Habit 4: Do

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The "Habit of Do" is the key to the ZTD system. It’s the habit that’s missing from many other productivity system, and yet it’s the most important. All the rest is just busy work if you don’t actually do the things on your to-do list.

Emphasize the doing above the system, the tools, the planning, the to-do lists.

ZTD focuses on doing your tasks one at a time, to the exclusion of all else. Don’t multi-task, and don’t let yourself get interrupted. Too often during the day we are checking our email, answering phone calls, talking to people as they come to our desk - all to the detriment of the task we’re supposed to be doing.

The result? Things don’t actually get done. Single-tasking and focus are the keys to execution. Here are some tips for finding focus and actually doing things on your list:

  1. Choose a Big Rock. First, select a task (preferably one of your MITs) and decide that you are going to work on it either until it’s done, or for a set amount of time (say 30 minutes).
  2. Get zoned. Before you get started, eliminate all distractions. Shut off email, cell phone, Internet if possible (otherwise just close all unnecessary tabs), clutter on your desk, anything that might interrupt you.
  3. Timed burst. Set a timer if you like (a simple one like CoolTimer will do), or otherwise just focus on your task for as long as possible. Don’t let yourself get distracted from it.
  4. Interruptions. If you get interrupted, write down any request or incoming tasks/info on your notepad, or toss the document into your inbox, and get back to your task. Don’t try to multi-task.
  5. If you feel the urge to check your email or switch to another task, stop yourself. Breathe deeply. Re-focus yourself. Get back to the task at hand.
  6. The inevitable. There are times when an interruption is so urgent that you cannot put it off until you’re done with the task at hand. In that case, try to make a note of where you are (writing down notes if you have time) with the task at hand, and put all the documents or notes for that task together and aside (perhaps in an “action” folder or project folder). Then, when you come back to that task, you can pull out your folder and look at your notes to see where you left off.
  7. Relax. Take deep breaths, stretch, and take breaks now and then. Enjoy life. Go outside, and appreciate nature. Keep yourself sane.
  8. Ahhhh. When you’re done, congratulate yourself! Reward yourself with a short burst of email or blogs — but limit it to 10 minutes, and then move on to your next task. Don’t let yourself get carried away — it’s very easy to get off track and wander for hours.

Fixing execution problems

Now, if you do these things, and you’re still finding resistance to doing the things on your list, here are some things you can do:

  • Tiny chunk. Tell yourself you only have to do 5 minutes of work on it. That small amount of work is less intimidating.
  • Just start. Once you get going, it’s much easier to keep going. So tell yourself that all you have to do is start. I like to compare this to my philosophy of running: instead of worrying about having to do the whole run, I tell myself that I just have to lace up my shoes and get out the door. After that, it’s really easy. Do the same thing with any task - just fire up your program, and do the first few actions (i.e. start typing). It gets easier after that point.
  • Reward yourself. Don’t let yourself check email (or whatever reward works for you - something that you need to do every day) until you do at least 10 minutes (or 15 or 20, it doesn’t matter) on the task. Set a timer. Once your 10 minutes is up, set another timer for 5 minutes and do email. Then repeat.
  • Get excited about it. This is actually a tip that helps with any of these points. If you are excited about doing something, you will not hesitate to do it. For example, I loved this topic suggestion, and I was excited about writing it. As soon as I had the chance, I sat down to write it and only took one break. But how do you get excited about a task? Try to find something exciting about it. Will it bring you revenue? What can you do with that revenue? Will it bring you new clients, new opportunities, new recognition? If you can’t find anything exciting about a task, consider whether it’s really important or not - and if not, find a way to not do it. Sometimes eliminating (or delegating or delaying) the task is the best option.
  • Stop focusing on negative aspects. You might be focusing on how hard something is, or on all the obstacles. Try looking at the positive aspects instead. Focus on what a great opportunity this project represents ... an opportunity to learn, to get better at something, to make more money, to work on a relationship, to gain some long-term recognition, to improve your advancement opportunities. This is similar to the "get excited about it" item in the previous section. If you look at the opportunities, not the problems, you will be less terrified and more likely to want to do it.
  • Commit thyself. If motivation is your problem, commit yourself to making some progress with a goal or project today, or every day this week - tell all your family and friends, write it in your blog, or join the Zen Habits forum - it’s a great motivator. Then hold yourself accountable by reporting to others what you did today.

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