Staying on Target

Stay on target.”
–Gold Five, X-Wing Commander Pilot (“Star Wars”)

Maintaining focus is a constant challenge in today’s world. I’ve found that a few simple shortcuts can eliminate the clutter and keep me on track.

The advent of the Internet has raised procrastination to new heights. When you wanted entertainment in the old days, you had to walk all the way to the water cooler to gossip about your peers’ sexual inadequacies. In the current era of instant messaging, streaming media, and, of course, dancing hamsters, procrastination is only a keystroke away.

Even more insidious is procrastination that masquerades as productivity. The five-times-daily pilgrimage to News.Com. The slow perusal of F*ed Company — just for the news, of course.

With fewer people doing more things in an environment in constant flux, it’s tough to remember what to do on top of staying productive. If your marketing budget looks like it’s had a close encounter with Freddy Krueger (tip o’ the hat to Kelly Vizzini of Optum for that turn of phrase), it can be tough to meet your goals.

I’ve struggled with this for years, from personal planner epoch to the Palm V era. It’s always difficult to stay on target. Detailed to-do lists end up piled high with minute tasks, making prioritization even harder. Intricate project plans with deadlines and milestones take so much effort to maintain that they end up making me feel like an accountant. Calendars don’t let me carry forward tasks left undone.

Ultimately, the solution that I’ve adopted is low tech, simple, and very effective.

Every Friday afternoon, when the rush of the week has subsided, I take half an hour to compose a checklist of the major tasks that I need to accomplish during the following week. By 5:00 on Friday afternoon, most clients and contacts have packed it in for the weekend, and you have the delicious luxury of time to yourself. You could compose your checklist in the nude, though I wouldn’t recommend it. You can always count on the custodial staff to burst in at the wrong moment! The checklist I use is a simple Word document, with room for checking off the tasks. If I need to work with anyone else, I put their names down next to the tasks.

Here’s a sample of this week’s list:

___ Review product management priorities with the technical team (Me, Mike, Justin)
___ Compose monthly update for Board of Directors (Me)
___ Draft contract for advertising trade with Partner 1 (Me, Peter)
___ Write weekly column for ClickZ (Me, old “Star Wars” tapes)

Once the checklist is complete, I email it to everyone I work with and post a printed copy outside my office where everyone can see it. As I complete the tasks, I check them off with my trusty black pen. If something else comes up, I add it in — again, in pen. That way, I can clearly distinguish between what I planned and what came up. If you’re like me, your checklists will be overflowing with pen by the end of the week. But I like it that way — the analog world of ink and paper can convey more than digital fonts.

Now I know what I need to do, and whenever I feel the itch to sneak over to ESPN.com I glance at my checklist and move on to the next unchecked item. The one-week horizon is just enough to give me some long-term thinking without requiring constant revisions.

It may seem like a small thing, but it’s the anchor that I cling to in the maelstrom of business.