zen habits : breathe

3 Ways to Get More Done With the Power of Less

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jerry Kolber, an award-winning writer, producer, and executive producer of film and television.

Along with my own deepening mindfulness meditation practice, I’ve found Leo’s writing to be extremely helpful in my ongoing discovery of why I am on this planet.

For the last decade, from my mid 20’s to my mid 30’s, I’ve been working in film and television as a writer, producer, and executive producer on shows like Inked, Confessions of a Matchmaker, NOFX: Backstage Passport, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Some of the television I’ve worked on has been aligned with my desire to help people overcome obstacles to manifesting their full potential as human beings – Queer Eye and Confessions of a Matchmaker in particular – while some of it has merely been great entertainment.  Along the way I’ve spent a lot of my spare time working on social justice media for places like Treehugger.com and working on environmental justice issues.

I’ve been taking active steps in the last year to manifest a life built more predominantly around my interest in social justice, particularly as it relates to food and the environment. I am constantly educating myself on issues around farming, local and organic food, and how our food choices affect the interdependent web that we all live in. As Leo has often said here, a delicious healthy diet is deeply satisfying and energizing, and once you start eating food that makes you feel alive in your core it’s hard to eat anything else.

Eating is basically the only time we voluntarily select which parts of the “outside world” we want to put inside us; the energy of the food has quite an impact on the quality of our energy and our thoughts. Yet the mainstream conversation about how to get and prepare healthy, fresh food focuses mainly on expensive organic luxury items, while conversations about eating on a budget too often focus on processed “cheap food.” Early this year I had an aha moment: I needed to take my avid interest in cooking, combine it with everything I knew about food justice, and write a fun, easily accessible cookbook so that people on a budget could join the “food revolution”.

The Power of Less to the Rescue

But I had a problem. When I decided to write this book in January I was in the middle of executive producing a pilot. I had four other projects floating around, plus friends I wanted to see, books I wanted to read, family to keep in touch with, and blogs to keep up with! Although everything going on was very satisfying and exciting, in my heart I heard a voice saying “write the cookbook” but I couldn’t figure out how to find the time. I’d been reading Leo’s blog for a while, and fortuitously right around this time he published The Power of Less which proved invaluable in helping me clarify how to get my book written and published. I found three ideas in Leo’s book that were particularly illuminating.

1. One Goal
The first of these is Leo’s advice to have only one “Big Goal” at a time. Leo’s idea of a “big goal” is something that is achievable but challenging, probably within about six months to a year. A big goal can be anything from, “get into law school”, to “become a published author”, to “finish a triathlon”. His feeling is that having one goal forces you to focus all your energy on achieving that goal, increasing your chances of completing it and reducing the diluted energy that results from the more typical advice of having several simultaneous goals.

I had never thought of it this way, but after trying the “One Big Goal” strategy I’m a believer. We live in a world of limitless possibility – and limitless distraction – so there’s already enough competing for the bandwidth of our attention without creating our own obstacles to success by having multiple goals. Using my own contemplative practice as well as Leo’s techniques from part one of the book, I arrived at my One Big Goal: “Make a living creating life-changing social justice media.” This goal sounds difficult, but I know it’s achievable because I can look around and see others who are doing it – and if they can do it, why not me?

2. Three Projects.
The next idea that proved invaluable was the advice to have only three projects at a time. Three projects? I had at least fifteen! Leo’s advice is to list your top three projects – three things that are big, game-changing, and can each be done in about a week or two – and add no new projects until all three of those are done. You’re likely going to have one work related project, and at least one related to your One Big Goal. I decided to give it a shot, listing my top three projects for the week of January 23 2009 as:

  1. Finish rough cut of Sonya Fitzpatrick pilot (the Animal Planet show). (Work)
  2. Setup website for cookbook at www.ThreeDollarDinner.com. (One Big Goal)
  3. Finish editing pitch book for Mister Dance Pants (Work/Personal)

I don’t list exercising, meditating, or social life as “projects” – these are part of my daily routine.

3. Most Important Tasks.
The third piece of Leo’s advice that I found life-changing – and this one more so than any other – is to have three Most Important Tasks each day, to write them up the night before, and to do them first thing in the morning BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE. I lump all of these ideas under the heading “MIT” (Most Important Tasks) and can tell you that applying just this one concept will radically change the way you achieve success. He recommends that one of your MIT’s each day relate to your One Big Goal, one relate to work (if that is a different arena than your big goal) and one to your personal life. A good way to know if something qualifies as an MIT is to ask:  Will doing this task today make a profound difference in my life a week, a month, or a year from now?

Here are my three MIT’s from January 25, 2009:

  1. Research different kinds of blogging software and pick one (One Big Goal)
  2. Call Barry to review Mister Dancepants slides (Work/Personal)
  3. Finish writing outline for act four of the Sonya Fitzpatrick rough cut (Work)

Since I’m already an “early riser” (another Leo habit) I tend to spend about two hours before the day really kicks into high gear doing my MIT’s; I also practice meditating during this time, as well as scanning a bunch of blogs and news items. If I wait until later I’m already busy with work, and after work I’m socializing or winding down. Already having an “early riser” habit in place has been very helpful. If I wasn’t already getting up early, it would be the first habit I would want to develop in pursuit of my big goals.

Each night I would list my next three MIT’s, the next morning I did them, and after about three weeks I’d finished those first three projects. I was so excited to finish the cookbook site and so impressed with this simple goal management system that I decided to focus almost exclusively on the cookbook and the website through March and April, taking on freelance writing clients for income through Guru.com. My project list throughout March and April was some version of:

  1. Finish project for client (whatever writing project I had that week)
  2. Edit cookbook (or take photos of food, or get graphics for website)
  3. Write rough draft of personal manifesto for cookbook website

And a pretty typical list of three MITs each day read:

  1. Write seven pages of client ebook
  2. Edit ten pages of cookbook
  3. Write copy for welcome and manifesto page of website

I knew that my cookbook would help people and go a long way towards my goal of “Make a living creating life-changing social justice media.” Because the cookbook is as much about “food justice” as it is the awesome recipes I’ve put together, it was impossible to not be on fire with passion for this One Big Goal.

A few other tools that deserve more than honorable mention. Jonathan Field’s book Career Renegade is a great guide to launching a self-generated career even in a “bad economy” and his free manifesto at www.CareerRenegade.com is fantastic. My contemplative practice – a daily session of sitting meditation, usually ten to twenty minutes – is critical to staying grounded and relevant, and is inspired by Ethan Nichtern and his book One City and the community at The Interdependence Project. I’m also a regular contributor to the One City Blog on Beliefnet.com, where every day I find great support and provocative conversation from others who are making Buddhist inspired meditation relevant to 21st century life.

Combining my own mindfulness practice with Leo’s very practical advice helped me go from concept to finished product in less than 10 weeks – including putting up a website, setting up an ebook delivery system, writing a 50 page book, and writing a 25 page free manifesto that I give away on the site – all while maintaining my “regular life.” You can see the results yourself at www.ThreeDollarDinner.com. I wouldn’t undertake any producing or writing project now without applying Leo’s methods.

Jerry Kolber is an award-winning writer, producer, and executive producer of film and television including Inked and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He regularly enjoys www.ZenHabits.net and recently launched a site offering insights into eating great food on a budget at www.ThreeDollarDinner.com.

Read more about simple productivity, focus and getting great things done in Leo’s book, The Power of Less.

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