Image courtesy of NaPix
You’ve got a lot of different things on the go. Some of them are New Years’ resolutions that you’re determined to stick with, this time. Some are projects that have dragged on for years – an unfinished novel in your bottom drawer, or the refurbishment of your basement. Others are things you’ve started and given up almost straight away: these have left their legacy in the form of unread textbooks, boxes of craft materials, dusty computer gadgetry, never-played language CDs and more…
If you’ve got any interest in personal development and self improvement, you probably have dozens of projects underway – and dozens more that you’d like to get moving on. Your projects might include losing weight, getting fit, finding a life partner, changing career, learning a language, taking a post-graduate course, writing a book … and I’m sure you can add to that list.
Chances are, though, that however fired up you are about your projects when you first envisage them, you run out of steam pretty quickly, and things just don’t get finished.
There’s a simple way to guarantee forward progress on any long-term project that requires frequent attention:
Do it first thing, every day.
You’ll notice that there are three different factors involved:
- One project only
- First thing
- Every day
(If the “one project only” isn’t obvious, look at it this way; you can only do one thing first. Anything else has to come second…)
Your first task is to decide what project you want to focus on. I know that you’re thinking “I want to do them all!” or worse, “I need to do them all”. Isn’t it better to be certain that you’ll accomplish one of your projects, rather than being unsure whether you’ll make meaningful progress on any of them?
Here are a couple of questions you might want to ask yourself when picking your one big project:
- Which of your projects would change your life?
- Which project would you like to look back on and say “I did X, ten years ago”?
Hint: if you’re dithering between “spring clean the attic” and “write a book”, I’d suggest going for the latter!
If you’re still not sure, think about:
- Do you have a project near completion? (Where a couple of weeks of consistent effort could have it ticked off your to-do list for good.)
- What would you get most enjoyment from? (Remember, you’re going to be sticking with this project every day for a while.)
- Which project would teach you a lot, even if you fail to ever finish it?
Why is it so important to make your project the first thing in your day? Think about how often you’ve planned to get something done (perhaps writing a report at work, or an essay for school) – and how many times you’ve found yourself dealing with a series of interruptions and distractions. Long-term projects are rarely urgent (though they may be far more important than the other things you’re working on) – so it’s easy for them to keep getting knocked down and down your to-do list.
By making yourself tackle your project first, you’ll find that there’s miraculously time for it in your day. Everything else can wait, and the important things will still get done.
If your project is work-related, make it the first thing you do when you get into the office or, if you work from home, when you first sit down at your desk (you can grab a coffee first – but no checking emails!) You might find that you need to get into work half an hour earlier to guarantee some uninterrupted time.
If your project is a personal one, I’d suggest that either:
- You do it when you wake up – before breakfast if possible.
- You do it straight after work: either stay in the office and work on your project (if it’s something like writing a book) or come home and get on with it – no switching on the TV.
Many projects will succeed best if you get into the habit of working on them every single day. It’s easy to kid yourself with a “three times a week” or “whenever I find time” pattern – every day doesn’t allow for excuses.
If you’re tackling a personal project like weight loss or writing a novel, I can tell you from personal experience that as soon as you let a day go by without working towards your goal, you’ll find your momentum diminishing fast.
With close to 100% daily consistency, a habit will typically maintain itself on autopilot, so you don’t even have to think about it anymore. But with 80-90% consistency, the contrast between your on and off days is always in the back of your mind. Do I have to get up early tomorrow, or can I sleep in late? Do I need to exercise tomorrow, or can I skip it?
(How to Maintain Not-Quite-Daily-Habits, StevePavlina.com)
For work-related projects, tackling them every weekday is fine. If your project falls between the boundaries of work and personal (perhaps you’re planning a career change, so you’re researching your new career and working towards it outside your actual work hours), then you may need to put in some time at the weekend too.
What long-term projects are you working on? Which do you plan to make your “first thing, every day” project – and why?