There never seems to be enough time in the day to do what we want. We all wish to do so many things in life, to experience it at its fullest — and yet, too many of us really don’t know what to do to go about achieving our objectives. I believe part of the problem is that many of us are not equipped with — or even aware of — good tools to get what we want out of life.
Below are five such tools that I have found effective in helping me achieve my personal and professional objectives. They are simple to understand and relatively easy to apply in just about anyone’s life.
1) Identify Your Objective(s)
Presumably you know what your goal is, so this tip may sound silly on the surface. But I want us to draw a clear distinction between goals and objectives. Goals can be useful, but they are often too ambiguous to directly act upon. “Learn Mandarin Chinese” is an example of a (very lofty) goal. The problem is, goals by themselves tell us very little about how they might be accomplished. When is the moment you have “learned” Mandarin Chinese? Is it that, after the 5,000th word, you “officially” know the language? The 10,000th? The 10,001st? The answer is fuzzy.
Objectives, on the other hand, often directly suggest how they might be achieved. “Learn ten Chinese words” is an objective. Objectives differ from goals in that objective criteria can be applied to them to determine whether or not they have been accomplished. There is no fuzziness. Whether or not “Learn Ten Words by Friday” was accomplished is not a matter of opinion – you either did it or you didn’t. This objectivity is valuable, in part, because we can concisely express what it is that we did – which leads to continued motivation to build on that accomplishment.
The mere action of transforming a goal into an objective can often be enough to motivate you to complete it. Sometimes, though, even an objective is too big to accomplish in one sitting, in which case you should:
2) Break Large Objectives Up Into Smaller Sub-Objectives
A seemingly small goal can quickly become daunting. Even something like “Clean the house” might be too large and ambiguous. For house cleaning, I will often break the goal or objective into smaller sub-objectives, such as “Clean the living room,” “Clean the bedroom,” and “Clean the kitchen.” Sometimes these sub-objectives are still too unmanageable – in which case I break them down further. I might decompose “Clean the kitchen” into, for example, “Clean this small area of the counter” — as well as some other tasks. I recommend breaking objectives down until you can honestly say to yourself, “yes, I can do this” – and, preferably, you can do it in an hour or less.
Once you accomplish your sub-objective(s), move back up to the larger objective. You may need to break things up again, which is perfectly OK. However, you may be tempted to spend hours breaking objectives up before actually doing anything. As a general rule, don’t do this. While it’s true that a little bit of planning can often help, too much planning may get in the way of actually doing something. Few objectives require such extensive up-front, in-depth planning — and even with such planning, our dynamic, hyperactive may render it irrelevant almost immediately. So, go ahead and plan a little bit, if it makes you feel better — but favor doing rather than planning. Be flexible, light-of-mind, and light on your feet.
3) Focus on a Single Action at a Time
We live in a multitask world. It seems like every corner of our society reinforces the notion that doing several things at once is just awesome. Resist the temptation to do this, though. Fully commit yourself to your objective.
For example, when I clean the kitchen, I take out the trash. When I do so, I’ll often spot a box or something in the garage that belongs in the closet or the basement. Believe me, I’m sorely tempted to put that box back in its place — but once I become distracted, it’s easy to find all sorts of ways to stay distracted. Sure, I may get some little things done here or there — but I will not have gotten the objective I committed to done. Very unsatisfying.
Distraction is Public Enemy Number One when it comes to getting stuff done. If you don’t fully commit to your objective, you will lose energy and focus and, at the end of the day, you’ll be left with a pile of half-done tasks (at best), rather than two or three (or more) fully-accomplished objectives. Knowing that you have fully accomplished something you set out to do — no matter how small — can be a powerful motivating force. So avoid those distractions and keep focused on the task at hand.
4) Count Tasks for Boring Objectives
This tip sounds silly, but it is a technique that I use every day.
If you’re faced with a boring but necessary objective, an effective technique is to count the tasks. That is, commit to do a certain number of mini-actions, and count upwards every time you do one. For example, I hate washing dishes, so I commit to doing one hundred small tasks. If I wash a fork, I count 1. When I put it away I might count 2 – and so on up to 100. You might argue with me about what exactly constitutes a “task” – but it’s just not that important. What is important is that you feel you are constantly making progress accomplishing your objective. After you have done your hundred tasks, you’re that much closer — and the psychological boost in doing so may well be enough to propel you to do the next hundred tasks — until the completion of your objective!
5) Tailor Your Environment to Promote Getting Things Done
This tip is tricky, because it differs from the other four in that it is more of a “not to do” than a “to do”. But it may be the most important.
Your environment plays a critical role in your productivity. If your environment is creating situations that cause you to waste time, a change in environment is necessary. Recognizing this – and that you have the power to change your environment – is a swift way to increase your productivity.
There are two components to this tip. First, identify your obstacles: what is hindering your ability to accomplish your objectives? And, if there are multiple objectives, which hinders you the most? Answering these questions can be hard, and can require a great deal of soul-searching and honesty with yourself.
Next, think of ways to remove these obstacles – or at least find ways to render them neutral. Pulling this off can require a great deal of creativity.
An example from my own life: once upon a time, at spare moments in the day at work or home, I caved in to the temptation to visit my favorite websites (e.g., Facebook) – sometimes several times a day, and, in the process, wasting many minutes (and sometimes hours!) of my day. I became very frustrated when I realized that I could have been using all that time to accomplish my objectives.
The way I modified my environment was by using a simple piece of software that blocks the offending websites. Whenever I tried to visit one of tsites, my browser just showed me a blank page. Now, of course, I have the key and the mechanism to unlock these sites on my computer, but the mere fact that I need to go through a process to do so is enough to remind me that there more things I want to do in this life than just surf websites all day. It may seem silly when I could have just chosen to not go to those websites – but, by tailoring my environment in such a way that I didn’t even have to subject myself to a monumental test of willpower, I was able to prevent new obstacles from cropping up. This has made all the difference in my productivity.
There you have it – five tools that can help you accomplish your goals. Please try them. Even a cursory application will help you get what you want out of life. Keep your sense of humor, as getting into the rhythm of applying these methods successfully can take a couple of iterations. Take heart, have fun, and now go do something!