How I Stay Focused and Manage My Time
Mindset, process and tools to reach your goals over and over again
I always want more time. More time to work on my projects, to spend with my parents, my siblings, my friends, my partner, but also to practice yoga, meditate, read books, watch films, binge shows, cook healthy, travel and sleep 8 hours. Mmm…
For years I was frustrated to only have 24 hours per day and always felt behind. And then I realized it was up to me to change my story and that instead of dreaming of having more time, I could focus on making the best out of the time I actually had daily. It turned out when you consistently spend your time mindfully, 24h X 365 is quite a lot of time. The quote that sums it up for me:
We overestimate what we can accomplish in a day, but underestimate what we can accomplish in a year.
I first read it on Chris Guillebeau’s site and it’s flipped the script for me.
Since January 1st, 2012, I’ve used as little time as possible to solely make money, usually taking gigs as a freelance editor and filmmaker and focused on creating a life I love, making things I love. (A fluid definition, more on that below.)
In the last six years, I have
– started mentorless.com from scratch, knowing absolutely nothing about blogging
– developed my social media and built a weekly newsletter with over 12,000 readers
– written and published 1 graphic novel (the second one heads to printing today!)
– created 2 eBooks on screenwriting
– have completed 7 creative challenges
– wrote 5 songs lyrics for two bands
– created 20 tappable stories
– started drawing and selling my work
– created an interactive animation, a short film, 100 Instagram videos and 35 videos on YouTube
– wrote a feature screenplay, found a producer and is actively developing my first feature
– co-founded Activate Creativity, an online company dedicated to making creativity a daily habit in people’s lives again
– became a certified yoga teacher
As more and more readers have been emailing, asking how I manage to stay focused and deliver over time, I thought I would share how I go for it.
The order for me to make it work not just for a week, a month or a year, but for over a decade (it all started well before 2012) is :
- Determine your Mindset then
- Determine your Process then
- Determine the Tools you need
All three parts are fluid, but they move at different speed and depth. Changing my mindset takes much more work, while I can use dozens of tools and change them within a day. So being crystal clear on my mindset is much more important and will give direction to the whole ship. (Even though I am aware reading about tools is more attractive. Sorry.)
Step 1: Determine Your Mindset
You can learn all the tricks in the world to optimize your time if you don’t know what you want and why you want it, you will feel empty inside even though you accomplish stuff, and you’ll likely abandon sooner or later.
1 ) Know what you REALLY need as opposed to what you THINK you need
The difference between what you think you need and what you really need is that the first is a theory of what you believe will make you happy, while the other is a deep, profound and urgent need. If this one is not fulfilled, you feel depressed. In my case, I want it all so I like to think I need it all. But if I can only have one thing, what I really need is to create. It’s a weird need, but it’s my need.
If I don’t create daily I start feeling moody, I am agitated and everything turns gray.
My need to create takes over my potential needs of being rich, famous, recognized, partying, resting etc. I’d love to be rich, I think my life would be easier. But I’m not actively working toward that goal because what I really need is to create.
All my choices are geared toward that real need. And turns out the secondary things I also want are now blossoming from me hitting my main goal as often as possible.
Your central need will change. When I was 19, my main need was to leave my hometown. At 25, it was to become a filmmaker. At 30, it was to create. Today it is still to create, but all the while leading a balanced and rich life. Who knows what 40 will bring.
2 ) Be clear about what money means to you
We live in a world obsessed with money. Becoming a creative, a filmmaker, a storyteller, an artist is basically heading away from money. At least for a while. It takes time to make money from one’s creativity.
I am a bit of a hardcore person when it comes to money. I recognize we need money to live, but I don’t want money to dictate my life. I’ve lived as a digital nomad for 5 years, I’m good at living well and happily on little (I’ve lived with as little as $5,000 for a year), I rarely drink alcohol (one of the highest budget of many people between 20 and 50) and I don’t like to buy things (besides books, notebooks, pencils etc).
That being said, having little money comes with a cost: your friends with ‘normal’ lives and climbing the social ladder have expectations you can’t meet. You need broad shoulders and a small ego because money is the one thing that will derail your focus the most easily. The possibility of making good money can make you go on a tangent that never ends. Read Neil Gaiman’s advice for a way to stay focused on your goal. I’d say 95% of the people I know who started as filmmakers gave up because of financial needs.
The money topic could take 10,000 words, but for now, know how important money is for you, and adjust your expectations, goals, and dreams accordingly. The more objects you need to feel happy, the smaller your window of opportunity to last. Which means you should aim for social success and hit films. As long as you’re clear and fine with it, it’s all good.
3 ) Be an Old-Schooler
My word means something to me. Politeness and kindness are important to me but I’m not afraid to go for a fight when I believe it’s important. Honour, Loyalty, Morality are not just in Game of Thrones. Thinking where you stand on the spectrum of each of these values is essential.
I believe that the reason why many people fail at simply doing what they’re saying they will is because they’ve lost connection with the power of their words.
Yes, it’s a subjective choice. What I find moral you might find immoral. What I consider honor you might dismiss as silliness.
Yes, it’s a fiction. As we’ve been painfully discovering, we live in a world where there are no consequences for anyone in power who lies. Words have lost their power in the political and business world, and there’s a new narrative that says “As long as you’re powerful, you can lie as much as you want, there will be no consequences. So focus on becoming powerful instead of doing the (much harder) work of being aligned with your words.”
I believe we should focus on being aligned between what we think, what we say and what we do. If you feel fractured inside, there’s a chance there’s a misalignment here. Being an Old-Schooler means reconnecting with what our ancestors, women, and men used before 100 pages legal contracts with asterisks: their words.
Step 2: Determine The Process
Knowing what you need will give you a direction and a vision, but then the hard part begins: running, walking, and possibly crawling toward your goal every single day.
That’s where a lot of people quit because you’re pretty much running an endless marathon called “be-the-CEO-of-your-life-until-you-die” when we’ve been raised to think the story ends when we kiss the charming prince/princess.
I love deciding what I’m going to do each day and being the CEO of my life but I acknowledge it’s scary and not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re used to the numbing but more comfortable mindset of following directions.
Here is how I go from theory to practice:
1) Constant Motion
I “work” every day. Let me rephrase this: I live my life every day. I really wish there was a better word than “work” but “play” doesn’t cut it either for me because come on, it’s not all joy and fun. But it’s my choice. Every day I wake up, I look at what I have to do, I look at what I want to do, I try to find a sweet spot between the two and I go for it
I’ve dropped the concept of weekends, weekdays or holidays. I don’t need holidays or weekends to take a break from my life. I might need to rest, stay in silence, spend time in nature, or see people I love, but it’s not a vacation from my life, it’s a different moment in a life that reads like a soundwave. It goes up and down all the time and it’s in constant motion.
If you want to make progress you need to accomplish things every day. Even if it’s the tiniest thing such as cleaning your desktop, backing up your computer, emailing Y or Z. Every day you should be crossing one thing on the never ending lists of things to do to hit your need and be in constant motion. If you’re building a road leading to a mysterious destination, you need to build that road.
If you have the mindset, you’ll show up.
2 ) Multiple Projects
For me, the only way to be in constant motion is to have multiple projects on different mediums and at different stages. I can’t write 2,000 words every day, or edit every day, or draw every day, or blog every day. There is nothing I want to do every day. Besides eating. (And that’s not even a joke)
I currently have 20 open projects I can choose from. Some have deadlines, some don’t. Some have been pending for 2 years and move slowly, some were born last week and need to be completed in a few days. Their scale and scope vary.
I tend to go overboard with the number of projects I handle and I can’t help but come up with new ones all the time. Sometimes I wish I was more focused and could have one big passion as I realized it could go faster for this one thing. That’s my personality, I won’t buy another one.
Even if you have only one passion such as filmmaking or writing or making music, within that field you should have the option to pick between several projects at different stages. Because when it comes to creativity, and even more so when it comes to collaborative creativity, the road is rarely linear. You know when you start, but you’re probably dead wrong about when you’ll be done. To avoid burnout and depression, make sure you have a variety of toys to play with.
3 ) Incremental Steps
The multiple projects aspect is only possible if you go through incremental steps. You need to start with one thing and repeat it enough times so it takes less time for you to do it, which means you get some more time and brain space to add something new.
Let’s say you want to develop your presence on the social media. Pick one social media that ‘talks’ to you the most and focus on developing this account. I started with Twitter in 2010 and for a while spent a lot of time on it, which helped me grow my followers and brought readers to my site. Then I added a Facebook Page, and a Pinterest. Nowadays I barely spend time Social Media besides Instagram that I use to create, but I have spent enough time on them so I know exactly how to use very little time to communicate with them.
Step 3: Determine the Tools
I use a lot of tools to support my process, and those tools change organically as my projects and goals change. I wrote about how I take and organize my notes and ideas, below I’m sharing three tools that have entered my life within the last year as the projects I’ve taken on are becoming more ambitious and made a massive difference in my productivity.
1) Bullet Journal
I’ve always had a notebook where I would write down ideas and collect interestingness, and papers to scribble daily to-do lists on. (I’ve tried apps, but my brain needs its quota of analog connection).
Since January of this year, I’ve had a bullet journal and it’s been like finally having a custom-design office for my brain. I used the official bullet journal website as an inspiration to create my own bullet journal. A whole movement has blossomed out of this concept, and a lot of people are spending an impressive chunk of times creating beautiful objects to track about everything.
I quickly decided I would not fetishize my bullet journal. It’s here to help me hit my goals. I use a cheap school notebook and regular pens. I’ve mentioned about the benefits of having a bullet journal and some of you asked about how I organize it, so here we go:
a) I NUMBER MY PAGES:
This only make sense if you have an Index.
b) I CREATE AN INDEX:
The Index corresponds to the first two pages of my notebook, left empty. As I go through my days, weeks and months, I might scribble down an idea, a quote, an emotion, a data in the margin of my daily to-do list that I want to remember.
On March 3rd, I had an idea for my film, In 5 Years. I wrote down the idea under the March 3rd to-do list, I created a category named ‘I5Y’ in my index section, and under it, I wrote the page number (58). So whenever I want to remember all the ideas I had in the last 4 months about In 5 Years, I’ll just open my Index, look at the page numbers, and go directly there to rediscover my scribbles.
The categories make their way naturally as time passes. I don’t pressure myself about it, if I want to store a data, I create a category.
Between January and April, I created 15 categories such as Creative Accident, Activate Creativity, In 5 years, FCPX, Ideas, Quotes, !!, ❤, :(
c ) I HAVE A MONTHLY TRACKER
The Monthly Tracker is a graph where I track everything that interests me, either because I want to make sure I’m doing it, or because I want to see how I’m doing on a particular topic.
On the vertical left column, I write down everything I want to track and on a horizontal top column I write every day of the months. (see bottom left picture in the top image)
I currently track 23 ‘things’, such as sleep, meditation, yoga, no spending, writing, reading, drawing, creating, travel etc.
The best way to build your list is to ask yourself what matters to you or what you are curious to know more about. And guess what? The things you’ll feel compelled to track will change over time.
d) I LIST ALL MY PROJECTS
Every month I have a page named “(MONTH) TASKS” where I list absolutely every single projects I would love to do in a perfect world. Some I have to, some I want to. Some are not related to creativity and some are.
This helps me keep an overview of everything I am heading toward. Every month I manage to cross some, and the others are pushed to the next month. The list usually starts with 10 items and ends twice the size as new items arrive.
2 ) I use a Priority Scale
I’ve realized that I tend to go for bonus projects that are often lighter and feel more creative when I should really be focusing on the pressing matters.
To make sure I am staying on track with harder projects and to avoid bullshitting my own brain I’m now using a priority scale. Once again a simple, free and analog tool that looks like that:
3 ) I Turn Off Notifications
I’m like everybody else, I get easily distracted. I actually seek distraction. While writing this article I’ve opened my Instagram for absolutely no reason at least three times. It might sound like an innocent number, but that’s the tip of a sad iceberg.
I have been on a decluttering path for a few years now and one of the ways to give space and time to my brain is to turn off as many notifications as I can. On my phone, I only receive notifications about a handful of people I chose to follow closely. (And yes, you guessed it, this list changes as my interests change).
I don’t let Facebook open on my computer. I’ve turned off all email notifications and sounds that can give me one more reason to abandon what requires deep work. This is one of the most efficient ways to stay focused. Spend half an hour going through the settings of all your apps, it works wonder.
I realize this is a long post, and the truth is, I’ve left many points on the side. There is one last thing I also find essential to stay focus and manage time efficiently:
It cannot only be work, work, work. Even if you love what you’re doing, like I do, you need not only to cut yourself some slack but also to reward yourself. Rewards can be simple pleasures ( a good meal, playing a game, buying a book, watching a movie, partying etc.) but ultimately, we live today and now, so we better enjoy the ride.
I hope you found this helpful. I’d love to hear from you, what’s your mindset, process, and tools to achieve your goal(s). Let me know below!
Nathalie Sejean is a co-founder of Activate Creativity, a platform that helps people reconnect, stretch and nurture their creativity.
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