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:

  1. 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 Agile Achievement for more information on this.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.