I was watching TBS once and noticed they were doing something differently. Most channels (at the time, at least) would show a graphic with the upcoming shows and their showtimes—7:00, 7:30, 8:00. It was informative, but you had to stop and think about it. What time is it now? Are those times in this time zone? Do I have to adjust them? It’s not clear.
TBS removed that complexity by replacing the times with Now, Next, and Then. It was beautifully simple. What’s on now (in case you just tuned in), what’s on next (stay tuned), and what’s on after that (here’s the hook to keep you tuned in). Short, simple, and effective.
The same frame of reference can help you keep focused and productive.
Once you start in on your day, keep these questions in mind:
- What are you doing now?
- What will you be doing next?
- Then what?
The answers are going to change constantly, especially as interruptions come in, but it’s worth it.
You probably know what you’re working on now. (If not, that’s a good place to start getting clarity.) You probably know what you’re going to do next. But do you know what you’re going to do after that?
- Your mind can start chewing on problems. The more time you have to think about what you’re (going to be) working on, the better. If you know what you’ll be doing when you get into the office, you can start mulling things over on your commute. If you plan your day before you go to bed, your subconscious has all night to get a head start on your day.
- Your manager will love it. Your manager stops by to ask for an update on what you’re working on. Consider the following responses:
- I’m working on X.
- Right now, I’m working on X. After that, I’ll take care of Y, then Z.
Doesn’t the second answer just sound so much better? You’re keeping the bigger picture in mind. You plan your work. You can give great status updates. You’re one less thing he has to worry about. If he disagrees with how you’ve prioritized your work, you can discuss it and change course before you’re two hours into Z.
- Reprioritize on the fly. Have you ever stopped in the middle of something and asked yourself why you’re even doing it? I hope so, because you probably needed to at some point. No matter how well you plan and prioritize your day, unimportant tasks can still creep in. Sometimes that isn’t obvious until you’re in the middle of something and it suddenly hits you that you aren’t being productive—you’re just procrastinating and need to change gears.
- Break down your day/week into manageable segments. If you’re overwhelmed by what you have to get done, try thinking about just three of those things at a time. If you scale back to just one task, you can lose any sense of accomplishment. Write your next three tasks on an index card and just work from there. When those are done, grab the next three. You’ll make it.
- Remember you have other things to do. I’ve found that if I think of my current task as the first a series of three tasks, it can help me keep moving forward. If I think of just one, I’ll start taking my time because some part of my brain assumes it’s the only thing I need to do today. More than two, and it becomes a jumble that I can’t picture.
- Prepare to walk around things. Have you ever walked into a doorway because you weren’t watching where you were going? Your attention was focused somewhere besides what you were doing. By paying attention to not only where you are but where you’re going, you’ll see obstacles before you reach them. You can prepare for your 2:00pm meeting before 1:49pm. You’ll make sure you have an extra jar of mayonnaise before you start making chicken salad. Preparation will make your day go much more smoothly.
I am not advocating that you keep your to-do list in your head. That’s a recipe for anxiety, frustration, and disaster. Write it down so you know it’s safe. Get clear on your day and your priorities. Be flexible. And keep what you’re working on in context.
Question: How do you keep on task as you work? What other benefits have you seen as you’ve kept what’s next in mind? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.
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