Pick one - the key to getting stuff done

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Our old friend overwhelm

As you already know one of the biggest problems that entrepreneurs suffer from is overwhelm. You’re either alone or you’re working with a small team; there’s always a ton of stuff to be done and by the time you hit the end of the week you realize you’ve been busy all the time - but you didn’t make nearly as much progress as you would have liked to.

The “good” news is that you’re not alone. This is a problem that we all suffer from; there’s so much to do that we try to do a little bit of everything but in the end we don’t progress with much.

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen the overwhelm problem a lot. But there’s one thing which has made a difference to my own progress - and the entrepreneurs I work with report similar progress jumps.

It’s called pick one.


Pick one

It seems that daily busy-ness keeps us from getting stuff done - we’re not getting to the stuff that we think we should have gotten done. There’s a lot of activity but not nearly enough progress.

The pick one technique is very simple:

Pick one thing to work on this week. Only one. No more. Work on it until it’s done. Don’t do anything else that you don’t absolutely have to do. Finish off that one thing. And when it’s done, pick the next one.

This seemingly simple “trick” has paid off handsomely for me and for the entrepreneurs I’m working with. Suddenly stuff that has been sitting on the back burner gets done, and although progress still seems slow it’s a lot faster than I’ve experienced before.

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For example, this week I’m running my first Workshop Ninja workshop. Preparing for the workshop is the only thing I have on my task list for the week - and that’s where I’m focusing.

Granted, there are other small things I have to get done, like preparing my weekly newsletter, a couple of emails here and there and a bit of admin work that just has to get done. But I’m knocking these off early in the morning so I have the rest of the day to work on my “pick one” choice.


Getting that one thing done

But just picking one thing to get done doesn’t really get a lot of results if we don’t change the way we work. I’ve adopted the following strategy:

Nothing else before 10:00 am (at the earliest).
My most productive time is early in the morning - especially when I’m writing articles like this. So I don’t look at email, social media, news or anything until 10:00 am - sometimes later. My phone and computer is on do not disturb so there are no notifications.

So I avoid the distractions and focus exclusively on that one thing until at least 10:00 am - or later if I can manage my calendar.

This is not easy!
I would be lying if I said this was easy - it’s not. The first few days I did this it was great; I was totally focused and productive. But after three or four days I wondered how much harm there would be to quickly check my email or LinkedIn feed while I was having breakfast. And before I knew it, I was spending way more time doing that than I had planned to.

So it takes practice. Right now the idea that there is no email or phone before a certain time in the morning is almost like being on holiday. And my output has probably doubled from a few months ago.

Move meetings to the afternoon. To protect my mornings I try to move all meetings to the afternoon. You may not be able to do this - and I can’t always avoid it - but I’ve found a solid, uninterrupted 4 or more hours in the morning delivers huge amounts of output.

The blank wall
I know that this is not just me - I picked this up from other people who write about focus and productivity: Keep your working environment as uncluttered and distraction-free as you possibly can.

When I need to write I find that I am most productive when my desk is clear. But it helps even more when there is nothing on the wall to distract me. Right now, there is a flip chart sheet on the wall to my left with Post-It Notes from work I was doing yesterday. I’m trying my best not to look at that sheet - because if I do I’m going to get distracted.

Some people go so far as to remove all pictures from the wall in front of them. No doodads, pencil holders or anything else on the desk either. It seems obsessive - but it’s worth a try.

Music gets you in the flow.
Your mileage may differ, but all the productivity mavens (and my experience) agree that music can help you focus and “get in the flow”. It may sound boring, but it’s the same music - every day, every time I sit down to write or produce something that requires deep work.

The right music cuts out outside distractions and improves your focus. If you must know, my focus music is Dido’s Life for rent and No Angel - with some Eros Ramazotti on occasion.

Tools can kill your productivity
Microsoft Word is one of the tools that I use to produce final versions of my documents. But I’ve found that when I use Word to produce drafts I get stuck in trying to make things pretty - and I don’t progress the work.

So I’ve adopted minimalist writing tools (I’m writing this in Ulysses) that don’t have the ability to format stuff - this is pure text without any shiny stuff that can distract me.

If you find that you spend time trying to make things look pretty before you’ve finished the writing process you probably need something with fewer features. Check out “markdown editors” if this is your thing.

The bottom line is that you need large chunks of uninterrupted time to get stuff done.

Protect your time, turn off all distractions and interruptions, and focus on that one thing until it’s done.


Progress may seem slow at first

The pick one technique may seem that you’re slowing down - after all, you’re less “busy” than you were before.

But don’t confuse busy-ness with output. In the end, output is all that matters, not how many hours you spend on it.

The pick one technique - together with large chunks of uninterrupted time in the morning - has allowed me to get more stuff done in the last couple of months than I ever thought possible. I still lapse - sometimes I succumb to the temptation of checking email or website stats - but it’s getting better.


Get more stuff done

If you need to get a lot more done and you’re constantly overwhelmed, there are three things you can do now:

  • Make a list of all the things you need to do.

  • Pick one thing to do - and only one. Focus on that thing until it’s done before moving on to the next.

  • Carve out large chunks of uninterrupted time. For you this may be mornings or evenings - whatever works for you. Cut out all distractions during that time.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into this high-throughput stuff I highly recommend Cal Newport’s books Deep Work and So good they can’t ignore you. More info on his website.

Have a great week! Neville.