Are you working on a tech project?

What is the biggest challenge that you are facing right now?

One tactic for staying laser focused and reaching your goals

Published on Jul 13, 2015

Last summer I ran a six week programming bootcamp for new web developers who wanted to get some basic skills quickly. I surveyed more than two-thousand people who joined, and I got hundreds of detailed responses. One of the questions that I asked was, "What struggles have you had while trying to get started with programming in the past?" The most common answer by far was ...

I can't seem to stay motivated

That's a painful feeling, and if you have tried to accomplish anything difficult out on your own, you've probably experienced it. But why do we struggle with this?

For most of us, we spend a big chunk of our life in a situation where someone gives us a list of classes, in each class they give us a syllabus, and then we are given reading and assignments and grades and so on. Then we graduate and go into a corporate environment where some middle manager is giving us tasks and deadlines.

Most of us don't know what to do when no one is telling us what to do.

Whenever you launch a new initiative, you will inevitably run into big, unexpected problems. You need to be able to break these big problems down into smaller parts and find a systematic way to attack them.

Create an action list

Over the past several years, I've developed a habit to combat these moments of feeling lost (which lead to moments of no motivation and focus). Every single night before I go to bed, I sit down and make an 'action list' of 7 or 8 things that I want to get done the next day. A few of them are longer tasks, and a few of them are really simple. I make sure to tie them into my high level goals, which I also keep written down and updated. I use a paper notebook. Software adds more distraction in my opinion.

It sounds simple, but surprisingly few people do it. The great thing is that this gives you a moment to sort things and break them down before you are actually in the middle of trying to work on something. The same way you don't want to be learning calculus during the test, you don't want to be figuring out what you are doing next during your main hours of being productive. That's a recipe for wandering and checking Twitter.

A few quick pointers

Keep it actionable. If you write down "learn programming" or "start business" on a notepad, what the heck are you going to do the next morning? Nothing. The answer is nothing. And that's because what you wrote is meaningless and useless. If you write, "Read chapter 3 in [insert book title of your choice]" or "Call Ted, Seth, and Sarah about new consulting contracts", that is much more actionable.

Keep it simple (stupid). If you can't achieve what you wrote down in one sitting, split it up into smaller tasks. This kind of ties into the previous point, but if you say "Build project X", it's obviously not going to get done. The goal is to create momentum for yourself by achieving smaller goals and getting small wins.

Prepare your workspace. I find that when I'm procrastinating, if I start by setting up whatever I'm about to work on, go grab a coffee, and come back, it's a lot easier to dive in. I don't know why, but it definitely works that way for me. It's especially effective if you need to get up early and work. The more barriers you can remove for yourself the better.

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