my system for staying focused.

I tend to have a lot on my plate. There are always 5-10 totally different areas of interest in my mind and sometimes I have a hard time keeping track of everything and making sure I actually do all the stuff that matters.

Over the years I’ve tried a lot of systems to stay productive, but I’ve actually developed my own process that works better than anything I’ve tried before, so I thought I’d share it with you.

It works like this…

  1. Each weekend, I take one index card and write out all the subjects / domains / types of work that matter to me (i.e. running, reading, making art, producing music, etc). One subject per line.
  2. After each subject, I draw one empty checkbox for each day that I want to work on the area in the coming week – some areas (like reading) I want to do all 7 days, some areas (like running) get a rest day.
  3. For each day that I make a solid effort on that subject, I check off one of the boxes

For example:

Each day, my work is to make sure I get a check mark in as many areas as possible (ideally one in every row). That’s it. No planning, no scheduling, no to-do lists, just the constant pursuit of checkmarks.

The thing is, this works really well.

The idea was inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s Red X System. If you haven’t heard the story, a young comedian asked Jerry how to get better at writing jokes:

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

If you have just one thing you want to work on, that system is totally magic. But if you have 6-8 areas that you want to stay on top of (like I do), having 6-8 calendars would be a bit ridiculous. In that case, my index system can be a little simpler – it also has the advantage of letting you control the number of days per week for each area (i.e. 6 days of running to account for a rest day). It only takes about 30 seconds of planning each weekend to rewrite / print the new index card for the upcoming week and there’s nothing else to plan or schedule beyond that.

The reason this system is so powerful is because it turns your dreams into routines. Literally 90% of achieving any goal is showing up. No matter what you want to do or learn or improve, if you can simply show up each day and make a sincere effort to get a little bit better, you’re more than halfway there. What you can accomplish today in 90 minutes might not be much, but what you can accomplish in 360 x 90 minutes is pretty substantial.

In my experience, there is no better way to stay on top of the work that matters than this red x / index card system. I always know what needs to be done and, in one glance, I can track my progress and hold myself accountable.

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