Are you the kind of person who usually has multiple irons in the fire? Two or three or eight balls in the air at any given time? Yeah, me too. And for me, one of the biggest barriers to getting stuff done is just figuring out where to start. Which project to foreground on any given day.
Some days, work is completely deadline-driven: this piece has gotta get done or the client will be unhappy, the whole house of cards falls, etc. And everything else gets backburnered while I focus on meeting that deadline.
Other days, I have more freedom to pick and choose which project to work on (which, frankly, creates its own kind of hell). And then there are the days I have so many things that need to be done or are just calling out for some attention that it’s next to impossible to decide what to do first. The higher brain functions of prioritizing and focusing just implode, and I am overcome by monkey mind: zipping from one thing to the next, following that random trail of breadcrumbs from email to ordering that book I just remembered to jotting a few things on my grocery list then back to the email I abandoned to order that book.
The next thing I know, an hour or even two, has evaporated and I’m left with the sense that I have nothing tangible to show for my time. This was happening to me a lot (like every day) when I got back from the Heart of America tour, a three-month road trip that produced a massive amount of material for writing projects as well as a boatload of close-out work, from thank you notes to tracking receipts, mileage, etc.
After mucking about a bit with time management apps, I realized the timer on my phone might be all the structure I needed. And so, I came up with the 47-13 strategy. At the most basic level, that means I set the timer on my phone and I work for 47 minutes, then take a break for 13 minutes.
Here’s how I make it work:
First, I brainstorm a list of my top projects – at least 3 but no more than 6 – that need my attention or call for some love. And it can be anything, from writing to answering emails to paying bills to websurfing research.
Then I create a priority list among those projects, using whatever criteria make the most sense. Sam Bennett of The Organized Artist Company suggests focusing on your highest-potential- income-producing project. Yes, Sam is one smart cookie, and I usually follow her advice. However, I’ve also been known to follow the thread of something I dreamed the night before and put a dream-inspired short story at the top of my list, even though it’s probably never gonna be a top income producer, right? (And, honestly, I think Sam would support me in that choice!)
So, starting at the top of your priority list, I set my phone’s timer for 47 minutes. And go!
My basic rules for laser focus:
- No getting up to get some tea or take a tinkle. Please take care of these sorts of creature comforts in advance.
- No checking the timer to see how much time is left.
- And NO switching to another project if you don’t get immediate traction on this one.
- As in meditation, if your mind drifts, gently pull your attention back to the project at hand.
When the timer pings, I stop what I’m doing and reset it for 13 minutes. I now have 13 minutes to set myself up for the next session. So, first things first: I return yourself to my body:
- Take a deep breath.
- Stand up and stretch. Walk around a little bit, shake out the hands, shoulders, legs.
- If I need a beverage or a potty break, now is the time!
- Circumstances permitting, I go outside, get some Vitamin D, breath in fresh air, ground myself.
After I’ve made the shift or as my 13 minutes of down time is about to close out, I briefly evaluate this last session. Did I find my groove? Did I get enough traction to warrant another 47 minutes on this project? If so, terrific! I set my alarm for another 47-minute session.
No mojo? Need to switch gears? No problem. I move to the next item on the list, set my timer for 47 minutes and go!
I used this process yesterday to write the first draft of this post. Then I shifted gears and spent two 47:13 sessions working on a workshop proposal.
At that point, I was feeling pretty accomplished – and hungry. So, I took a break, a full hour to make some lunch, hang with Fiona the Wonder Pug, and read a magazine just for fun. Then I did two more 47:13 sessions, one focused on answering email and the other battling the DMV.
Before closing out my work day, I pulled together my project list for the next day, though I won’t prioritize it until the morning, as I’m settling in to work. On the list: finalizing this piece and getting it posted.
And voila! Let me know if the 47:13 system works for you. And if not, I’d love to hear what does work for you.