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The 6 Smallest Steps to Success

Sometimes you need to step backward to move forward.

Allyson Lewis, 09/22/2011

It is often said that today is all you have.

The word "today" comes from the Old English origin--to dæge--which meant "on (the) day." When you place the word "today" into a business context, you immediately think about the mental or physical activities you decide to accomplish "on" or "during" each specific work day.

The unfortunate part is that without proper planning, you most likely feel completely overwhelmed with the sheer number of important things on your to-do list that you need to complete today. And, as you drive to work each morning you are aware that no matter how many hours you are willing to work today--you will never be able to finish all you need to do.

Psychologically and emotionally, this cycle of never having enough time leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction with your work.

Step Backward to Move Forward
Success is always tied to a bigger picture. But life can become so busy that we forget to look back to understand the power and the scope of what is truly most meaningful in life.

Do you find yourself waking up in the morning and creating some type of "mental checklist" of the tasks you would like to accomplish today, only to find the hours of your day filled with stress as you "react" to the events of the day?

What would happen if instead of constantly being forced to "react" to the circumstances "on (any given single) day"--you took the time to step back and work through the following six steps:

  • Rank Your Personal Priorities
  • Rediscover Your Purpose
  • Understand Your Life Goals
  • Create a Timeline for Your Life
  • Set Written 90-Day Goals
  • Today--"On This Day"--Accomplish 5 High-Value Activities

The 1st Small Step: Rank Your Personal Priorities
The human brain is really a very sophisticated processor. Every millisecond it ranks the importance of the information it is presented with and makes conscious and unconscious choices. I have read that between 90% and 95% of these decisions are at the subconscious or unconscious level. If this is true, you can easily understand the need to prioritize what you want to make sure you pay attention to in life.

Prioritizing forces you to deliberately decide what aspects of life are most important to you. As you establish personal priorities you will in essence be ranking what you will choose to take precedence in your life. Your priorities should drive your decisions, and as you become more aware of what is most important in life, your priorities will begin to drive the activities you choose to allow into your calendar.

At the foundation of true success stands the pillars of your personal priorities. Your priorities allow you to answer several vital questions:

  • What is most important to you?
  • What's the point?
  • What do you value?
  • What makes your work meaningful?


The 2nd Small Step: Rediscover Your Purpose
Roger Fisher, the Samuel Williston Professor of Law emeritus at Harvard Law School, said "There is a fundamental human need for guiding ideals that give meaning to our actions." Being able to articulate your priorities and purpose helps meet this need for understanding your guiding ideals. For me, purpose and meaning are completely connected. Having a deep understanding of your purpose in life will help you answer many of the "Why" questions in life. Why am I willing to work so hard? Why am I in the career I have chosen? Why am I here?

As you contemplate your purpose and meaning in life, consider these three statements:

  • Purpose is how you serve others.
  • Purpose is how you use your gifts and talents to change the world.
  • Love is the foundation of purpose.

The 3rd Small Step: Understand Your Life Goals
Life goals are very different than creating an annual business plan. Life goals are a part of you. They ooze out of you. They wake you up at night and keep you going when life is hard. Life goals connect you to being human, and if you have read enough history and psychology, you know many life needs and life goals are universal. 

  • Do you want more meaning in life?
  • Do you want to be in better physical condition?
  • Do you want to go back to school?
  • Are there important skill sets you want to acquire?
  • Do you want to write a book?
  • Do you want to climb a mountain?
  • Do you want to learn to cook, or speak a second language, or even play better golf?

Where are you in life? What do you want to accomplish in your life? What has been keeping you from taking action to achieve those goals?

The 4th Small Step: Create a Timeline for Your Life
Each of us has a limited amount of time on earth. Most of us measure that time in years. As we consult with companies and individuals, we encourage them to put their business and their personal life into a longer-term perspective. The brain thinks in present tense, and according to David Allen's best-selling book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, every time you think of a goal or a task, your brain wants you to finish it right now. Of course, that is impossible. And for creative, forward-thinking individuals who want to implement new ideas and new business strategies--this constant sense of urgency can be crippling.

Instead, choose to capture your goals and ideas in a single location and then periodically create a more realistic timeline for your business and your life. Choose what year you would like to accomplish specific ideas, and then place them into the correct 90-day quarter that you would like to focus your budget, time, and attention to accomplishing.

Your life is a timeline that will stretch from the day you were born until the day you die.

I am 50ish. And I would like to be productive until I am 90. This gives me 40 years and 160 quarters, with 90 days in each quarter.

That is a lot of time, to do a lot of things. PAGEBREAK

The 5th Small Step: Create Your Written 90-Day Goals
Written short-term goals are one of the most powerful business tools available. What do you want to accomplish in the next 90 days? Have you taken the time to write down what you really want to accomplish? Do you have a clear understanding of exactly what action steps you need to take to accomplish each one of your goals?

Your short-term goals should inspire you. They should be specific, quantifiable, and attainable. They should challenge you, and at the same time they must be tied to your priorities and purpose--in other words, your goals should be meaningful.

We are often asked why we recommend you create your written goals in 90-day increments. There are two primary answers. First, nature is designed in quarters. Just as in nature, there are seasons to prepare, seasons to sow, seasons to reap, and seasons to rest and plan again for the next cycle. The second reason is that you will have a fresh start every 90 days.

As you set your next series of 90-day goals, try to understand where you are in this cycle. It is always good to add variety and novelty to your goals. Think about what you can do differently. Think about what you can do more creatively. What goals would bring more meaning and significance to your work?

The 6th Small Step: Today--"On This Day"--Accomplish 5 High-Value Activities
Finally, it is time to focus on today. Remember, to dæge--which meant "on (the) day"--today is also a qualifier that separates today from yesterday or tomorrow. And while this information is not intended to discourage you from living in the moment (because today is really all you have), it is intended to help you make much better choices about how you will choose to spend the 24 hours you are given every day.

You can choose to continue to live every day by waking up and going into the office and focusing your divided attention on whatever is making you the most uncomfortable. Or you can step back, outside of the chaos of your daily life, for a period of time to clarify and understand what will make your life meaningful.

You define the bigger picture when you:

  • Rank Your Personal Priorities
  • Rediscover Your Purpose
  • Understand Your Life Goals
  • Create a Timeline for Your Life
  • Set Written 90-Day Goals
  • Today--"On This Day"--Accomplish 5 High-Value Activities

How different would your life be if you could make clear commitments that "on this day" you would focus your full attention and energy on starting and completing a select few and high-value activities that were tied to your bigger picture in life?

We recommend creating a written plan of action for every day that lists the five highest-value activities you believe should be started and completed "on this day." Further, we recommend you schedule your day around accomplishing these tasks before 11 o'clock. We call this creating your 5 before 11TM list.

When you take the time to write down your five highest-value activities and you begin to do them before 11 o'clock, you will slowly feel more in control of your time. Imagine the emotional benefits of not feeling like you have 50 tasks to accomplish, but knowing if you narrow your focus and allow yourself to give your complete attention to starting and completing each task, that your daily productivity will rise dramatically.

Further consider that if you accomplished five high-value activities every day for the next 90 days, you would have started and completed 450 high-value activities in a very short period of time.

I have titled this article, The 6 Smallest Steps to Success. They are small steps, but they are not easy steps. It is time to stop "reacting" to life, and it is time to proactively plan for the life you want. It is counterintuitive, but in order to be effective today, you must step back from today.

This article is part of a series of articles based on implementing each individual tool in The 7 Minute LifeTM 90 Day Focus Kit. Access to these tools is FREE. Register today at www.The7MinuteLife.com and then click on the Member Tools section to download your copy.

Allyson Lewis is a time management and productivity expert.  Be on the lookout for her next book: The 7 Minute Solution: Creating a Life with Meaning "7 Minutes" at a Time. Pre-Order your copy on Amazon, it is due out January 3, 2012. Find out how you can have Allyson speak in person at your next corporate event by visiting www.The7MinuteLife.com, subscribe to her blog: www.AllysonLewis.com, and follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/allyson7minutes.

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Allyson Lewis is the author of The Seven Minute Difference. She speaks about improving time-management, increasing productivity, and rediscovering purpose. Find out more about her new online video training program, The 7 Minute Life System, here. She also has a blog and a Twitter account.

The author is not an employee of Morningstar, Inc. The views expressed in this article are the author's. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.

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