Those of us who are self-employed, as well as anyone who performs intellectual work of some kind for a living, are continuously faced with a dilemma.
The dilemma can be stated in the form of a two-word question: What’s next?
Many of us encounter this dilemma numerous times a day, whenever we first approach the machines that guide us through our work.
If you’re a student, you have this problem too. You’re supposed to be effectively self-managed, juggling assignments, group work, and numerous other activities. But how do you learn this behavior?
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There is little education to guide us in this process of managing workflow.
Long ago I wrote about my ideal superpower. It’s not the ability to fly or the power of invisibility—as awesome as those would be.
My ideal superpower, if I could have anything, would be the ability to always know the right answer to what’s next.
The better you can become at having a good answer for what’s next?, the more effective you will become.
A few tips that have helped me:
Keep nothing in your head. One way or another, you have to write things down. You can use a tool like OmniFocus (my current favorite, which is always with me one way or another) or a paper notebook (something else that is always with me).
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Whatever you choose, write things down! Write down ideas. Write down outlines. Whenever you think of any task, no matter how big or small, write it down. Don’t rely on your memory.
Work from a list. Again, how you formulate or refer to the list doesn’t matter—just make a list somehow! I notice a huge difference when I sit down for an hour with a list versus sitting down without one.
Without the list, I spend a lot more time messing around and following up on dumb stuff. With the list, I’m focused on working through it and making progress.
Know your distractions. I don’t think you should always avoid your distractions. Lots of people say you should write with the internet turned off, for example. I don’t do that. I jump between projects throughout the day.
But the point is that I know my distractions. I know that if I’ve already read every main article on the New York Times website, I don’t need to visit the site again until the next day. When I feel like pulling it up again, I’ll look at the list instead. Do you know your distractions?
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Pay attention to psychic dissonance. If you’re not feeling excited or motivated about your work, you have to find the source of the problem. When something is wrong, I can usually trace it to something that is unsettled or undone.
At that point it helps to make a choice: move forward on the unsettled work, or officially decide to defer it. But don’t just let it sit there.
A version of this article originally appeared on Chris Guillebeau’s website.