Proaction for the Lazy Person

If you don’t control your life, others will.

I used to run around from meeting to meeting, crossing off tasks on a seemingly endless list of “To Dos,” always behind on emails. Always.

And at the end of the day, I’d feel exhausted. But not fulfilled. Despite the quantity of things I’d “accomplished,” I didn’t feel like I’d done anything meaningful.

This is more or less how I spent the previous two years at work. Until this past June.

At a time when I needed it most, I discovered two books that changed the way I think about time:

Deep Work by Cal Newport and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

Briefly: the ability to “work deeply,” or eliminate distraction and focus on a single task for a significant period of time is becoming an increasingly rare but valuable skill.

And to become an “essentialist” is to live a life of meaning by letting go of everything we think we must do and focusing only on what is essential.

A few months ago, as I read these books I began to use my To Do Lists less often. Not because I was slacking, but because I found a better way to work.

I stopped using To Do Lists because I always felt like I was chasing the next item. Not everything would get done. Every day I’d have to transfer incomplete tasks to a new page, along with a new batch for the day. It became a place to write down tasks mindlessly without taking the time to prioritize them. “If it was on paper, it must be important,” I thought.

In lieu of To Do Lists, I began blocking off time in my calendar to DO the TO DO. This works well for two reasons.

First, it makes it easier for me to actually commit to the task. A To Do List is just a list. A set period of time on a calendar is harder to ignore.

Second, it makes it easier to prioritize and re-assign tasks to specific days without having to create a new list on a piece of paper. Yes, there are benefits to hand-writing lists and the “thrill of the cross off,” but I was tired of being a slave to my To Do List.

This system didn't work well at first. I was constantly interrupted by Outlook reminders for items like “Create that presentation!” while I was in the middle of doing another important task. So I’d ignore it and tell myself I’d do it later, or move it to another time. But the same thing would happen during the rescheduled time. Tasks were backing up. Trivial things did fall off… and that was useful. But something was missing.

I’ll get back to To Dos in a moment.

As an experiment, I began adding “prep” time before important meetings. This simply made meetings run more smoothly.

Then I began adding time adjacent to meetings to act as a meeting agenda. Days leading up to a meeting, or during the prep period, I add items to the notes field of the calendar invite. During the prep period, I clean up the notes, add some numbers or bullets, or even times for agenda items, hit print, and boom… I have a meeting agenda.

Some meetings consistently have follow up action items — for instance, type and distribute notes. So I began putting aside time in my calendar post meetings to work on follow up. If it’s not realistic, I just make sure to have those 15–30 minutes set aside some time that same day so I don’t forget to do it.

I know, I know. You’re probably wondering where Deep Work comes in.

A few weeks ago I took this whole new scheduling framework to the extreme. I went through every week from now through Labor Day and added 90 minutes of “work” time from 8:30–10 every day when possible (I fit it in at least 4 days a week).

Then, the day before as To Dos begin piling up, I open the meeting notes field in my “work” time and add the most important items I need to get done that morning. Less important items go into shorter chunks of “work” time throughout the day. But it’s important to note that the morning takes priority.

It’s a fantastic way to start the day. As Mark Twain said:

If you eat a frog first thing in the morning that will probably be the worst thing you do all day.

The consistency of scheduling my “work” time at 8:30AM has helped build a habit. Before implementing this, I allotted “work” time throughout the day for various tasks, typically important ones. But it rarely succeeded because other things came up. The calmness of the morning is a great time to focus. I have the advantage that my organization typically gets a late start, so emails and phone calls are slower during this period.

While this new scheduling system may seem rigid, it’s actually quite flexible. Do meetings come up during my sacred morning “work” time? Of course. But not every day. Does my schedule change during the day? Of course. The trick is to not get too attached to the system and be willing to be flexible with it. While at the same time keeping “work” time sacred whenever possible.

I call this Proaction for the Lazy Person. Putting things down on the calendar makes it much more likely that they will happen… for me, anyway. This, paired with the habit of my 90 minute morning ritual has worked wonders for me — a perpetually lazy yet ambitious person.

It’s not perfect. I’m still working out the kinks. But it’s changed the way I think, work, and spend my time.

It’s allowed me to take control of my life.

Most days when I get home now, I feel like I’ve done something meaningful. All because of a few extra minutes a week spent in Outlook. Who would have thought.

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