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How to Handle the Conflicting Demands of Your Core Actions

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Knuckle Touch

Guest post: This is a guest post by Annie Mueller. She is a writer and mom of four. She blogs about productivity for creatives at FreakishlyProductive.com.

You have certain areas of your work that are important. Maybe these fall into projects, with a beginning and an end. Maybe they are ongoing responsibilities.

Maybe you have some of both.

These areas are the heart of your work. Your meat and potatoes. Your bread and butter. Your coffee and chocolate croissant (my preference).

You depend on these areas, these projects for your primary output. Without them, you’re just spinning your wheels, doing nothing significant.

Each of these areas has a certain set of core actions.

And that’s where the difficulty begins.

What are the main areas of your work?

The Core Actions of Your Main Work Areas

croissant and coffee

The more complex an area or project is, the longer and more complex its set of core actions.

And the more complex the relationships between those actions. For example, an area such as blogging doesn’t seem like rocket science, but it turns out to be fairly complex: my “blogging process” involves 10+ steps, and that is the pared-down version.

A blogger will regularly be tackling core actions which include keyword analysis, industry and topical research, brainstorming, writing drafts, editing, formatting, finding images and other supporting materials, promoting each post, and responding to readers.

What are the core actions for each of your main areas?

Core Action Dependencies

Chef preparing foods.

Sometimes one core action will depend on another.

A chef can’t create an amazing meal without fresh, high-quality ingredients. Someone has to plan the menu, make the list, and do the shopping. The actions stack in levels, and one level leads to another. You can’t get to level two unless someone first accomplishes the level one actions.

Unless you have an army of minions waiting to do those level one actions for you, that someone is you.

How do your core actions break down into levels? What are the dependencies in each area?

The 4 Most Common Problems with Core Actions

Multitasking

1. Taking on too much.
The most common problem, by far, is that we assume too much responsibility and take on too many projects, and find ourselves overloaded with far too many core actions. It happens so quickly. We often feel like we don’t have a choice, because all of these areas are important. What can we say no to in this list? Nothing seems negotiable.

But things are negotiable. You have options.

  • Clear limits. Set boundaries for your responsibility in an area rather than taking the whole thing on or leaving it open-ended (because it will expand).
  • Delegation. Get help with the project or area. Hire a virtual assistant. Call in favors. Find some minions.
  • Schedule changes. Shift the project to later on the calendar, or put it on hold and schedule a reminder at some point in the future to revisit the area or project.

Limiting, delegating, or moving an area is not the same as eliminating it from your life.

2. Getting stuck in the first level.
This is the story of my life.

What I do is writing. What I need to do before the actual writing is a lot of reading, researching, brainstorming, and assimilating information.

I love this action. I can spend hours there. Sometimes I need to. Sometimes I don’t. But always, at some point, I need to move on from this level one action. I need to step up to level two, writing a draft.

Level two actions tend to be more mentally demanding, perhaps more complex. Once you’re deep in a level two action, you’re in the flow. It’s amazing, you are using your skills and doing what you love to do. But getting started on a level two action can feel just about as appealing as cuddling with a honey badger.

How can we get ourselves out of level one?

  • Time limits. The Pomodoro approach works wonderfully. Give yourself one work session on a level one action, take your break, then start on a level two action.
  • Specific lists. Make a list of the specific goals or needs you have in this level one action, tick them off as you accomplish them, and then move on when the list is complete.
  • Time blocks. Divide your day into sections of time. Morning is dedicated to level one actions, afternoon belongs to level two. Or create shorter blocks, and give them leveled assignments according to the work you have waiting.

3. Skipping ahead too soon.
The opposite problem is the one that appears when a deadline is close.

Those deadlines. Whew. They are my best friends and worst enemies. They make me jump to it. I respond to the urgency and the pressure with insanely focused productivity. But sometimes, due to that time pressure, I jump too fast.

If I haven’t spend adequate time completing the level one action(s), and I skip ahead to level two, things get ugly. Trying to accomplish something when you haven’t done adequate prep work is just painful. Imagine giving an extemporaneous speech in a language you don’t know. Or sing karaoke to a song you’ve never heard.

Avoid the pressure-induced leapfrogging.

  • Checklists. Create an entry-level checklist for your level two action(s). These are the basic requirements of what you need to have in place before you can begin working on level two.
  • Milestones. Set mini-deadlines within the larger context of your big deadline. Each deadline is a marker telling you what you should have accomplished by this point.
  • Time quotas. Assign a required amount of time to each of your first-level actions. Don’t let yourself move on to level two unless you have met that quota. Give yourself a reward when you do.

4. Jumping between areas.
When you have multiple areas, with multiple core actions, deciding what to focus on first is a challenge.

When we don’t decide, or focus long enough on one area, we end up jumping from one area to another. The result is a long day (or week, or month) filled with a lot of work, and at the end? There’s very little measurable progress. When we don’t stick with one area long enough to get through the complete set of actions, we don’t get any output.

I don’t know of anything more discouraging than working my tail off all week only to have nothing finished to show for it.

We need to keep ourselves from being serial jumpers.

  • Assigned days. Give each day an area. Monday gets project X, Tuesday gets area Y, and so on. Build in a buffer day, if you can, to catch up on loose ends, finish up the last core actions, and do administrative stuff.
  • Areas of focus. Look at your calendar during your planning time and decide which area or project needs your focus this week. Schedule adequate time to it so that you can bring it to completion, even if that means your other areas or project will still be in progress.
  • Progress points. Break your areas down into points of progress that come before final completion. You can’t say, “Whew, I’m done!” but you can say, “I made a lot of progress.” This type of framework gives you targets for each day, week, or month, and you can schedule yourself accordingly.

Awareness Is Your Superpower

Superpower

Awareness is the best starting point.

Be aware of your main work areas. Which projects and areas give you the output that makes your work valuable?

Be aware of the core actions in each area. Make a list. Make a chart. Focus on the essentials, not the extras.

Be aware of how you handle these actions and areas. Watch yourself. Track your time. Notice where you hesitate, when you procrastinate, and how often you jump around or waver in indecision.

Once you start noticing these patterns, you will know how to handle the problems. Then you can tackle the conflicts, deal with the issues, and make progress on the work that is most important for you.

Guest post: This is a guest post by Annie Mueller. She is a writer and mom of four. She blogs about productivity for creatives at FreakishlyProductive.com.

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6 Comments

Posted by Jonathan  | August 29, 2014 at 9:39AM | Reply

An early, precise definition of precisely what you mean by “Level One,” “Level Two” etc. would greatly amplify the clarity of this piece. I can’t tell if there’s anything profound or useful here because I can’t tell exactly what you’re trying to say.

Posted by Annie Mueller  | August 30, 2014 at 8:59PM | Reply

Jonathan, thanks for pointing out the need.

By “Level One” I mean the actions that must take place first in any set of actions leading to a particular output. This does not necessarily make them the most important, but without the Level One actions taking place, you can’t move forward. For example, researching is a Level One activity that I need to do, as a writer. If I don’t accomplish it and I attempt to move on to Level Two (writing that first draft), I’ll struggle to do a good job and may not be able to do the work at all.

Some outputs and their corresponding actions may not have Level One and Level Two actions, while others may have many levels. It depends on how complex the work is and how it needs to be done.

Does that help?

Posted by Max3dvi  | August 31, 2014 at 9:14AM | Reply

Realy inspiring article. It is true , if we dont have clear boundery between level we start to procrastinate. We are often Missing ability to manage the information that we have collect in level 1.Do you have an example of one Checklists that you use to pass from level one to level 2?
Thanks a lot for this post

Posted by Annie  | September 1, 2014 at 4:31PM | Reply

Sure, here’s an example: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/32168858/Blogging%20Workflow.pdf

It’s a mind map of my blogging workflow. There are six main actions which need to be done in order from (level) #1 to (level) #6. Each main action has 3 sub-actions or items to check off before I can call it complete and move on to the next main action.

Posted by Zachary  | September 1, 2014 at 9:54PM

Nice Annie. I’m totally absconding with this mindmap. Muhaha!

Posted by Raj Chettri  | October 28, 2016 at 2:12AM | Reply

Hi,

This is the first time I have read your blog and I am a big fan of your writing. It’s really helpful.

Thank you.

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