as our sole guidepost when making our daily and weekly plans.

(After all, why do you think so many stationery companies create those adorable little weekly to-do lists for us to buy? Because we love to collect all of our busy-ness in one spot, then tick through it like the efficient go-getters we want to be.)

The problem here is less about our method (I love those Monday through Friday notepads as much as the next gal) and more about our mission. Rather, more about the absence of a real mission.

Let's look at the other half of this distinction for some contrast.

To clarify something is to remove its impurities. To refine. To eliminate confusion. To filter.

When you clarify your intentions for the day, you get really clear on what it is you want to accomplish (and we're not talking a whole list of things—pick a maximum of three) or who it is you want to be in the world (both your given and chosen roles), and you ensure all individual actions you take are in service to those intentions.

You apply discernment because you already know there's no end to the things you could do, chores and errands and fulfilling other's expectations of you.

The objective is to stay in alignment with some greater mission. To view the individual daily and weekly plans as stepping stones to achieving the bigger picture—the long-term goal, the long-range plan, the higher purpose of your existence.

Clarified action is supporting action. It's conscious action. It honors your big mission, whatever that might be, because it prioritizes your must-dos (instead of your infinite to-dos), all while maintaining the ever-present awareness that you have this one lifetime. And that's it.

If you don't feel high purpose when you think about your existence, fear not.

All you need to know is this:

Your reason for being is far more magnificent than the sum of your to-do lists (and your ninja-level ability to tick through them).

'Become less busy' is not your big-picture objective, even if it feels like it is in this season of your life.

You can shift from busy action to clarified action by bringing more consciousness to your planning. By contemplating what your mission statement would be if you had one. By setting aside the adorable Monday through Friday notepad in favor of a different approach, one where your guidepost is a single question you ask yourself:

What would I like to have achieved a year from now?

I can guarantee you that 'make the bed 365 times' won't be what springs to mind. Nor will 'write all birthday/holiday/event thank-you notes.'

What might spring to mind is something you started, but eventually abandoned because your time was hijacked or you had to pick up a side-gig to pay the bills or you just plain got scared. Something like, 'finish writing the novel.' Or 'host private dinners for small groups.' Maybe 'book a solo art show.'

If you're stuck in an endless loop of small-fry to-dos, what behaviors need to shift today (this week, this month) in order for you to get closer to achieving your dream thing a year from now.

Now, for your challenge:

It's time to refine! Imagine running your task lists through a filter, one that separates those future-vision must-dos from the myopic (and perpetually regenerating) to-dos. This week, your mission is to make time to accomplish as many of the former items as you possibly can.

Between now and next Tuesday, put the latter items on hold (it's only seven days!) and observe how your relationship to your dream thing changes.

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).

Feelers vs. doers

If you don't feel particularly good at taking action, fear not: I didn't either.

When I launched my coaching business in early 2015, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I'd never started a business before; the only money I'd ever made in my life (besides cash from babysitting) came in the form of a paycheck; and my deep-seated desire to execute everything flawlessly the first time I tried it made for a bumpy beginning to entrepreneurship.

So, I spent a huge portion of that first year doing whatever I felt like doing. If a blog post seemed like a good idea and I felt up to writing something, I cracked open my laptop and tried to offer a new perspective on a topic of interest. If I got frustrated with my efforts to create something from scratch, I'd turn to "research," and proceed to kill an afternoon with my nose buried in the pages of another coach's site. If social media felt important, I'd wile away the hours on Canva, playing with fonts, and then maybe I'd post it on Instagram.

I was in motion, sure. No one could accuse me of doing nothing.

However, I wasn't in business. Not truly. Because, to be in business, I would've had to have prioritized experimentation—that is, the process of taking action consistently with a goal of determining something previously unknown—over my feelings.

In his book, 100 Ways to Motivate Others: How Great Leaders Can Produce Insane Results Without Driving People Crazy, the brilliant coach, Steve Chandler, says:

Steve Chandler

I was a feeler, and it took me the better part of a year (and a lot of unnecessary grief!) to become a doer.

How did I finally kick it into gear?

I took one small step. I started a newsletter with the promise that I'd send it out every single Monday, come hell or high water. It didn't matter what I wrote in it—I was using it as a tool to experiment with content—it mattered only that I showed up every week and reported my findings. Whether I felt like it...or not.

I spent 78 weeks writing this thing that was a cross between an email to a friend, a travel missive, and a personal development think piece. Was it perfect? Far from it. Was it a solid indication to my audience and the Universe that I was in business as a life coach? Not quite. Did I learn anything? HOLY BATMAN, SO FREAKIN' MUCH.

That's the thing about taking action:

The worst that can result is a learning opportunity.

 

Not taking action, however, has a far worse outcome: nothing. Nothing happens, nothing changes, there's nothing to measure.

In my guide (seriously, if you still haven't downloaded it, I don't know how else to tell you that it's all yours, free for the taking, so GO GET IT!), I say that a feeling is very often a byproduct of action, not a prerequisite for it.

Well, the same goes for learning; we can soak up all the external information we want (the freebie opt-ins, the e-courses, the webinars), but until we use that information for personal transformation—until we transform ourselves into experimenters, into action-takers—we won't actually learn much at all.

Take a moment right now to consider all that you already know about the thing you'd like to create in the world.

Keeping in mind those glorious byproducts of action (positive feelings and unparalleled learning experiences), what small step will you take right now?