We live in a world with a wealth of things to distract us:

It is easy to get overwhelmed or want to do more than any one human could do.

Over the past few weeks I have begun a practice of laser-sharp focus and elimination of the unnecessary or reschedulable.  My current commitments allow nothing less, and frankly it has dropped my stress level more than any other single change I could make.

My current commitments are not trivial; a full time job that expects around 45 hours per week, teaching 2 different classes (4 nights per week total) at a local community college, taking 1 course toward a Masters in Psychology, and doing a small yearly consulting data analysis job for a local school district.  I get up around 7am and get home around 9pm most days, then spend my weekends grading homework, preparing for the next week’s classes, doing my own homework and catching up on sleep as I move into the next week.

This would be incredibly stressful for most people, and frankly it would have been for me as well until I realized a few things this summer:

  • It’s ok to say no sometimes; your friends will still like you
  • You may WANT to do a lot of things, but some are more important than others
  • There is great satisfaction and relaxation to be gained by letting yourself off the hook for some things.

In my case, that meant

  • I would blog (here) when I had the time AND something meaningful to say
  • I would not worry about keeping up with my RSS feeds and would, in fact, trim them back substantially to just the ones that are of special interest or relevance
  • I would not try to keep up with facebook or other social media, at least not in anything that passes for real time.  (I get facebook updates in an RSS feed and try to scan them for big events in my friends lives a couple of times per week.
  • I would carve out a single block of time each week to spend with friends and not feel bad if that meant I had to pick which friends to see on a given week.
  • I would not worry about my dissertation literature review for the moment, but just continue to collect articles and references that I will read later.

Mostly though, it meant that I chose to focus on the critical things and not feel bad/guilty about what I’m not getting done.  Would I like to be able to do all those other things?  Of course I would.

But sometimes less is more, and this is one of those cases.  I’ve committed to certain activities in my life as having priority for the next 3 months (until christmas) and will focus my attention on those activities.  After the semester ends, I will revisit the targets of my focus for the winter holiday.  After that, I will again review my targets for the next semester.  These are not static choices, but fluid ones that can respond to my top priorities at any given time.

In doing so, my stress level has dropped and my productivity has risen. I work through each week step by step and never feel overwhelmed by all that I do.  That, to me, is true productivity.