3 Steps to Getting Stuff Done

As an autodidact, you have to structure the majority of your life and education yourself.  And this freedom, as beneficial as it is, can get get overwhelming and quickly cause you to lose focus.  Not only do you have to come up with your own to-do lists, structures, schedules, deadlines, etc. – you have to do them, and then you have to check behind yourself and track your progress in a way that you can tell you are moving closer to your goals.  I don’t know about you, but I find myself getting distracted from doing all of that;  essentially, you are assuming the roles of student, all your professors, and sundry record-keeping faculty at a University.

Life is a lot easier if all you need to do is get up and do what you’re told – but that’s not what we signed up for as College Rebels, is it?  Not really.

Figuring out how to organize your life in a way that will help you get motivated and stay focused is essential to being a successful autodidact.  Figuring out how to do that without taking up all the time you could be doing other things, and without contracting a constant headache, is your goal.  Fortunately, I have figured out a fairly simple three-step formula that only takes a couple hours a month for the deep planning, and then a few minutes a week tops to organize smaller to-do lists for optimum productivity.

The key is prioritization:

1. Write it all out.  Just write down everything that comes to you that you need and want to do in the immediate future.  These are things that have probably been floating around in your head as needing to get done in the next day, week, and month at least.  Think of it as a big brainstorming session: just get it all out there and don’t hold back: if it helps you get the juices flowing, feel free to put down “join the circus” and “teach in Senegal”, but just be aware that the next step will ask you to narrow down from five-year goals to ones you know you reasonably will accomplish in the next month or two.

2. Narrow down what is really important. Depending on time frames, others’ dependence on you, your own immediacy, and other such factors, pick between 3 and 5 top priorities for the next month or so.  Oftentimes, even 5 could still be spreading yourself too thin; just be honest with yourself and try to keep it minimal.  An example:

– Wedding planning with Emily
– 35 hours/wk at Best Buy
– Training for the 10k in 3 weeks
– Cooking through all Mollie Katzen’s cookbooks
– Keeping a blog about the cooking project

This is not a step, but: set realistic daily, weekly, and monthly goals.  The operative word here is REALISTIC!! Remember when you are narrowing down these 3-5 projects for the month that you have other things during the day and week that you do, such as taking a shower, reading a book with a cup of coffee in the morning, having a movie night with your friends on the second Thursday of every month, playing guitar “as-needed,” etc.   If you’re like me, you might forget these things while making your list – and then become emotionally bogged down later when you realize you should have allowed for much more flexibility in the name of sanity.

This process can be done as many times as you need to. It may need to be done only once a month, or once every two months; or every other week, every week… it really does not matter, as long as you stay productive and sane.

3. Write down the ultimate goal next to each priority on your 3-5 item list.  This is the key to keeping your motivation up: the reasons are the focus.  Here are examples from the previous list and from one of my own lists from a while back:

– Wedding planning with Emily = BECAUSE I want her wedding to go down like she wants it to
– 30 hours/wk at Best Buy = BECAUSE I need money so I can travel to Thailand and work with elephants
– Training for the 10k = BECAUSE I want to be in shape, run and finish a race, and be better at running in general; BECAUSE I want to work up to running marathons by the time I am 26
– Cooking through Mollie Katzen’s cookbooks = BECAUSE I want to know how to cook many different things and therefore have the capacity to go to culinary school if I decide I want to
– Housecleaner work-trade = BECAUSE I can help out the owner of the hostel in the summer season and so I can have somewhere to stay till I leave for NY
– Sudoku Professor = BECAUSE I need to support myself, and to help out the family business
– Life Without College = BECAUSE I am passionate about this subject, want to get the word out, and now I have a following to stay loyal to!
– Novel in 30 days = BECAUSE I love writing, would like to get better, and I am very inspired in Ashland, Oregon

Going through this 3-step process works for me because I have goals that need to be concrete, and in front of my face; if goals are just floating around aimlessly in my brain, I cannot possibly focus on them. I am also an extremely flexible person – if I don’t watch myself, I will simply float off in whatever direction the wind is blowing (i.e., playing guitar all the time).

Also, going through this process and making these lists every month or so keeps me grounded, while at the same time still allowing for spontaneity and plans to change on the daily and weekly levels.

That being said, I often like to make daily and sometimes weekly to-do or to-accomplish lists that are based off the monthly “Master” list.  This way I can remind myself to do all the little things:

– Do laundry
– Write for 1/2 an hour in the morning
– Write for 1/2 an hour at night
– Go to work 10-5
– Wash dishes
– Call Emily while cooking dinner
– Spend 1/2 hour answering emails
– Write long email to Patrick the Kindle Expert
– Finish reading “Out of Africa”!!

That kind of thing.

What processes to motivate and focus yourself have worked for you?  What have almost worked, but needed tweaking, or definitely not worked?  Do you need to organize, motivate, and focus yourself in a more structured way, or are you more productive when things aren’t so set-in-stone and you can run with your spontaneity?