New years always excite me. They truly feel like a fresh start and are overflowing with possibilities. I mean, just think about it. 365 days (or in the case of this year, 366) where anything could happen. Yes, that is a little scary to think about too, because we never know what bad things could be waiting around the corner, but, to me at least, all of the potential for good seems so much greater than the potential for bad.
As with many people, the start of a new year also inspires me to reinforce my daily habits, start new ones, and set goals. But until the last few years, I rarely followed through on the things I wanted to accomplish. I would say, "Oh, yeah, I should make that happen this year" or "I'm finally going to do that thing I've always talked about", but I never actually planned how to accomplish any of those things. It was just a nebulous goal floating around in my mind and without fail, I would procrastinate over and over again. In fact, I've found through the years that I have a great propensity to procrastinate if I don't keep myself organized and scheduled.
A big shift started to happen for me in 2019. That was the first time I decided to buckle down and actually make one of my big goals happen (starting my book/writing blog, Life & Lit). Accomplishing that spurred me to keep going and make the next big goal happen in 2020—publishing my first book. Now, the "you know what" that happened that year threw me for a loop, and I once again procrastinated for several months. But as the second half of the year got under way I realized that I still had time to redeem that really rough year and push through on accomplishing my dream—and with God's help, my first book, The Peasant Queen, did get published!
Since then, I've tried to push myself to be more disciplined in my daily life and have slowly developed habits that have changed everything about how I go about my day and how I manage my monthly and yearly goals. As an author (and therefore, an entrepreneur) I now have a lot of hats I wear, and in order to have a new book coming out every year, I have a lot of different projects going on all at one time. None of it would be possible if not for, in addition to God's help and strength, some organized goal setting and scheduling. It's not an exact science, of course, because life is always changing, and therefore our personal productivity often has to evolve and adapt too, but I have found several things that have helped me be more productive than ever in the last two years. Below are some of these tips, and really, they aren't that revolutionary, but you'd be surprised by what even a small change can do!
1. Physically write out your list of goals.
This would be the first place to start. If you don’t already have a list of projects, dreams, goals, healthy habits, etc. that you want to work on this year, go ahead and write them all down, even if it is just one or two things. Personally, I write out a list of goals for different categories (spiritual life, marriage, finances, home, writing, reading, and so on). If you have multiple goals for different areas of your life, organize them in order of importance or what goal needs to happen first in order for the next goal to be possible (like paying off a credit card, then moving on to pay off something bigger). Writing things out is proven to help us remember them, and it also makes these goals feel more real. Organizing them and being detailed in how you write them out is helpful too because, like they say, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” You need your big picture game plan laid out first before you can start making that plan happen.
2. Pick certain goals to focus on each month.
Looking at the entire year all at once can feel overwhelming. Just this week I was laying out my plan for my next book release and felt my chest tighten as I thought about all that needs to be done. On paper, a year looks so short and it feels like there isn’t enough time! But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Once you have your big picture goals, pick one or a few of them to focus on each month—or a step that needs to be taken to get toward a larger goal. Narrowing down your list to just a couple things to focus on at a time helps so much!
3. Break your monthly goals into smaller bite sized goals for each day or week.
Sometimes even the monthly goals can feel overwhelming. For instance, this month I really want to focus on re-organizing my house and clearing things out to do a garage sale in the spring, but the thought of organizing my entire house in a single day or weekend is daunting. Truly, it's an unrealistic goal. But it doesn’t have to all be done at one time. Instead, I can work on one or two rooms a week. Breaking down your to-do list or goals into smaller pieces for each day or week instantly makes those accomplishments more attainable.
4. Set deadlines.
If you are working toward a big picture goal (in my case, for instance, publishing a new book by the end of the year), you might want to consider setting a deadline for yourself. Having that countdown prods you to keep being productive and not procrastinate—or at least, not procrastinate as much. For myself, the only way I can stay on top of things and get a new book out is by 1.) choosing a publishing date and 2.) setting deadlines for each step of the publishing process so I know what needs to be done when. This tip could be applied to a lot of things like the home re-organizing I mentioned before, launching a small business, reading the entire Bible, paying off debt, etc., etc.
5. Keep a daily to-do list.
I’m weird in that I genuinely love making lists. Like, I will just start planning random things and making lists for things, like books I want to read or restaurants I want to try, purely for fun… LOL! Even if you aren’t naturally a “list-maker”, it might be a good idea to keep a daily to-do list for yourself. I am extremely forgetful, so I have to write everything down that I need to remember to do. Each morning, I write out a checklist on my phone of everything I want/need to do that day—everything from reading my Bible, to reading a certain number of pages of another book, doing laundry, prepping a post for my blog, the amount of words I need to write or the number of chapters I need to edit. On the rare days when I neglect to write out my to-do list I’ve found I feel so scatter-brained and don’t get nearly as much done. Do I always check everything off the list? NO! Most days, there are at least a few items that don’t get done, but that’s ok. Having the list at least gives me a reference point and keeps the important things for the day or week at the forefront of my mind.
6. Race the timer!
This is something I’ve started doing in the last year. First, I started off by doing a “sprint” while writing, which means setting a timer and writing as many words as I can without distractions until the timer ends. This has helped so much on the days when I want to write but I also feel distracted or unmotivated. More recently, I started applying this to my house chores as well. Not every day, mind you, but on the days when I have a lot to do and want to do it fast or lack motivation, I will set a time limit for how long I have to work on each chore. Knowing the time is counting down is a big motivator and has been a great help!
If you are writing or studying or doing any other task that could take multiple hours of time, you can also do the “pomodoro technique” which is where you work for a set amount of time, then take a short break, then work again for the same amount of time and so on. If you can focus hard for a short amount of time knowing you can take a break afterwards, it majorly helps with your productivity during the time you are actually working.
7. Reward yourself.
If you know you need to do something but need something more than a timer or a deadline to motivate you, try choosing a special reward for yourself. If it’s a big, long-term goal, it could be an equally big reward, or if it's something as simple as studying for 1 hour without looking at your phone, your reward could be going to get a snack when you’re done. I know food is a great motivator for me. LOL!
Another good way to stay motivated to accomplish your goals is by sharing them with others. Whether it's a spouse, parent, friend, or you've stated your goals publicly, having someone to keep you accountable can be extremely helpful. As a personal example, in January of 2020 I decided to share my list of goals for the year on my blog as a way to hopefully keep myself accountable—since I shared all this with the world, I couldn’t just not do any of the things I said I would, right? This was the first time I ever posted anything about wanting to publish my first book, and knowing that I announced it to the world and said it was coming some time in 2020 helped rekindle my motivation after the first part of that year had sent it plummeting.
9. Do a time audit.
If you want to spend more time studying the Bible or praying, reading more or working out, you may think, “But I just don’t have time for all of that! I’m too busy!”. I am guilty of thinking this myself many, many times. But the hard truth is… we all have a lot more time than we think we do. If you’re struggling to find time in your daily life for good habits you want to implement or for working towards one of your goals, try doing a time audit. Take a step back and examine what a typical day looks like for you, even physically track how much time you spend on each thing in a day if you want to take it that far. There’s always going to be some sort of time we are wasting on bad habits or unnecessary activities. Once you’re aware of how you are spending your time, you can see time-wasters you can eliminate or at least minimize them in your life to make room for more important things.
10. Give yourself permission to rest.
This final tip is something that I have to remind myself to do on a regular basis. I like to have a plan for everything, and when things don’t go according to that plan, it can be frustrating. But the fact is, life happens! Sometimes we all get worn out and just need to rest or chaos unleashes in our personal lives and there’s just no way to keep up the momentum we’d built up in our productivity. And what we have to remember is that it’s ok! Life is a constant flow of seasons and I’ve found everything else is too, including productivity. In one season we may be able to go 90 miles a minute, but in another, we may need to slow down and just rest.
This past November, I released my latest book and was riding high on a wave of motivation. Then over Thanksgiving, I caught the flu and spent nearly a week laying on my couch with zero motivation for anything except resting and reading. I wanted to be writing during those long days at home with nothing to do, but I just couldn’t. Instead, I indulged in the pleasure of reading for hours at a time. At first, it frustrated me because I felt like so much valuable time was wasted. But eventually I could see that those days of just being still and inactive were what my body and mind needed after a very busy season of my life. Throughout December, I was busy again with all the Christmas activities and continued to struggle with finding my motivation to get back to writing, choosing to blaze my way through reading a bunch of books instead. Again, it was frustrating to not be getting any new words on the page, but it was also exactly what I needed because, now that I’m officially back into the groove with my writing, I feel refreshed and inspired.
If you feel yourself getting worn out, burnt out, or stressed, don’t be afraid to let yourself rest for a while. As shown with the pomodoro technique, taking a break from productivity before working hard again can greatly increase our productivity in the long run. We were not made to be working constantly—I mean, God Himself, who created us in His image, rested on the 7th day after working to create the world for six days. Give yourself grace when you’re struggling rather than beat yourself up about it, and build some time for rest into your life as you work towards whatever dream or goals you have. If God’s will is in those dreams or goals, He will give you the strength to keep going and help you along the way!