The easy way to get difficult stuff done
2nd April 2018
We’ve all had that feeling at the end of a meeting/email-filled day at the office that we haven’t actually achieved anything. How did all those busy hours pass without us really making a difference or doing the fulfilling work that makes us feel good?
The problem doesn’t go away when, like me, you shift from an office job to working for yourself. Waking up in the morning with – sometimes – no meetings, no deadlines– just eight hours to write and do the work I really want to do. Perfect and paradise? Not so at all. The day so easily slips away with the busy, easy work – my ordered files and pen box and immaculate desk space lay testament to hours of useful work while avoiding the “real” thing.
Avoided because, simply, it requires a difficult transition to a zone that we might not be used to, requiring us to dig deep, to access and create from that inner core that really has meaning for us. Added to that comes too much pressure – it’s all on you when you work for yourself. Doubts come along about will it be good enough, followed by thinking it actually has to be perfect which of course it never is and never was when you were working for an organisation. The “just get it done as best as possible in the available time” is replaced by “just don’t get it done because it will never be good enough”.
After a frustrating couple of months like this, I read Michael Bungay Stanier’s “Do More Great Work” which is a rallying call to identify and do more of the great work within work, the work that uses the very best of ourselves. Using this wisdom along with what I know of myself, I now have a formula that has also been successfully adopted by several of my coaching clients. It works whether you are a self-boss or employee with something tricky to tackle:
- Only commit to 20 minutes “great” work. Ten years ago I completed an MSc while working full time with two pre-school kids by doing a 20 mins slot each day which was timed around my treat of mindless TV from 9-10pm. Kids were off by 8, supper cleared up by 8.30, leaving 30 minutes or less. Twenty felt like a meagre amount but I found that it was short enough to not ever feel I couldn’t do it, short enough to be focused throughout and long enough to definitely get something done. It frequently morphed into 45 and sometimes an hour resulting in a grade of 76% (annoyingly four marks away from distinction). And don’t feel guilty about it being too short – Paul Lemberg found that thousands of executives owned up to only properly concentrating between 25-45 mins a day – and they were probably exaggerating.
- Do it first thing in the morning. Now I don’t have early morning kid duty, I can do the great/difficult work in the morning which research indicates is a particularly productive time (we are better at filtering out irrelevants in the morning).
- Do it before emails or phone: The call of the inbox is distracting and clutters the mind. Emails and texts and calls – or lack of them – can pep you up or depress you, linger in your mind or require a response. If you worry or are waiting for something important, just put an out of office letting people know you aren’t free until say, 10am.
- Phone a friend. In my last job if one of the team had a difficult job they’d been putting off, they’d let everyone know about the “frog” they had to deal with. We’d always get sympathy/encouragement and a check-in to make sure it was completed. If you work for yourself, phone a friend in a similar position and help each other.
Twenty minutes great work each day is always possible and it keeps you on track. It’s nice too, feeling off the hook afterwards to step out into the sunshine and go to that meeting or the gym, or just put on the radio and get on with the busy, mindless (and quite fun) work for the rest of the day.