Words by Michael Townsend Williams
At the heart of doing well are three important questions:
1. Why do you want to do something?
2. What do you need to do next?
3. Do you have the ability to do it?
There are obviously different levels to this. Do you think about your life? Your job? Your next holiday? A side project? Your child’s birthday party? Or a new recipe. Wherever you are, whatever you’re facing, I hope these practical tips get you doing more of what you really want.
1. Write it all down.
Thoughts. Ideas. Things to buy. People to reply to. New projects to start. There’s often so much going on in our heads that we don’t have time or space to think. Our minds are great for having ideas but not so great at holding onto them. If you don’t do regular mind dumps and write stuff down, your mental capacity suffers and your ability to think and act well suffers too. Keep your mind clear by keeping stuff out of your head – in an app or on paper. I use a journal for personal and professional reflection, a notebook for meeting notes and a notepad to scribble stuff down that I need to act on. If it’s really important, I then capture it on my phone with the camera too.
2. Be clear what done looks like.
The second key habit for me is making decisions about this stuff. Are you going to act or not? If you have decided to do something, are you really clear what done looks like? By defining your desired outcome and starting with the end in mind, you will be far more likely to succeed. Then, don’t over plan. I recommend always knowing your next 3 steps, but no more. Avoid getting bogged down in too much detail, too soon.
3. Focus on the next action.
You know what you’re aiming for, so what’s next? Projects often stall because quite simply the next physical action has been poorly defined. It’s just not doable and momentum stalls. You think it’s ‘Call Frank’, but the truth is you don’t know what to say to him and need to ‘Read the document’, ‘Draft some feedback’, ‘Find Frank’s number’. When you can actually see yourself doing it, and feel less inner resistance inside, you’re getting close. This sounds so simple, and yet in my coaching work, it’s rare to find someone who operates clearly at this level. Start with a verb. Ask if there’s something you need to do first. Keep going until you have your next physical action clearly in your sights.
4. If it only takes 2 minutes, just do it.
Even big, scary projects start with small steps. If the next action takes 2 minutes or less, just do it. Don’t write it down. Don’t think about it. Just do it. Make this a hard rule. If you do, you have unlocked the habit that underpins all masters of doing.
5. The work before the work.
Work can usually be split into three areas: ‘defining work’, ‘doing pre-defined work’ or ‘working with whatever shows up’. More and more of us are trapped in the later. We feel overwhelmed. Buried under the demands of others, victims to our email inbox. Too busy to actually work out what we want to do. This lack of autonomy demotivates us. By doing the work before the work, we feel empowered. Defining our work gives us clarity. Doing predefined workflows much easier. And when the other stuff turns up… we handle it more skilfully. And know when to say no.
6. Remove friction.
A simple approach to making you better at doing is to remove as much friction from your workflow as possible. By making things you want to do less hard to reach, and things you want to do more a lot easier, you massively increase your chances of staying on track. So why not hide all the less productive apps on your phone into a folder, so you need to search for them? Only keep the most important ones on your home screen. For me, that’s email, notes, calendar, tasks and messages. Then turn off all notifications, except your calendar and one message app. Every time someone interrupts you, it can take 17mins to get back on track. Imagine what you get done with all that regained time?
7. Switch off.
95% of your brain is sub-conscious. When you take time out, ideally in nature and away from screens, you are restoring your brain’s ability to focus better afterwards. You’re allowing time for new connections to be made and new ideas or insights to emerge. Downtime can be your most valuable time. It’s the trick to making your ‘on’ time more focused on the right things.
“Sometimes the most urgent and vital thing you can possibly do is take a complete rest.” — Ashleigh Brilliant
Master your breath and master your mind. As I said in my book Do Breathe:
“Our breath is the crucial link between our mind and our body. It’s the only system in the body that works both consciously and unconsciously.”
Your breath is the most effective technology for coping with stress and recovering from it faster. And that is crucial if you want to maintain your productivity.
So breathe slowly and deeply from your belly, in and out through your nose and gradually lengthen your exhalations. This will trigger your natural relaxation response: your heartbeat slows, your muscles relax, and your mind calms down.
Using this simple technique every day will keep you focussed and stress-free and ready to do.
Now, think of your most pressing challenge. Read this article again. Can you get better clarity on what you want to achieve? Can you gain some momentum by actually doing the next physical action? If so, you are already well on your way to mastering the art of doing.
Illustration by Caroline Tomlinson