We need to think about our work and then do that work. It sounds so simple, though it’s much harder to put in practice. The biggest challenge we face in trying to keep them separate is that we often try to do them both at the same time, which never works — because it’s not supposed to. It’s fundamentally contradictory to do them both at the same time.
What works is when you think about something and then do it. In other words, thought precedes action, not vice-versa. Thought is the What/Why, whereas action is the How. The former will always precede the latter, as it should.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
The ancestor of every action is a thought.
Thinking about your work doesn’t mean you have to finish doing the work; it simply means you finish the thinking required to do the work. So when it’s time to do the work, you’re not thinking about the work anymore, you’re just doing it. That’s how you separate the two. When you’re thinking about your work, all you’re doing is the thinking; when you’re doing the work, that is all you’re doing. So, it makes sense to schedule times for doing them both.
I wrote about scheduling work based on our attention. Once you’ve thought about the different areas of focus and created similar categories in your calendar and list manager with appropriate actions, then it’s just a matter of showing up and doing the next thing on your lists. By having thought about your work, you’re simply doing the work.
Figure out the best times in your day to think about your work and to do the work. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do ad hoc work that shows up unexpectedly. There will always be some of that, but try to keep it to a minimum.
For me, early mornings and early evenings are when I do that thinking, while the rest of the day is spent “cranking the widgets”.
I do that thinking in various ways. One way I do that is by writing Morning Pages every day. Another way I do that is by doing a daily review, where I review my calendar and list manager in terms of what I can get done in a given day.
Then there’re times when I think during my work breaks. I use these breaks to renew myself by taking a walk or just moving around before it’s time to return to my work. I wrote about the value of sitting less by taking short breaks every 25 minutes. Other times for thinking include when I’m taking showers, meditating, debriefing, etc.
Taking breaks and downtime are important in a work day. Only when you take time away from work can you think about your work objectively. Taking those breaks allows me to distance myself from work in order to have and maintain that objectivity. Other times, you’re too close to it “emotionally” for you to make a rational decision about your work. That is one of the reasons why you need some time away from work every day. I wrote more about that in Work and Play.
I also try to avoid “consuming” information of any kind/form (such as news, social media updates, etc.) during work days, which further gives me the space to think objectively about my work.
I use analog tools to facilitate my thinking mindset and digital tools to execute the doing mindset. I wrote about it in Tools Don’t Matter.
Other examples include:
- Maintain lists for films to see, music to listen to, books and articles to read, etc. that you might want to “consume” at some point, but not when you come across it.
- Items in your list manager: have separate times for thinking about your work and doing the work.
- Items in your calendar: plan your week in advance and spend the rest of the week doing those things that you’ve planned.
- Think/plan your work in projects, and do your projects in actions by doing it in work modes.
- Same goes for having a list of phone calls to make. Because I’ve already thought about the different calls I’m going to make, it’s a matter of making those phone calls in the time I’ve allocated for it. Ditto for emails to send, errands to run, etc.
A potential problem with lists is when you start thinking about whether or not you should do one of the action items during your specified “doing” time. In this case, you should have already thought about what you were going to do, and unless it’s going to take you more than a couple of minutes to do it, then just do it because it’ll be more work to set up an action in your list manager.
When you feel like you have too many things on your mind, do a “brain dump” of all the things that have your attention in your list manager. Focus on capturing those things first, and only after you’ve captured them all, go through that list one by one to clarify what each of those things mean to you. When we don’t pay attention to things that have our attention, those things take more of our attention than they deserve. Even better is to capture the thing that has our attention when it has our attention.
Build some thinking time in your work day to give yourself some space. It’s never about having more time; it’s about having more clear space and what that space allows you to do. By giving yourself pockets of time during the day to think about your work, it helps you take a step back and reflect on what you’re doing and where you’re headed.
There’re times to think, and then there’re times to do. Figure out what those times are for you. Because unless you separate the thinking from the doing, you’ll be able to do neither of them effectively. And it’ll be in your worst interest to do so.