The 5 Must-Practice Skills For Doing Your Best Work
These skills help you proactively choose where to direct your limited time, energy, and attention, so you can do your best work on the ideas worth listening to.
Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs. – Henry Ford
Ideas have an annoying habit of showing up as either loose goals or “wouldn’t it be cool/nice/fun if…” nudges. Fantastic, but they aren’t doable ideas. They just take up residence in that already crowded part of your brain and leech small amounts of cognitive energy until all your ideas, projects, and goals revolt.
The image of rebellious ideas poking your brain with pitchforks might be humorous. But not really. The pandemonium they cause keeps you from focusing on anything, much less actually doing your best work. When they rise up, people often feel overwhelmed, frustrated, defeated, scattered, or stuck in an urgency spiral. If you laugh at the situation, it’s only because you’re laughing at the absurdity of it.
I’ve been helping people counter their idea rebellions since about 2005. Those experiences eventually led to a synthesis of different methodologies for finishing the stuff that matters. And ultimately, the methodologies became the basis of the Momentum Planners.
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The good news here is that the principles behind the Momentum Planners are universal. You (and any creative) can practice them and start doing your best work. (Tweet this.) If I were asked to focus on only five principles, I’d call out these:
Articulate Clear Goals
Chunk Goals Down to Size
The five are essential skills for planning and taking ideas from start to finish. But that’s the unfortunate news — you’ll have to choose which ones to practice to build proficiency with them. You can’t do everything you might want to do at the same time; your reach will always exceed your grasp. We have a limited number of seconds on this earth and a limited amount of things we can push forward at once.
That may seem a dismal way to start the conversation. But look at the news a different way: Limitations are gifts. They help you proactively choose where to direct your limited time, energy, and attention so that you can be doing your best work on only the ideas worth listening to.
Ready to get started? Great. Let’s do this.
Skill #1: Visualize
Visualization is the skill of imagining the future state of the world you’ll bring about. It’s a simple definition for a difficult idea. We’ve all probably experienced the challenges of visualizing some projects in a way that keeps us moving forward with them.
I say “some projects” because visualization sometimes is relatively straightforward, as with projects that have clear end points. For instance, if you want to write a book, it’s not hard to visualize what the end state looks like. You have a finished book.
Other projects aren’t so clear. Landscaping your backyard could fall into this category as could getting your twenty-something son to fly the coop. There are practically an infinite number of ways the “project” could end.
All that to say, visualization has it challenges. They usually fall into three buckets:
Staring at the “blank screen” effect. Too many possibilities can paralyze you. When this happens, we refuse to choose any possibility, waiting for some sign from the cosmos that one of our ideas is the right one to pursue. The primary way to overcome this problem is to pick one of the possibilities and start making it real. Acting on it usually brings about clarity about whether to continue with the possibility or reinvent. (If you’re worried about making the “wrong” choice, don’t be. What you don’t mean to build is often better than what you thought you'd build.)
Getting stuck in the “HOW” before getting clear on the “WHAT.” It’s sometimes useful to start with some version of “what can I do with what I’ve got?” However, the questions can sometimes over-constrain our ideas. When all you think you have is a hammer, anything that doesn’t look like a nail doesn’t get much consideration. If you’re stuck here, switch focus to a compelling outcome rather than a specific method.
Visualizing a scope that’s too big or too small. Think of this challenge as the Goldilocks principle. If your idea is too big to fathom, it starts to go into wish land. If the scope is too small, it’s easy overlook. To overcome this challenge, upgrade or downgrade the scope until you get a fuzzy future state that tugs at you. Yes, this is an intuitive thing, but you’ll know when you hit “just right.”
Visualization is a skill (like writing) more than it is a capability (like hearing). Practice and experience make you better at it. The skill will also prevent spinning wheels and get you to choose to go down roads even when you don’t know precisely where they’ll end up.
Skill #2: Articulate Clear Goals
Visualization gives substance to fuzzy futures. Articulation builds on visualization, acting much like a pair of glasses. You put them on and see the steps needed to bring the future into focus.
Articulation, then, concerns goal-setting. But the aim here isn’t to set an end goal only. Rather, articulation asks us to state our goals clearly so that we know when a specific leg of the journey is complete.
At Productive Flourishing, we set clear goals by using our own version of SMART goals: Simple, Meaningful, Actionable, Realistic, and Trackable.
SIMPLE. When you can look at a simple goal, it's clear what its completion would look like.
MEANINGFUL. You can look at the goal and immediately understand the importance of completing it.
ACTIONABLE. You see the goal and are immediately clear on what needs to be done to accomplish it.
REALISTIC. The endpoint is achievable with the resources you have available.
TRACKABLE. It’s clear what progress with the goal means, and the goal’s progress can be tracked quantitatively or qualitatively.
We use the framework because it gives us goals that direct our attention and efforts. We recommend you use it, too, because of two major benefits. One, the framework ensures you seriously consider the commitments you’re making to yourself. Two, it expresses your goals in ways that help you complete them.
Skill #3: Prioritize
Many of us may dream of a time and place where we can work on one project at a time. Reality, though, looks different. Most of us likely work on a few projects and goals at a time. When those projects take longer than we expect they will or life intervenes, we end up re-prioritizing and recalibrating them, trying to decide which ones are the most important.
We all do that — sorting projects from most important to least important — but we sometimes struggle with it. It’s a big reason why I started using an exercise called “Project Cage Match” with clients. It helps them get really clear on what matters most.
List all the projects on your mind. Personal projects count as projects, too. Weddings, vacations, moves, graduations, et cetera, count because they require time, energy, and attention to see them through.
Compare the relative strength and pull of each project. Most of the time, people have a pretty strong sense of which projects will lose in round one or get thrown out of the ring before the match starts. If you can eliminate those projects now, you’ll be left with the contenders worth watching.
Choose one strong project and compare it to the remaining projects. Which projects does it beat? Which project beats it? At this stage, you don’t have to articulate why one project beats another. Go with your gut.
Rinse and repeat. Complete the first three steps until you get a rough order of projects by their strengths.
Assess the projects’ strengths. Now, define what makes each project particularly strong. This is where you’ll start writing a list, beginning with the strongest project and ending with the least.
The cage match winner is the project that manages to beat all of the others. It’s the last project or goal standing, as it were. At this point, let me remind you of three things: 1) simple ≠ easy; 2) you’ll probably get emotional throughout this process; and 3) the Momentum Planners will force a cage match by design.
Skill #4: Chunk
If you’ve completed your project cage match, you’ll definitely want to chunk the ones still standing. Here’s why: Chunking is the mental skill of altering a project’s size.
While we often talk about chunking projects “down” into smaller parts, there are also times we should chunk “up.” For instance, if you’re thinking about what projects you want to do this year, a heap of weekly projects will short-circuit the process. Your mind will be focused on making things fit together rather than figuring out how to accomplish the goal or project that is most important.
Most of us, though, usually need help with the first part of chunking, getting a project down to its doable parts. We can get the little projects done, no problem. It’s the too-big-to-do projects that remain undone, which is unfortunate. These projects, at least in my experience, tend to matter to us more than the smaller, clearer ones.
Here are a few tips to chunk your mammoth projects into their doable action items:
Think about WHAT, not WHEN. At this stage in the game, think about the WHAT aspects of the project. Set the WHEN aside. Now, put the WHAT pieces of the puzzle on the table. DON’T try to put the pieces together yet.
Start each chunk with a verb. Next, give each WHAT a chunk. I recommend starting specific chunks with a verb because the action reminds you of the steps needed to move each piece of the project forward.
Use the Two-Hour Rule. Many people wonder how far to chunk projects down. The Two-Hour Rule comes in handy because we generally know how much we can get done in two, focused hours. Using it lets us create standard units of creative time for our projects.
Getting even more specific, take a look at your action lists for the week. What ideas or projects would benefit from being chunked down into two-hour blocks? Where will you find or make those two hours to work on that chunk of the project?
Skill #5: Sequence
Sequencing is when you put the puzzle pieces together. That is, sequencing is the skill of putting a projects’ chunks in a logical order. It sounds simple, but like visualization, it can be hard to do in reality.
Plus, some projects are harder to chunk than others. We don’t know how to account for them because we haven’t done anything like them before. Others are simpler to chunk because you can see the specific actions needed to reach the end outcome.
Generally, though, sequencing fails because of two common missteps. They’re fairly easy to correct — if you know what to watch out for.
Asking for help too late in the process. If you need collaboration or counsel on a project, ask for it early. People want to help you, but they most likely can’t work on your schedule. Ask for their support early on in the process. If you don’t need their help right then and there, tell them when you will. They can then create a block of time for you.
Defining success and failure midway through a project. You should define success and failure at the outset of a project. That way you know how your project is doing as you complete steps. Looking at success and failure at the beginning of a project also helps you identify what will drag you down and what will lift you up.
Those two things aside, the rest of the sequence is up to you. Look at your goals, priorities, and chunks. Now, sequence.
How to Apply These 5 Skills with the Momentum Planners
You can use any number of tools to get projects done. But you’ll always use the five skills outlined here. To get better with them — remember, they take practice because they’re skills, not capabilities — use the Momentum Planners.
force encourage you to practice the skills due to the way they’re set up. I know this because people write in with their frustrations. As an example, people write in about only having five blank lines on the Monthly Momentum Planner. Almost inevitably, they’re putting daily chunks on lines meant for monthly chunks.
Similarly, people want to put ALL their projects on their Weekly Momentum Planner. But that isn’t the intention of the weekly planner. It’s designed to help people prioritize and sequence projects so that they can account for week-sized and bigger-sized projects. When they look at the list, they should see a picture of what they need to do in a given week to complete weekly items and to move forward with their bigger projects.
But when people stick with the Momentum Planners, they begin to see they’ve been radically overestimating what they can do in any given slice of time. You simply can’t do eight hours of high-value work while you’re in must-have meetings for four hours. Even without those meetings, you can really only do two or three chunks per day anyway.
That awareness is a good thing. But people start to notice something else, too. They’re getting more done in less time and feeling less pressured, to boot. I wish we could take all the credit for this, but we can’t.
The credit goes to Momentum Planners. They make people practice visualization, articulation, prioritization, chunking, and sequencing. In that regard, the planners act like training wheels or power suits, channeling people’s time, energy, and attention toward the things that matter.
Going forward, I’ll show some best practices for how to get the most out of the Momentum Planners. We’ll start with the Monthly Momentum Planner because a month is a big chunk of time that’s relatively easy to visualize and sequence.
Before we go, a few questions to leave you with:
Which of the five skills come easiest for you?
Which of them are the most challenging?
How do the tools you’re currently using help you practice and apply the five skills?