Habit Test: The Thing You KNOW You Should Be Doing—The Hard, Deep Work First

by | Jan 9, 2020 | Mindset

I do a lot of things: I write for a lot of different outlets, we have our podcast, I do some cycling coaching, I have the Shred Girls website and series, and at any given time, I’m working on at least one other book project and probably some other freelance work that’s related. It’s… busy. So I get really, really aggressively irritable when someone suggests The One Thing, or having a to-do list with only three things on it for the day. To me, that’s unrealistic and would result in a lot of balls getting dropped, and the same is true for 99% of us. If a journalist doesn’t have “contact X source for an article due in two weeks” on their to-do list today, then in two weeks when the “one thing” for the day is that article, guess what? The article won’t get done.

But I also know that whatever piece of productivity advice I chafe at the most is probably the one I need to actually pay attention to. My to-do list as it stands is a weird amalgam of work/training/life and it’s highly specific to how I work, and most days it hovers at around 20 things on it. So no, my to-do list doesn’t fit that advice, but it kind of does. Most days, there are only 3 things that are deep-work related, whether that’s writing 1000 words for a certain book project or turning in a finished article or getting the media plan sorted out for my speaker series this spring. It’s just that my days tend to get bogged down by the other 17 things, from morning core to my run to the email I need to send, and somehow writing 1000 words of a novel gets pushed to the backburner.

There’s an obvious solution: Do the big pillars first. But for someone who loves checking things off, it’s hard to not fall into the “what 5-minute tasks can I bust through right away to bring my # of tasks done lower?” trap every morning.

So lately, I’ve been experimenting with the idea of not focusing on number of to-dos and doing the deep work first. I finally got into meditation every morning (episode on that with a meditation expert coming soon on the podcast!), and I realized that once my head is clear from doing that, I can look at my list for the day and assess what the Big Pillars for the day are. That’s the writing, the researching, the long-range planning… The deep work, if you will.

Then, I try to focus on ticking those off first.

It’s shockingly effective, I have to admit. The novel I’d been stuck on for the last couple months came unstuck. Bigger projects are moving along. Articles are getting turned in ahead of deadline.

It’s also annoying AF. It’s hard to get to lunchtime and see that I still have 18+ tasks to check off, but honestly, by the time the day winds down, it’s almost always all the way through. It turns out all those easy-to-tick-off things are just as easy to do at 5PM as they are to do at 8AM, it’s just getting past the hurdle of having them languishing for a few extra hours.

I know this won’t always work, since I often end up with travel days or camp-coaching days where sometimes, the urgent shorter ‘send this email’ stuff takes priority over writing the novel, but at least now, I can plan for that and weigh travel or camp-coaching as the priority.

It’s made a lot more space in my day mentally for training, too—getting the big blocks moved early in the day so that the later part of the day is more admin-focused has made it easier to push harder in my lunchtime runs knowing that I did the big important work and the rest of the day is less mentally taxing, even if there are a lot of tasks left on the list.

What it made me realize was that I really was just dismissing the productivity advice because it was uncomfortable. Focusing on just a couple things each day sounds like such a fake piece of advice to me, but once I realized that I didn’t have to jettison my long daily task list (I use ToDoist, if anyone is wondering), it totally changed how I thought about that advice.

So with that in mind and keeping an open mind, the next good habit up is “Checking email only a couple of times a day.” Yikes. (Not going to lie, I don’t see this one going well for me.)

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