“Ask the Strategist” tackles your questions about productivity, operations, decision making, and results. Sebastian Marshall kicks this month off with a three-step solution for goal paralysis.
I work really hard both professionally and on myself (health/fitness, education/online learning) – I now have two weeks off and I’m trying to work out what to work on. I have a trello board with courses that I’ve wanted to work on all year but there’s so much in there I don’t know where to start and more importantly I don’t have an internal system to make decisions as to what is important to me right now.
Question: How do you know / work out what you should be working on?
Happy New Year, F.S., and great question. It’s maybe the question in life. Admittedly, it’s both important and hard.
How I decide what projects to do comes down to three factors —
First, I ask, “Is there anything really critical or essential to going to the next level?”
Second, I sweep through a list of all my Impact Areas and look at the current status of each one.
Third, all else being equal, I bias toward whatever can be completed fastest.
The first question is to keep myself honest: it’s easy to work on lots of little things while ignoring something that’s essential but terrifying.
Simply ask yourself: “What’s really critical that’s stopping me from getting to the next level in my life?”
Sometimes there’s no one thing, and lots of choices. But sometimes the answer comes back immediate and glaring:
“I hate my job, I’m underpaid, and need to do something else.”
“The demand for the core technology I specialize in is getting obsoleted and I need to develop a new line of skills.”
“I’ve gotten dreadfully out of shape and have no energy.”
“I don’t know enough people I can really trust and count on, and I’ve gone largely as far as I can go as an individual.”
Sometimes these just spring out at you, and you know it’s critical. In which case, stop searching broadly and start tackling some aspect of the one big thing. It’s hard, but critical.
But okay, let’s say everything is going swimmingly. What to improve?
This is where I go to my Impact Areas.
Impact Areas are the short list of areas that you need to keep improving (or at least keep stable) in order to do what you want to do in the world.
— Production Orientation / “The Way”
— World Impact
These change, albeit very slowly. My work broadly covers three domains: the commercial work which I do to pay my bills and help my clients, nonprofit and educational work which is my main focus, and writing and authorship.
Each of these feed into that. I look at this list and take notes every single week on where each one is at.
It can take a while to build a list of Impact Areas that works for you, but I recommend to everyone that asks to brainstorm what yours are periodically. What areas that, if managed well, are going to enable you to thrive?
If I’m taking care of my health, putting money in the bank, getting to know the right people, getting my work out there, keeping my environment built well around me, operationalizing work so it happens repeatedly, bringing the right spirit of craftsmanship and process to my work, documenting things achieved, doing good for the world, and doing writing that’s meaningful — then I’m pretty much on top of everything.
If one of these is broken, that suggests a project.
But oftentimes, there’s four or five good candidates. I periodically sweep my list for potential projects, from as small as researching ways to train one’s feet up to avoid runner’s injuries, to doing minor automation around expenses and taxes, to improving my outlining process for writing so I can improve quality.
So, if you don’t know what to do, ask what’s really necessary to achieving everything you want to do.
Sometimes, when you look at your Impact Areas, you’ll see one area jump out at you — it’ll be critical, or a big opportunity, or a big problem, or it just resonates as exciting and you want to do it.
Other times, four or five things look good. What then?
And this is my third rule: do whatever finishes fastest.
Every completed project makes us a little stronger, smarter, wiser. You get the gains from doing it and achieving.
So do whichever one you can achieve first.
Across the board, I always pick something I can do in a one-day intense blitz over something that’ll take 3 days, something that’ll take 3 days over something that’ll take a week, something that’ll take a week over something that’ll take a month.
Our interests wax and wane, new opportunities arise, and time and attention are our most precious resource. Whenever you open a project, you want to see the path to closing it — so doing whatever can be done fast, and choosing a new project next week, is my favorite tiebreaker if all else looks equal.
Godspeed in your projects and Happy New Year,
Got a question for “Ask the Strategist”? You can write to Sebastian at firstname.lastname@example.org