If you prefer listening over reading, check out Episode 124: Reimagine Your Work of The Next Right Thing podcast. Or you can read below with links and photos added. If you want even more help to stay focused on your next right thing, I wrote a whole book about it!
You know how at the end of the year, those of us who are on Instagram share our top nine of the year? That’s the top nine photos that got the most likes all year. I’m here for all of it. I love seeing people’s top nines and I love discovering what my top nine are.
It’s fun and kind of fascinating to see what people liked, but in the spirit of doing what I want, I also like to post two versions of my top nine. The first version I follow the rules and then the second version I pick my own top nine: my favorite posts of the year.
In the world of podcasting, there isn’t really an equivalent of the Instagram top nine, but we can gauge, at least in part, which episodes are listener favorites by the number of downloads they receive.
Here are the most downloaded episodes of The Next Right Thing podcast:
- 01: Become a Soul Minimalist: This isn’t a huge surprise because it’s the very first episode. Because it’s been around the longest, a lot of listeners like to get a feel for a podcast by listening to how it starts.
- 88: Come Away For A While: This one is about the importance of sabbaticals and how we confuse them with other kinds of “rest.”
- 84: A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Reflection: This one makes me eternally happy because making reflection lists is one of my most favorite things to do so talking with you about doing them is equally as satisfying.
I love all three of these episodes, but they’re not necessarily my favorites. One of my favorite episodes was Episode 73 about how I created theme days for my work and how they saved my life during some of the busiest years of my life.
The reasoning behind creating theme days in the first place a few years ago is because, like many of you, my work responsibilities don’t fall under the same umbrella. This is true for a lot of authors, people who work from home, or entrepreneurs who wear lots of different hats. That means when I sit down to work, there are many different types of tasks that I could tackle.
This could apply to you no matter what your job is, whether it’s paid work, ministry work, or running and managing your household.
As I tried to manage the ever-growing to-do lists that I had, switching between tasks for these different areas of my work got me nowhere. The to-do list was impossibly long, and I found that the options lead to discouragement and decision fatigue.
I tried to prioritize based on importance or urgency, but that never seemed to work because too many tasks felt equally important depending on the day, the weather, and my mood.
That’s when I started using theme days for my work. I divided up my week based on different themes or categories. At that time, my theme days were:
- The Next Right Thing Podcast
- Grad School reading + paper writing
- General admin stuff
- Meetings (online and in-person)
The decision to use theme days saved my life at the time. But now, life has changed.
Today, I’m revisiting that idea of theme days with a pandemical adjustment, or if you’re reading to this from the future and that global pandemic is just something only your parents talk about that happened way back in 2020, this still could be for you if you’re finding your life rhythm has changed drastically, but your work expectations have remained the same.
I’m so grateful that I have a job, and I’m grateful that it’s one I’ve always been able to do from home but things have not slowed down. If anything, they’ve ramped up.
How can we continue to do our work with some sanity when everything is different?
See if you can relate to this: My plan for today was to finish a new podcast episode by the end of the day. But instead by lunchtime, I’m a quarter of the way through 10 different tasks, moving each one an inch at a time, doing everything, getting nowhere.
I’m halfway through writing a caption for an Instagram post.
I’m in the middle of responding to three different Voxer conversations.
I have a book next to me that I just put down, and I only read one half of one chapter.
Just before I started to record the intro to the episode, I read a text from my sister with a link to a video that took me down a 10-minute rabbit hole.
Today, I’ve also Googled the phrases “storm damage in North Carolina,” “TV shows that had been canceled,” “Boris Johnson hospital,” and “Meghan Markle” because, of course, I did.
These things are not specific to the times right now, but they are evidence that I am even more easily distracted these days, and maybe you are too.
The bottom line?
I’ve discovered giving myself a theme for the whole day is just unrealistic for me right now. It’s too broad of a time limit without enough details.
At the end of the day, I feel like I did a lot of stuff but finished nothing.
I’ve come to accept that it isn’t only our plans for the future that needs some serious adjustment. It’s also our plans for today.
I’m still using the theme concept, and I might return to the old way of doing it at some point, but right now, instead of applying it to a workday, I’m applying it to a work session.
Some days I get to have several work sessions in maybe twenty, forty, or sixty-minute blocks. Other days there’s only one good one. Some days, there’s not a good one at all. But this can be especially helpful if you have a lot of people (big or small) living in your house.
Plus, it’s much easier to tell your family that you’re going to disappear for a sixty minute work session and then lock yourself in your bedroom than it is to say that you’re taking the day to work.
Whether I’m able to work all day or for only a portion of a part of a day, here are five things that are helping me right now.
1. Get clear on the task.
I’m not working on my website. I’m writing an About Page. I’m not reading email. I’m responding to five messages and clearing them out.
One of our decision-making practices that we talked about in episode 121 was that if you can’t put your decision into a clear sentence, then you won’t be able to make a clear decision. The sentence forces you to hold just one decision at a time. Nothing brings on frustration overwhelm more quickly than when you’re trying to decide two things at once. If you can’t state clearly what the decision is, then don’t try to make the decision until you can.
Well, the same goes for a work session.
Depending on your living situation, you may not get many of these during the week. So it’s important to be clear on the front end what you want to accomplish when you have a work session. If you can’t state what the task is when you sit down to work, chances are you’ll be more prone to distraction, and instead of sending those five emails, you’ll end up reading a lot about what Meghan Markle is up to these days.
2. Ready your workspace.
Whether you have an actual home office with a door, hallelujah. Or if your workspace is your kitchen table or your side of the bed, ready it by clearing and tending.
First, clear, clear off that workspace. That does not mean reorganize your desk, but if there’s a bunch of stuff on your desk, just put it on the floor. You can always place it back on your desk when your work session is over and nothing is lost. If you’re locked in your bedroom on your bed, make that bed. Clear the clutter that you can see. Face the window. Anything to just get rid of that visual clutter. That’s the clearing part.
Next, it helps me to tend the space. Before I sit down to do the task at hand, I light a candle, open the window above my desk or put on my writing playlist. This can be anything small that feels a little extra.
This week I ordered a new candle from Target. It’s blood orange if you must know, and when it came in the mail, it made me so happy because it’s just a little something to set the tone for my work session.
3. Apply a time limit.
This is just another way to say set a timer. The experts say that our brains can concentrate on one task for about 20 minutes before losing focus (Pomodoro Technique, anyone?) I don’t necessarily think there’s a rule on how long a work session can go, but I do think there’s something to that 20-25 minute space for us to be able to sit down, concentrate and then take a quick break. But the most important thing is that you pick a time and stick with it. I always just use the timer on my iPhone.
4. Carry only one task.
This is where I personally get into the most trouble which is why I’m making one point twice. The first point was: get clear on the task. That one refers to getting started. But once you’re started, you have to carry it through as though it’s just one single task.
Jason Fitzpatrick calls it single-tasking in a post for LifeHacker. Single-tasking is the “eat healthy and exercise of productivity.” It’s so obvious that it feels dumb to say it, but then I continue not to do it because it’s hard. Instead, I suffer from trying to make tiny progress on lots of things instead of lots of progress on one thing.
Carry only one task.
5. End the session well.
It’s hard for me to end, especially these days. It’s not that I’ll work all day long, it’s just that the work fizzles out at the end of the day when I get tired and there isn’t a clear end to work. The timer will help. Single-tasking will help. But ending well is still something I have to be really mindful of.
Even if the task isn’t finished or didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped, it’s important to end the session anyway. If I can start another one, I will, usually with a little bit of a break in between. But these days it’s easy to slip into always being attentive to the work but never making progress on the work. This just adds to the fog in the waiting room.
Honor your limits of which there may be many, and maybe that’s the most important part to remember. We’re not robots, and sometimes the best thing we can do for productivity is to extend grace for ourselves, our coworkers, our families, and our outcomes.
Fun fact: These tips spell out GRACE if you write them down:
G – Get clear on the task.
R – Ready your workspace.
A – Apply a time limit.
C – Carry only one task.
E – End that session well.
The days may be different now, but the work continues.
We need you to find a way to do your good work, so that we can be inspired, so that we can laugh, so that we can learn, remember, believe and link arms together.
And when a day goes seven kinds of sideways and you don’t get a single minute of real work done, there is grace enough for you to start again tomorrow.
The same way we’re parenting our children these days, telling them it’s going to be okay, we have to parent ourselves, too. And in that, we’re to be kind, extend grace, keep a light heart and hopeful posture as we continue to do just our next right thing in love.
“We do not have to be qualified to be whole or healed.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water