How to Relieve Stress & Create the Best Work of Your Life
I have been fascinated by the practices and rituals of the world's elite. Those masterminds who consistently seem to be producing extraordinary content and still find time to read 50 books a year. How do they juggle everything that they have going on without collapsing under the demands on their time and energy?
What I'm about to show you is a proven system for many individuals to help them improve their focus, produce their best work and manage their time without compromising their sanity.
1. Get it out
1-A: Unload the Important Stuff
Constantly having to remember schedules, deadlines, to-do lists and responsibilities can become overwhelming. Your mind is drowning information trying to keep everything at the front so that it can be accessed at a moments notice. Imagine it like the RAM in your computer. RAM stands for Random Access Memory which is the memory, apart from your hard drive where most of your data is stored, that can be quickly accessed at a moments notice without lagging your machine. When we have overloaded our mental RAM trying to remember a lot of details that we need to access regularly, it can cause us to feel overwhelmed and stressed. The act of writing these things down allows you to clear your head and rest assured that you know where all of that information is. If you need to find out what's next on today's agenda, it's as simple as looking in your planner. Want to remember to pick up flowers for your wife on the way home? Set an alarm. Can't forget to bring business cards to the conference next weekend? Add it to your packing list. Now, all of these things are out, your mind is clear and these holding cells for information do the heavy lifting for you.
1-B: Don't Filter the List
When we have everything crammed into our heads, the first thing we do when a new thought pops into our minds is ask whether or not that thought is important to us right now. If it isn't, we'll often discard it so that we don't have to add anything more to our mental workload. The problem with this is that we toss away great ideas that, while seemingly unimportant in the moment, can be a million-dollar-idea five months from now when you pair it with another idea you have. Now that you've unloaded the important items, your RAM is cleared, and you can afford to let an idea mature for a while before deciding what to do with it.
In this situation, the best thing to do is:
- Write it down
- Don't discriminate between supposed "good ideas" or "bad ideas"
This is the brain's white-board - anything goes, no judgment, no pressure. The point is to get it out where you can think freely without having to cause more stress trying to hold on to ideas.
1-C: No Pressure
Have you ever downloaded a productivity app, added a few to-do items onto it, never open it again and delete four days later? We all do this. Why? Why can't we keep up with writing to-do lists each day? Because eventually things pile up that we have no time for and we feel guilty about leaving things unchecked. No to-do list, no guilt. That's why this list must have a no-pressure policy. This means that you have no obligation to act upon anything you write down knowing and expecting that you won't have the time or energy to do it all. Take the burden off of yourself and let your mind run.
2. Manage it
You've been writing things down for a month now and your mental white-board is becoming cluttered. It's great that you have a no-pressure policy but now you can't find anything even if you wanted to act on it. Your white-board must be managed.
- Wash the car
- Take the kids to school on Tuesday
- Read three books this month
- Get those designs approved
- Meet with Rick about the new project
- Plan the family vacation
- Work out M, W, TH
While it is disorganized, it seems daunting. However, by simply arranging each of these items by category, all of the sudden you begin to see patterns. Numbers 1, 2 and 6 are home life. Numbers 4 and 5 are business related. Numbers 3 and 7 are for personal development. Now you have 3 blocks of tasks - a little easier to chew isn't it? The next step takes this simplification even further.
2-B: "What do you want?"
This question drills to the heart of every idea, honey-do, meeting and goal. What do you want? Take a quick glance back at the last step, Group, and check out the three groupings I made for the item list: Home, Business and Personal Development. Ask yourself, what is it that you want in each of these categories?
EXAMPLE: Let's take home life: you want a happy spouse, a well-cared for family, and time to spend with each other. By challenging yourself to answer that question, you can figure out how each of those three actionable items work toward that end.
Here's the kicker: as you determine what you want, priorities shift. Small things finally take a back seat, where they belong, to those items that require your attention and your energy. Rather than being managed by the small things, you can manage the small things and often, you'll find they don't matter.
You had 60 scrambled items, now you've got three 20-item lists. It looks better but, in reality, that's still 60 things you have to do. The problem is that when we expend our energy on 60 different things, our productivity suffers. The things further down the list take the hardest hit, sometimes to the point of not getting done which sends us into a cycle of guilt and feeling like a failure. You need to:
- Single out the top 2-3 things in each category that require your attention over the next week
- Determine which of those make you the most uncomfortable
- Block out at least 2 hours to focus on ONE of them each day
- Ignore the rest
3. Take action
You've unloaded your mental RAM, you've grouped together your tasks to work toward three to five end goals, and now it's time to act. Leverage the work that you have already done - unloading and grouping - so that you take advantage of your flow state. I promise I'm not getting all zen on you, just here me out. When I am working on a specific task - let's just say, writing this blog post - and the right tunes are playing ("How Long Will I Love You" by Ellie Goulding in case you were wondering), a scratch pad is beside me so I can jot things down at a moment's notice and distractions are minimized, I find myself getting into this mental flow where things come more naturally because my mind is in tune with the work ahead. In this state I am able to work more quickly and produce better results than if I had just started or was getting interrupted every 20 minutes.
Because we are capable of this ability to work "in the zone", we should do our best to create such an atmosphere. Here are a few ideas.
3-A: Block Out Your Time
Have you ever tried to read a book at the stoplights on your way to work in the morning? I have. And it's difficult. I can't allow myself to get lost in the book or relate what I'm currently reading to previous chapters. As a result, I'm left with a hazy memory of what I was reading and I generally have to go back and re-read it later. But in those moments when I can sit down on the couch with a cup of coffee for two hours at a time, I find that I can comprehend complex concepts, make contextual discoveries and soak up the information much better.
EXAMPLE: Timothy Ferriss, author of "The 4-Hour Workweek" likes to schedule all of his meetings on a particular day of the week because this allows him to find these flow states in his activities during the rest of the week without getting interrupted by meetings throughout the day.
3-B: Tackle Categories not Random Items
You've already done the work of grouping items into sections of your life. Most of the time, you'll end up being able to knock out multiple tasks within a flow-state time block instead of having to mentally reprogram yourself to start thinking on another wavelength.
EXAMPLE: When I am working on tasks for the blog, instead of writing a post, running an errand, reading a book and then coming back to write another post, I'll leverage my groups. By writing a blog post, designing the week's email newsletter and tweaking the site all in one flow state, my head is already in the game.
There you have it. A simple way to unload, manage and leverage your mental energy in order to maximize your productivity. Let's review:
Get it out
- De-stress by unloading your brain
- See your life in a comprehensive, bird's-eye view
- Retain and expand those million-dollar ideas
- Improve your focus by not juggling a million things
- A well-organized system = unlimited mental Random Access Memory
- Never forget anything again... especially those flowers
- Always be prepared for the unexpected
- Re-prioritize and pursue meaningful things
- Actively work toward your goals without being weighed down by petty to-do lists
- Work smarter and get more done
- Find your uninterrupted flow and produce the best work of your life
- Leverage that mental white-board and start making your ideas happen
Evernote: A few of the quotes, you may have noticed, were specifically referencing something called Evernote. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it is a digital note-taking application that syncs across all of your devices and can be used to store documents, text, audio, images, lists and more so that you always have access to your information. I often refer to it as my digital brain. I highly recommend it as your mental white-board!
DropBox: This cloud-storage application allows you to store documents of any sort and sync it across all your devices.
Agenda: A simple, clean calendar app for the iPhone
"The Index Card: A Simple Tool for Productivity" (from the blog)
"Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" by Mason Currey
"Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" by David Allen
"The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less" by Richard Koch