As a Type-A personality with an exercise addiction, I not only have a ton of things going on in my world…I want to be good at all of them. Not just good, but the best that I can be. I know this is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much impossible, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
One of the most challenging elements of trying to excel in multiple spheres is being able to balance your commitments across the board. From personal to professional, and social to athletic, there are tons of different things you could have going on at anyone time. Learning how to manage these multiple areas is critical if you are to be remotely close to your best.
Here’s a not-so-quick review of how I manage my universe; I’d appreciate your feedback and comments at the end on how you do it (or how you suggest I improve my approach). Thanks!
Mainstream planning approaches follow the notion that specificity solves the action dilemma. As initially drafted by David Allen in his seminal work “Getting Things Done,” knowing the Next Action is what frees the individual from thinking and puts them into doing.
Please note: This is not a knock on the GTD system. I have actually used it in the past on my personal management journey, and it is a quantum leap ahead of most other ways of working.
From personal experience, however, I know that the more detail I have or create doesn’t necessarily lead me to the right answer…or to any kind of action at all. The majority of my work is creative: writing, recording, editing, etc., and I have found that lists of things to do around my creative tasks only constrain and distract me from the actual work I set out to do.
Instead, the focus on exploring details became a huge time suck in and of itself. I worked hard to make sure I had the 25 steps to publishing an article in place; I reviewed the list. I put it into my planner. I assigned tags to relevant steps so I could batch phone calling in step 8 with my other phone-related tasks. I toggled items on and off the list as I progressed.
There was only one problem: I wasn’t any closer to having a written article.
I had essentially built myself a beautiful list of new stuff that now required management in addition to needing to write an article worth of publishing. I had also discovered that having a list to manage, for the Type A personality, is as addictive as crack cocaine. Not good.
Focus on What Matters, Details Are Secondary
When it comes to Type-A folks looking to succeed in multiple areas, I think it’s far more appropriate to focus on the big picture stuff. These are the action items that, when accomplished, will enable you to remain successful in all of your focus areas. If you are truly Type A, you’ll be able to hit all of the micro-steps to be successful as you dive into the project / task.
Let’s revisit the article publishing example. Making a list or process around the creation of an article ultimately takes away from what needs to be created:
- If you review it from a linear perspective (Step A happens before Step B, then Step C), you place an inordinate amount of importance upon the sequence of your work instead of the content of the work.
- If you have a list it’s easier to check off the easier things to show progress (create an outline, draft a tagline, etc) instead of doing the hard creative work that actually _is_ progress.
Instead of diving into a series of “article creation steps,” I have found it’s far more productive for me to keep a list of things that interest me, gathered as a surf the web. When I need to write something, it’s as simple as going to that list and finding something that interests me / syncs with my other priorities (marketing, events, etc). I dive in and start writing.
In other words, without the seminal act of writing the article, or at least starting to write the article, none of the other tasks really matter.
Of course, there’s a process here but it’s not one that I need to write down or check off:
- There’s the collection of info / ideas as I surf.
- There’s the picking of a topic based on relevant criteria.
- When I write, I create a quick outline and then fill it in.
- When I publish to the web, I do some content editing, fixing for SEO, adding images, etc.
- Finally I make sure to distribute the final product through Twitter, Facebook and more.
You might consider this a list of activities, but for me it’s more of a weekly ritual that I go through. Putting it down on paper only serves to distract me, taking away from my final goal — a really good article.
When Details are Important: Confusion & Outsourcing
Details become important when there’s a lack of clarity or experience. Perhaps it’s a new task, one that you’re not sure how to complete. Or maybe it’s a very important task, say closing on a new home, that you want to get 100% right the first time.
Details are also important when you want to outsource any given task to someone else. I have a whole chapter on the concept of outsourcing in my forthcoming new book Train to Live, Live to Train: An Insiders Guide to Creating the Ultimate Fitness Lifestyle (pre-order here). Basically your goal is to take something you normally do, give it to someone else, and make sure it’s done as well as if you had done it.
Aside from the instructions below, when it comes to outsourcing remember that the best time to do it is when you are (A) familiar with task, (B) know the desired outcome, and (C) are going to be able to monitor the results.
Here’s a quick list of how I suggest you prepare a task to be outsourced.
- Complete the task yourself, ideally several times.
- Break it down into a detailed list of steps.
- Test your list as you complete your task again.
- Create a screencast of you completing your list (I use Jing).
- Outsource the work for that task by presenting the list and your movie.
- Check on first results with great detail.
- Follow up at regular intervals.
I frequently get asked about outsourcing and when to make it happen. It’s very simple for me:
At the end of the day, if you can break a task down into clear, succinct steps, odds are you don’t need to be the one doing it. Outsource it.
Properly outsourcing a task is a skill you will need to develop. It takes times to get good at it, but in general if you can master this skill, it will in turn allow you to focus more on the big picture items you need to be successful at in order to maintain forward progress in your multiple spheres of influence.
The Creative Opportunity
While getting things done is fun, and on some level rewarding, your ultimate goal should be to create value. Value is calculated differently according to your industry, focus, and goals, but I think a general definition would be: Value is created when you have made something new, unique, or useful.
Simply put, your time is better spent involved in things where there is a lack of clarity, for therein lies the opportunity to create value.
My Personal Planning Process
So, how actually should you plan? Ultimately that’s up to you, but I will share my basic process here. If it helps you out, great. If you have feedback, please put it in the comments below.
I recommend a very simple system which identifies your critical spheres of influence and allows you to track activities across the year. This is essentially a big picture view of all the projects you are managing. I typically work with a rolling three month window, as that’s about the average time from inception to completion for most of my projects.
You can see I have modified an Excel spreadsheet to track each area by month. Under each month put the big picture items. For example, launching a new book is a big process. There are big chunks like proofreading, sending to production, and launching on the web. Each of these might fall under a separate month.
Using this sheet, I can see how those activities stack up with the other things I want to do in my other areas of influence. This has really saved me from over-committing (and consequently under performing) on many occasions.
The next level down, after the macro-level looks good, is to break each area down into weekly tasks. Again, on a weekly level as this is a good time frame for most tasks. Anything more granular really can get off track and derail the entire project. As I progress from week to week I can move tasks or cross them off as they are completed.
And that’s it. I review the macro level sheet once a month, and the weekly sheets at the start of every week. I don’t keep a traditional to do list, as this keeps me from having a million and one other small tasks to manage that affect my ability to create.
When you get into doing your work and wanting to manage your multiple spheres of influence, I encourage you to take a step back and look at all you are trying to accomplish. Use this perspective as an advantage to getting more important and creative work done, the work that is going to help you succeed across the board.