Aaron Sumner

Forward is the watchword

I've been writing again lately, and generally making progress on a number of personal and public-facing projects. This is my fifth blog post in a month (spanning this site and my technical blog). I've rewritten two chapters of my book in that time, moved my personal projects to all serve over HTTPS, and finished a small-but-significant client project. I also got started on a new project idea I plan to debut in the spring.

It doesn't hurt that I'm also wrapping up a two-plus-week break from my day job. But I could've easily frittered that time away (and I did fritter some of it; it's technically vacation, after all).

Vacations aside, I'm on a mission this year. Forward is the watchword. If a project or goal is too big to move forward on, I break it down so it's less daunting. If something's no longer interesting or meaningful in some way, I cut it. Even if it's something I've sunk considerable time into–life's too short to do things you don't want to do without good reason, man.

I've long been a big believer in the Getting Things Done approach to collecting those mental loose ends, breaking them down into actionable items, and reviewing (and ruthlessly culling) task lists and other obligations. Too many people think they don't need a system, and most of those people are probably wrong. If you're keeping things in your head, or scattered across multiple scraps of paper and productivity apps, you're wasting too many cycles on remembering what's where. It's self-sabotage, even if its not intentional.

But the real trick is to do something with those carefully-defined tasks, neatly categorized by project, context, and time. I've been thinking about momentum lately, and how little wins pay off with big outcomes when chained together. Plenty has been said about the benefits of spacing out learning tasks over time, as opposed to cramming the night before a big exam (some wisdom I could've used in school, myself). I think it applies to anything you want to see go forward–whether that's learning a new skill, launching a new project, or getting in shape.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm spending a few minutes each day learning a new language. Is a few minutes a day sufficient for fluency? Probably not, but it's forward progress, and something I can build upon once I'm through with the gamified introductory stuff. And learning a new language is relatively low on my list of things I want to more forward, anyway. Higher priority items get more of my time, but I'm doing a pretty good job of breaking things down so they can be done in one or two 30-minute chunks of time. When I need a break from the big stuff, I can step away from what I'm doing and learn me some español in five-minute chunks!

My point is, if you're feeling stuck on things you think are important, first make sure they're really important. Then, figure out a way to break things down to show some forward progress every day, even if it's just a tiny bit. If you've done these things, and you're not finding the time or motivation for forward progress, ask yourself again whether this is something you really want to do. Sorry, but maybe it's not. Maybe it's time to cut bait. (I'm also sorry if that comes off as a little harsh, but it comes from personal experience.)

So the next time you find yourself idly looking at ESPN's front page (or Reddit, or a newspaper, or whatever site you're fond of), stop and ask yourself if it's the best use of your time right now. Maybe you need a mental break, and it is the best use of your time; that's fair. If it's not, ask yourself, what's something I can be doing right now to move forward on something that's important to me?

That's my mission, and my plan for a productive 2017. It's about getting more of the right things done, making each downtime a well-deserved break.

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