One metaphor I’ve used frequently in my coaching is to “make sandwiches, don’t just take orders”. I didn’t invent it (Merlin Mann used it to coach folks on inbox zero). The metaphor is about more than just “do the work”: it is also a reminder to avoid the siren song of endless optimization of our work processes. For example, if every week you try out a new todo application, or a new filing system, you are probably avoiding the real work and focused instead on organizing the work.
The metaphor is also a reminder to be decisive about the work we are going to do, and the work we are not going to do. Staring at the same email over and over again, wondering what the next action might be, is a sure way to shift into analysis paralysis mode and prevent yourself from advancing the important projects on your list.
I don’t want to talk about that decision making process in this article. We’ll cover that in the future. Instead, let’s talk about a few tactics you can apply to improve your focus on making sandwiches, i.e., getting the important work done.
Here are a few ideas that work for me:
- Start your day earlier, and pick one project to work on before reading emails. Wake up, get a cup of coffee or tea if that’s your thing, put some productive music on (I prefer instrumental classical music, which I only listen to when I want to reduce distractions), and work on the project. Maybe you need to do some writing, prepare some notes and a plan for a difficult conversation you should have with your boss or a direct report, or prepare for a presentation you are giving next week.
- Schedule your project work and make it a priority. Nobody will manage your calendar better than you, and if you allow yourself to be arbitrarily added to meetings and sap away your available time for what might be important work then it is your own fault. The best defense is to schedule your valuable work sessions ahead of time, ideally while conducting your weekly review.
- Adopt the Pomadoro Technique. Work in short sprints to manage your energy and reduce distractions. If you schedule an hour on your calendar for some project work, break it into two sprints and use the middle break to get a drink, use the bathroom, and stretch your legs. Use the timer on your smart phone or desktop to help manage the breaks. Don’t allow yourself to check email (or Facebook, or Twitter, etc.) while you are in your sprint. Allow yourself to do a quick check in during the 5 minute break.
- Follow Your Energy. Sometimes you need to blow through energy and motivation blocks, such as when you have hard deadlines and you are against the wire. Often, however, small batches or work done each day can do wonders in advancing your important projects. I’m a morning person and get my best creative work done before noon. I need a nap early afternoon to have a productive rest of day, and even then I’m better off moving to research or consumption (rather than creation) in the later hours. That’s when I’ll do some business book reading, or watch a training video. These cycles on and off creative work are effective in another way: your brain keeps working in the background on your most important work. Small increments of progress will lead to greater overall achievement as you layer strong working sessions on top of each other.
Hopefully you’ve noticed a unifying theme with this advice: you have to take control of your schedule and approach to getting your work done. Hoping to fit the work in while you cede control of your calendar to others is a surefire way to lose your evenings, weekends, and general control over your life.