One of the greatest tools in life is the ability to learn from our our mistakes and the mistakes of others. They don’t have to be huge mistakes either, it can be something as simple as learning that cooking pasta for 20 minutes is not a good idea or that eating nothing but cream crackers will not make you big and strong.
One of the things I wanted to create with this site was a place where I could share what I’ve learnt, so here are three mistakes I make, some more often than others. They’re all centred around a lack of focus, which can be a real productivity killer.
1) Ignoring plans I make
Planning isn’t one of my favourite activities, but I find that once I’ve started to create a plan it’s not too difficult to finish it all. Plans can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to create, and the level of detail depends on the task being planned. The real problem isn’t in creating the plan, but in sticking to it.
Once the initial enthusiasm has waned, it becomes very difficult to stick to any kind of schedule. More interesting tasks appear all the time, unexpected events occur that throw off schedules and there are days when you just don’t want to see a particular project.
So far the best solutions I’ve found to this problem has been the following:
Make the plan as simple as possible – This goes against my natural urge to plan for everything and to make things as detailed as possible. Instead, I find a more agile approach works best. This starts by making one very general plan, and making smaller ones as each large milestone is completed. See Extreme Achievement for more information on this.
Put the plan somewhere visible – It gets very hard to ignore a plan when it’s constantly in your face. It might feel a bit silly writing out your plan on a huge sheet of paper and sticking it to your ceiling, but it does have an affect!
Make your plans small – No matter what you plan for, something will appear and mess it up. The smaller (and simpler) your plans, the easier it is to cope with these interruptions. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t set big goals, but rather you should aim to get there in lots of little steps rather than a few giant strides.
Planning takes work, but if done well it can save hours of time and a lot of frustration. Learn what your limits are and set yourself reasonable targets to avoid any problems.
2) Ignoring priorities
This is related to the first point, and in some ways it’s probably the biggest mistake that anybody can make when it comes to productivity. It’s an unfortunate fact that there will never, ever be enough hours in the day to complete everything. This is where priorities come in, and when they’re followed they can make a huge difference.
The hard part is accepting that in order to do something, you will have to not do something else. Once you understand and accept this, it makes it a little simpler to prioritise your actions. To further encourage sticking to priorities, any rewards should be given for tasks that were marked as “high priority”.
3) Ignoring the clock
After a certain amount of work, your productivity will take a steep decline. This is nature’s way of telling you to stop and do something else. Once of the worst habits I picked up at university was working until 5 or 6am in the morning, getting a few hours sleep and then working through the day again. Although I got my work finished, the quality suffered as I made more mistakes and felt far more frustrated.
I’ve found the root cause of this problem is not trusting myself to resume work the next day. Although I know I’ll be more effective in the morning, I’ve had too many days of slacking until the afternoon that put me off this approach. It often seems like working through the night is the only way I’ll get something completed.
I found the best way to beat this problem is to wake up an hour earlier and dive straight into whatever task I set the night before. Even if I don’t get a huge amount done in this first hour, it sets up a more productive mood for the rest of the day.
Bonus – Not ignoring other people’s standards
It seems every list needs a bonus item at the end, so here’s one thing that I don’t ignore that would probably be a good idea. Everybody has different standards, and it’s often hard enough meeting your own, let alone somebody else’s.
Don’t get too hung up on trying to be somebody else. Improve yourself in your own way, and you’ll be far more satisfied than you ever could be by living someone else’s life.
Stop smoking, drinking, or using drugs (including caffeine)
These are all admirable goals, and the start of the year seems like the perfect time to start them. After all, it’s a new year and a new beginning, so why do so many of us struggle?
Why do new year’s resolutions fail?
There are plenty of reasons, but here are some of the main culprits:
Poorly defined — “Increase Exercise” isn’t a particularly well defined goal. “Exercise for thirty minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday” is much clearer, and much more likely to succeed.
Too much, too soon — If you currently drink, smoke and do no exercise, is it realistic to expect that overnight you’ll become a lean, mean, non-smoking exercise machine? Not really, and that’s one of the reasons these resolutions fail. We often set ourselves huge, magical targets, and expect that come January 1st we’ll have limitless motivation and energy to complete anything we want. This isn’t to say that big goals are bad, but they must be consistent with the current level of your abilities.
Expecting to fail — New Year’s Resolutions are generally regarded as something of a joke. We don’t really expect to keep them, and if we give up it’s not treated. This is the wrong mindset for any kind of goal, as if you expect to fail you almost certainly will.
No planning — 79% of people don’t create a plan for achieving their resolutions, and approximately 35% of people stop within the first two months. Failing to plan is planning to fail, as they say.
Tips for achieving your new year’s resolutions
Now that we know some of the reasons why resolutions fail, we can look at ways to improve the situation.
Clearly define your goals
Put some time and thought into your goals. Ask yourself what you really want, and don’t feel pressured into taking up the same resolutions as everyone else. Saying “I’ll never drink again!” when you’re hung over on the 1st of January isn’t the most well thought out goal. Set aside some time to yourself, and be creative with what you want.
It’s good to set large goals, but they’re of no benefit if you know you’ll give up on them early. Trying to give up all of your bad habits in one go is a recipe for disaster, which will likely lead to early failure.
Use 30 day trials
Instead of setting one huge goal, why not try out lots of different goals by using 30 day trials? This makes it easier to take up many different habits throughout the year, and you may find that some things that you wanted don’t have the benefits you thought they would.
A short trial is a great way to learn more about your capabilities, and it also gives you lots of small successes that you can use to motivate yourself.
Make reviewing your goals the first thing you do in the morning. Well, it can be the second thing if you need the bathroom!
Write them on an index card and carry it in your wallet or purse. When you have a few spare minutes during the day, take it out and read through your goals again. Constantly remind yourself of what you want to achieve, and you’ll find it much easier to get there.
Create a plan
Planning isn’t the most glamorous activity, but it is a valuable exercise. Break your goal down into small, actionable steps.
Trying to go straight to the top is extremely difficult, so take it one step at a time. You wouldn’t try to lift the heaviest weight at the gym if you’d never lifted before. Start small, and gradually work your way towards success.
There are a few other tips you can use to increase the chances that you’ll complete your resolutions.
Fill your environment with reminders
Create posters, charts, books of inspirational quotes and pictures, or anything else that you think will help you achieve your goals. Want a new car? Then stick a picture of it on your wall. Use the power of positive visualisation to help the goal stick in your mind.
A nice example of this is by Jack Canfield in the film “The Secret”. He wanted to earn 100,000 dollars, so he created a $100,000 bill and stuck it to his ceiling. It was the first thing he’d see in the morning, and the last thing he’d see at night. Keep the goal in your mind.
Keep a journal or progress log
Keeping a record of your progress has many advantages, and allows you to spot areas you are struggling. It’s also another way of reminding you of your goals, and it helps you to make sure that you take a small step towards success every day.
Use a focusing partner
Get a friend or relative to help with your goal. It’s always good to have a friend along for the journey, and they can help pick you up when the going gets tough.
You can’t complete every goal, and you will fail at some. Remember that failure doesn’t matter. Even if you only gain one piece of insight, or learn one new thing from your goal, you haven’t wasted your time and energy.
As an example, let’s look at my resolutions for 2006. To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember them! Looking back, it appears that I wanted to blog more, start my business and finish the rest of my games website.
As you can probably guess, what actually happened was completely different, but not in a bad way. I started this personal development website, released some small source code libraries, wrote some in-depth articles and conducted several indie developer interviews. It’s not entirely what I had in mind when I set my resolutions (if you can call them that), but it’s been a great experience.
All the best for 2007!
If you’re setting resolutions for the year 2007, then I wish you all the best in achieving all you can and more. Here’s to a happy and prosperous new year!