Plan, Act, Acknowledge

This article is the last in a series I’ve been writing about goal setting. You can find the previous articles here, here, here, here, and here.*

As I write this, it’s been nearly 7 years since I quit my job to begin working for myself.

In the early days, I felt as if my task list was never-ending. There was always one more thing to do.

The norm for me was to finish the day with a sense of dissatisfaction. As I would wrap things up, I felt as if I didn’t really get anything done because there was still so much to do.

The problem was that I was looking toward what was still to be done rather than looking back at what had been accomplished. If you are defining success by what is still left to do, you will never win. Because there is always something more to do.

My approach has changed over the years, and it has given me two huge advantages…

For one, I am clear on each day’s tasks — knowing the few most important things I need or want to get done — and I am able to focus on them.

Secondly, I now end the day feeling accomplished and satisfied. Thanks, primarily, to the fact that I have a clear definition of what a successful day looks like (because I am defining success ahead of time).

Lastly, I have also begun to simply recognize and acknowledge the work I do each day. This has been so great at helping me maintain motivation day to day. Because, sometimes, let’s be honest, the work is work and it’s not fun.

In short, it looks like this:

1. Plan

My productive day actually starts the evening before. At the end of my work day, I take a few minutes to prepare for the next day. This is when I choose ahead of time what my most important tasks will be, and how I will “define success” for the upcoming day.

Some folks do this in the morning, but I prefer to have it done the night before.

This is helpful because you’re making a decision and a plan apart from urgency and emotion. By making the choice ahead of time, you can think clearly. You’re not yet emotionally invested in tomorrow, nor are you feeling the urgency of any of tomorrow’s pressing matters. With a clear head you can make a good choice about tomorrow’s most important tasks as they relate to your goal(s).

2. Act

Planning is actually quite easy. It does require a little bit of effort, so don’t be lazy about it. The hard part is — as always — in the doing.

And that is why the first step of planning is so powerful. It helps you to overcome the paralyzing state of indecisiveness.

One of the most common challenges when it comes to focus is people feeling paralyzed from indecisiveness. They finally make some time to work on something important, but when they sit down there are so many thing they want to work on that they don’t know where to start. They spend all their creative energy deciding what to do that they don’t have any willpower left to actually do the work.

If you are waiting until it’s time to begin work before you make a choice about what to work on, the choice is much harder. Instead, make the choice for yourself ahead of time.

As I mentioned at the start, so often I used to end my day with a feeling that it was a waste. I would get caught up in the many urgent and pressing issues of the day. Things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped they would. I’d try to make progress on a meaningful task but just kept hitting a wall. And then I’d see all the things that still needed to be done.

Some days, that can just be the way life is. I definitely have days where everything seems to be against me. But those are exceptions, not the rule.

When wasted, unproductive days feel like the norm — you need to bust out of that routine.

3. Acknowledge

Recognizing and celebrating your progress is critical. When you accomplish a goal, or make meaningful progress, take a moment to acknowledge it.

For the little things, it can be as simple as checking off a box. Perhaps you can write about your wins in a notebook or journal app.

When you see that you are making progress — even small victories — then it strengthens your emotional and motivated state. You are happier and more motivated at work. And therefore, we are more likely to be productive and creative.

This is one reason why having regular times of review can be so beneficial. It reminds us of the tasks and goals accomplished and the projects we’ve completed. It keeps things in perspective, reminding us that the oftentimes seemingly-mundane and difficult work we do every day is actually adding up to something of value.

A New Plumb-Line for Meaningful Work

By identifying one task or outcome you’d like to see happen each day then you have a quantifiable way to measure if you’re making progress on your important activities and doing the work that matters to you. This is so much more beneficial than the subjective and arbitrary metrics we are used to holding ourselves to.

And when you do accomplish those tasks, awesome! No matter what else happened, at least you made progress on something that mattered. And if you don’t accomplish that task, don’t freak out — you have a chance to learn and improve so that next time you’ll be able to do better.

Lastly, take a moment to acknowledge what you got done. Pat yourself on the back, at least for a moment, before you move on to the next thing.

Plan, Act, Acknowledge

Survey Results

A couple days ago I linked to a productivity survey that we are running for The Sweet Setup.

We’re working on something brand new related to task management and productivity. We wanted to get some feedback from folks before we began finalizing the contents of the new course.

In about a day and a half, the survey gathered 2,000 responses. I wanted to share some of the results with you.

  • Pretty much everyone has a system for keeping track of their to-do items. Only 5-percent of folks said they don’t.
  • Things and OmniFocus are virtually tied as the two most-popular apps/tools for task management with 23- and 24-percent of people using them respectively. Todoist is the third-most popular with 13-percent.
  • More people use a paper notebook — Bullet or other journal — than use Apple’s Reminders app as their primary task management system (9% and 7% respectively).
  • 79% of people use their iPhone to regularly manage their tasks; 72% use a Mac regularly; 48% use an iPad.
  • Just a little over half of respondents feel in control of their task list. Which naturally means that there is another half of folks who do not feel in control.
  • And yet, 63% of folks feel as if their day is spent mostly on busywork, rather than important work.
  • When it comes to being productive and doing meaningful work, the most common obstacle people face is being overwhelmed by urgent issues. Secondly is a lack of focus during the day, followed by a lack of clarity about what to do next.

If you’re curious, you can view the full results breakdown via Typeform here.

The aforementioned new course we are working on for The Sweet Setup will be coming out next month.

It will focus on using a particular task management app, but it will also have in-depth training on productivity, time management, and task management. A one-two punch if you will. Because, as the survey results show, even though more than half of people feel in control of their task list, they are still mostly dealing with busywork during the day.

If you’ve got anything in particular that you’d like to see me address in the course, let me know on Twitter.

Survey Results

How to Beat Fear and Doubt

It was when I was in fifth grade that I was given a drum set. My loving parents let me keep it and never once did they complain about the noise, let alone my complete lack of rhythm.

By the time I was in high school I was practicing hours a day. I was in several bands during high school, college, and into my late 20s. Many of those bands recorded some albums — some of them we recorded in the basement, others in a studio. I played at local shows where just a dozen kids were there, and at big conferences with 15,000 in the crowd.

Somewhere along the way I stopped being nervous. I stopped doubting my skills as a drummer; I had confidence. Though my fears didn’t go away altogether, I was the one in control of my nerves (rather than the other way around).

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes about the importance of being able to control your emotions when in the midst of a stressful situation.

“Uncertainty and fear are relieved by authority,” Ryan writes.

It is through training, practice, and expertise that we gain authority.

With enough experience you can increase your tolerance for fear, doubt, and uncertainty.

The fear never fully goes away. And that’s a good thing. Fear can serve as a mile marker, letting you know you’re on the path to doing something worthwhile and valuable.

But don’t let the fear or doubt dictate your choices in the moment. Don’t forget your wits and your calm when you hit that wall.

When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride… The risk of being overwhelmed is always there.

In these situations, talent is not the most sought-after characteristic. Grace and poise are, because these two attributes precede the opportunity to deploy any other skill.

How to Beat Fear and Doubt

Ideas That Don’t Let Go

This is an episode of Sean McCabe’s video show where Sean expounds on something I discussed when I spoke at the Circles conference a while ago:

Listen to the ideas that don’t let go.

You have ideas. The frustrating part is usuaally having more ideas than time.

That’s why you have be okay with letting most of your ideas go. But sometimes an idea doesn’t let go. So maybe you should listen to it, and that’s the one you act on.

Ideas That Don’t Let Go

How to Make the Next Step Easier On Yourself

Pre-S: Plan Your Year is now available. Check it out here.

Pre-S #2: This article is the next in a series I’ve been writing about goal setting. You can find the past articles here, here, here, and here.

Here we are. It’s 2018.

Suppose this year you’d like to eat more apples and less potato chips.

Regardless of what your goal is, there is an awesome little trick that can help you with these small micro-habits that you do every day.

When it comes to the apples and potato chips, it’s as simple as buying some apples and setting them on your kitchen counter. And then — you guessed it — don’t buy any potato chips. Boom.

By making apples easily available, you have lowered the energy required to eat an apple. It’s right there. Sitting on your counter, ready to go. And those pesky potato chips are nowhere to be found. They’re at least a trip to the store away.

This trick goes for anything…

  • Lower the activation energy required for writing by having your writing topic ready to go ahead of time.
  • Lower the activation energy for going to the gym by setting out your workout clothes ahead of time.
  • Lower the activation energy for reading book by keeping one on your coffee table (or use the Kindle app on your phone).

And the converse (for things you want to do less of)…

  • Raise the activation energy for checking social media by deleting the apps off your phone.
  • Raise the activation energy for watching TV by keeping the remotes in a bedroom on the opposite side of your house.
  • Raise the activation energy for checking your phone while you drive by turning on Do Not Disturb While Driving

If your books are hiding next to the lamp on your bedroom nightstand, no wonder it’s easier to just pull out your phone and check Facebook when you have a few minutes of down time.

This stuff applies to more than just healthy micro habits, by the way.

If you want to get advanced, think of ways to lower the activation energy for doing the next step on your current project.

In his book, Getting Things Done, David Allen says that you cannot do a project, you can only do the next step. There is a lot of wisdom and maturity required to take a bigger project or outcome and boil it down to one step at a time.

And by picking that one action ahead of time, you’ve already lowered the activation energy required to doing it. When you put a desired behavior onto a path of less resistance, it will take less energy to accomplish it.

Take it one step further by getting into the habit of doing something now that will make your next step easier to begin. And then repeat in perpetuity.

Shawn Achor writes in his book, The Happiness Advantage, that “the more we can lower or eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.”

As always, thanks for reading. Next week we’ll talk about how to define meaningful progress (and recognize that progress) so you stay motivated as you work toward your goals.

How to Make the Next Step Easier On Yourself

I’ve heard from several folks recently who had been planning to sign up for the Focus Course at the New Year but didn’t realize that we are currently not offering access to the Course.

(That’s because this past fall I changed course registration from being open enrollment to only being available twice per year. More on the reasons for that another time.)

So, if you want to jump in and get access to the Focus Course, I wanted to open up registration for a brief, 24-hour window.

Here are a few testimonies we’ve received from alumni:

  • “Without any hyperbole, I can honestly say that taking the Focus Course has been life changing.” — Ross K.
  • “The Focus Course is one of the best investments I have made so far.” Andrey S.
  • “I couldn’t be happier with the results it produced in my life.” — John V.
  • “The course has completely changed my life.” — Phong C.
  • “My husband, Ben, and I absolutely loved it!” — Havilah C.
  • “The Focus Course has been an awesome experience.” — Kate W.
  • “I have the tools to continue working toward achieving the focus I want in every part of my life.” — Ben B.
  • “It helped me define what was important and why — and how to execute on those things.” — Andrew C.
  • “The course is so practical and stimulating. It has bled into almost every area of my life.” — Sara P.

If those testimonies sound like the same sort of kick-start you want as 2018 begins, then you can get access to the Focus Course today.

PSA: Focus Course Registration Open for 24-Hours

Quality Over Quantity

It’s the New Year and it’s exciting. Something my wife and I were talking about over the weekend was the desire to focus on just a few things that truly matter.

I’m 36, and over the years my tendency has usually been to bite off way more than I can chew. I want to do all the things!

Lists certainly help me to focus. So I write it all down. Everything that seems important or exciting or necessary goes onto the page.

Once its out of my head and onto some paper, it’s quite a bit easier to edit and focus and make choices about what I actually have time and energy for.

I think it was David Allen who said you can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. It’s ironic how an attempt to do everything will actually keep you from doing anything.

Instead of focusing on everything, focus on one or two things that matter most. It’s amazing how liberating that can be to your own quality of life as well as your ability to get things done.

Quality Over Quantity


If you want to start something in 2018, then I hope you will go for it!

It doesn’t have to be huge or awesome or perfect or brand new. Give yourself permission to start small, to be honest, to go slow, to make mistakes along the way, and to do it in your own way. That’s where all of the fun is anyway.