These are the rules I suggest:
- Know What’s Important. The simple version of simplifying is “Identify what’s important, and eliminate the rest.” So take time to identify the most important things in your life (4-5 things), and then see what activities, tasks, projects, meeting and commitments fit in with that list. Also take time each day to identify 1-3 Most Important Tasks (MITs), at the beginning of your day. Or the night before, for the next day.
- Visualize Your Perfect Day. This is not so much because this “perfect day” will come true, as it is to understand what a simple day means to you. It’s different for each person — for me, it might mean some meditation and writing and spending time with my wife and kids. For others, it’s yoga and painting and a hot bath. For others, it’s time to focus on the important work, but still get other things done later in the day. Take a minute to visualize what it means to you.
- Say No to Extra Commitments. Now that you’ve identified what’s important, along with the “perfect day”, you need to start saying “No” to things that aren’t on your important list, and that are standing in the way of the perfect day. The biggest thing you can say No to is a commitment — membership on a committee, involvement in a project, coaching or participating in a team, going to an event, being a partner in a business, etc. List and evaluate your commitments (professional, civic and personal), and say No to at least one. It just takes a call or email.
- Limit Tasks. Each morning, list your 1-3 most important tasks. List other tasks you’d like to do. Say no to some of them. See if you can limit your list to 5-7 tasks per day (not counting little things, which you’ll batch). Limiting your tasks helps you focus, and acknowledges you’re not going to get everything done in one day.
- Carve Out Un-distraction Time. When are you going to do your most important work? Schedule it with a block of time (1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, whatever works for you). Make this your most sacred appointment. Become incommunicado. Close the Internet, all notifications, hold all calls. Just do the most important task, then the next one if you have time.
- Slow Down. We rush through our days, almost in a single frenetic anxiety-filled non-stop movement. Instead, slow down. Life won’t collapse if you aren’t rushing from task to task, email to email. You can pause, take a moment to reflect, smile, enjoy the current task before moving on.
- Mindfully Single-task. Stop multi-tasking. One task at a time, with full focus on that task. Practice mindfulness as you do the task — it’s a form of meditation. Watch your thoughts wander to what you need to do later, but then return to the task at hand. Your day will be much simpler, and much more enjoyable, when you practice being present with your current task.
- Batch Smaller Tasks, Then Let go. Email, paperwork, little things at the bottom of your task list (create a “small tasks” section at the bottom), minor phone calls, etc. … these shouldn’t get in the way of your important tasks. But they still need to be done sometime (unless you can let them go, which is best whenever possible). If you need to do them, batch them and do them in one go. It’s best to do these later in the day, when your energy is lower and you’ve done the important tasks for the day. Don’t let the small tasks get in the way of the big ones. When you’ve done a batch of small tasks (including processing email), let them go, and get out. You don’t want to do this all day, or even half a day.
- Create Space Between. We cram our tasks and meetings together, and leave no spaces between them. The space between things is just as important as the things themselves. Leave a little space between meetings, even tasks. Take a break to stretch, walk around, get a glass of water, perhaps do some simple breathing meditation for a minute or two. Enjoy the space.