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My Top 1 Task

Strategies and goals

Merlin Mann on his 43 Folders site (currently posting only occasionally as he works on his book) quotes Frank Chimero asking and answering this question:

Q: How do you maintain focus (on work, dreams, goals, life)?
A: You do one thing at a time.

While I think there’s more to know, I also think Frank has hit the nail on the head. As I mention in my post “How to Multitask, and When Not To,” our brains are rigged to only really focus on one thing at a time. This is one reason task lists fail sometimes: we get the whole list of everything in there, but then we look at it and say “Aah! I can’t do all that stuff! That’s overwhelming!” Then we run and hide, or perhaps waste three and a half hours surfing the Net to find out what happened to our favorite childhood TV stars.

Even when we bravely face our task lists instead of running away, it’s still difficult to get up motivation to do something when you’re simultaneously staring at three dozen other things you need to do. My solution to this was to create a separate “At the Moment” list in the task list system I use and to put just a few items at a time in that list, the ones that I’m pretty confident I’m going to get done in the next little while, or at latest by the end of the day.

My “At the Moment” list has proven very helpful, but it hasn’t entirely solved the problem. Nor has it solved the problem of sometimes picking whichever item from the “At the Moment” list is easiest or most fun, letting myself forget that others are more important or more pressing.

So I created yet another category: my Top 1 list. I’ve mentioned before the importance of knowing the next thing you’re going to be focusing on so that as soon as you get a chance to focus on it, you can start right in instead of having to regroup. The Top 1 list just takes this idea and makes it into a practice: whatever the next thing I’m going to do is, it goes on the Top 1 list. Then as soon as I’m done whatever I’ve been doing and am free to move on to the next thing, I look at the Top 1 list–the contents of which I usually already know–and there is the thing I need to tackle. Even if that one thing is unappealing, just spending a very short time–say, 30 seconds–thinking about getting that done is usually enough to get me in gear and ready to tackle it. Having that much focus on that one item alone makes it much more likely I’ll get it done.

Of course I put a new item on there as soon as the Top 1 task is under way, feeding from my At the Moment list, which is short enough to make this process fairly painless. And choosing a task to do next is usually a little easier than choosing a task to do now, since you don’t yet have to face the task when you’re just choosing it to do a little later.

All this process does is shove a few obstacles temporarily out of the way, but often just this little advantage can make a big difference; it certainly has for me.

Photo by Koshyk

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