Five tips to help you focus on the right things

If you’re anything like us, you’ll have frustrating days when you seem to be busy, but don’t feel like you’ve made significant progress. That could be because you’re focusing on the wrong things.

Ever watched a dog chasing its own tail? It expends a lot of energy chasing something it’s never going to actually get – and that’s just how it can feel at the end of a long day when you’ve been chasing small tasks, without working solidly towards anything satisfyingly tangible.

Thankfully though, Jessica Chivers, managing director of The Talent Keeper Specialists, has some advice to help us work more purposefully and productively.

Success comes from prioritising the strategic stuff

Last year I asked my clients and blog readers what they struggled most with, and time management emerged as the most common theme in their responses.

As many a wise person has been quoted observing – we all have the same 24 hours available in a day. But how well we make use of that time can vary dramatically. And one of the biggest things most of us need to learn to get maximum value from our day (without exhausting ourselves) is how to prioritise the strategic stuff.

Or, put another way, how to get better at ignoring the easy wins at work and home that provide a instant glow of gratification, but don’t move life on in any meaningful way.

As a lover of detail, order and seeing results I feel I can speak with authority on prioritising inbox clearance, invoicing and other quick wins instead of ploughing head first into a big, strategic deliverable at work.

It’s something that intensified after becoming a mum, when I found myself with just snatched pockets of time to accomplish things.

Five tips to help you focus on the right things

However, over the past few years I have been working hard at changing this, and as a result have identified five time-saving tips to help you put your focus where it needs to be.

1) Identify the reward

The reason we prioritise the things we do is in part due to the reward we experience when we do them. So try to have a think, and work out what it is you get from doing the small tings, the easy things, the things you can do standing on your head – AKA, the ‘fluff’.

At the very least I’d guess it’s satisfaction without too much effort. And anticipation of that satisfaction is what drives you to keep doing them.

Now think about the rewards you’d get by doing the bigger, more strategic things. They’re good aren’t they? But they’re going to take longer to achieve, and there’s less guarantee you’ll secure them, as chances are they involve other people or other variables outside your control.

The challenge then becomes to find a way to get some of the rewards associated with the ‘fluff’ when you tackle the bigger things.

2) Break the big things down

A quick practical tip is to start by breaking down the whole of the big thing (securing promotion, planning a relocation, setting up a new venture for instance) into smaller chunks and write those chunks down.

Commit ALL of the small chunks – as you believe them to be at this moment of time – to paper, not just the first few steps for your to-do list this week. (Find out how to chunk big goals into smaller, achievable steps here.)

3) Have strategy/vision time in your diary

Now diarise some time each week or month to let your mind wander broad and big.

This is the mental equivalent of stepping away from your desk and gazing into the distance to let your eye muscles relax a few times each day. It’s good for us and prevents injury.

Taking a walk in the fresh air is a good way to take this strategy time – a big vista and a sunny day also help if you can swing it. Additionally, DO start the day by going head first into a ‘big ticket’ task and save the quick wins for times when you’re flagging (such as before lunch or at the end of day).

4) Notice what you’re doing

Try swapping your ‘to-do’ list for a ‘done’ list for a week to see where your time and energy goes (you can read more about done lists and their benefits here).

Review your done lists at the end of the day or week, and be honest with yourself. If your life filled with ‘quick wins’ or can you see some of the bigger stuff being acted upon? You may find you’re being overly hard on yourself and that you are progressing long-term aims.

5) Make the way ahead clear and compelling

Another reason we might find ourselves shying away from strategic activities and drawn to quick wins, is a lack of clarity about the end we’re trying to reach or how to get there.

Imagine you want to grow your business but you don’t know by how much or what type of work or customers you want your growth to be fuelled by. It becomes harder to engage in strategic activities as by their very nature, they’re directed by a bigger vision than a day-to-day to-do list.

So get clear on what it is you DO want and why. You’re then more likely to be fired up to engage in the strategic activities that give you a great shot at getting there.

Stop sweating the small stuff and start tackling the biggies

If you’re constantly chasing your tail every day on unsatifsying, small tasks, and feel frustrated that you’re not making progress on your big ambitions, it’s time to stop!

Instead, follow these five tips and start making big leaps towards a much more satisfying end goal.

Jessica Chivers is managing director of The talent Keeper Specialists and author of Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work (Hay House, 2011). Jessica also writes a regular blog.