How are you feeling right now? Exhausted? Burned out? Struggling to cope? If so, you’re not alone. 2020 is a year most of us would like to forget, as COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our lives.
You may have entered this year with big goals (we did!), only to see them fall by the wayside as life took an unexpected turn. That’s frustrating, for sure. But try not to measure yourself against plans you made in ‘the before times,’ or compare your progress to that of others. Instead of beating yourself up for ‘failing,’ here’s a radical idea: you can redefine success.
Perhaps you didn’t lose weight, quit smoking, or write that book; sometimes, simply getting to the end of the day in one piece is an accomplishment. It doesn’t mean giving up on your dreams; it means you’ll live to fight another day. Redefining success takes account of your changed circumstances and liberates you from the need to achieve it all now.
A time to reflect
“There can be no life without change, and to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life.”
We began this series of posts in January with a promise: We’d “help you build your own flexible toolkit for success, with a year-long series covering the essential building blocks of productivity.” Little did we know then what this year would bring. And so we’ve also had to redefine success—from helping you be more productive to helping you navigate uncharted territory.
The end of the calendar year forms a natural opportunity to pause, reflect on what you’ve achieved, and set your goals and intentions for the coming year. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, there’s one last question you need to answer for 2020: After everything you’ve been through this year, what does success look like now?
To help you answer that, we’d like to do our own reflecting and look back on the previous entries in this series, to see how you can apply them as you set your sights on 2021 and beyond. Each one holds a piece of the puzzle that, when completed, offers you everything you need to accomplish your goals.
Here, then, are nine indispensable tools for success—however you choose to define it.
Overcome your bad habits
The problem is that we are creatures of habit…literally. Psychologist Wendy Wood says, “When you repeat an action over and over again in a given context and then get a reward when you do that, you are learning very slowly and incrementally to associate that context with that behavior.”
To break your bad habits, try these strategies instead:
- Identify your cues. Download Evernote’s Daily Recharge template and use it to record your emotions and reactions. You can also start a journal to keep track of your feelings, and work through any negative thoughts and emotions—without worrying about what anyone else might think.
- Increase the friction. Making it more difficult to indulge your bad habits makes it easier for you to eliminate them. For example, if you’re addicted to your smartphone, put it in a drawer when you’re not using it. Or create a shopping list in Evernote to avoid making impulse purchases of unhealthy items.
- Substitute good habits. As long as you continue to experience the same cues, your brain will react with the same old routines. Instead, create a table and add a row for each of the responses you want to change, then list the ‘good’ habits you’ve decided to replace them with. For example, next to “Eat a donut at 3 p.m.” you could write “Eat an apple.”
- Track your progress. Get Evernote’s Habit Tracker template to see how well you’re doing with your new habits—but don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a day! Simply forgive yourself for being human and jump back in as soon as you can.
Make a plan
Creating a plan may seem like an inconvenience when you want your journey to a better life to begin now. But traversing new territory is easier when you have a map—whether that’s taking a vacation, earning a promotion, or starting a new business.
Here’s how to create your own foundation for action:
- Write down your goal. Simply writing down a goal increases your likelihood of achieving it by 42 percent. You can capture it with Evernote’s Yearly Goals template, or if you prefer to use pen and paper, scan it into Evernote so you can refer back to it later.
- Divide your goals into chunks. Create a plan that divides your goal into small, incremental steps, then write down each step and set a deadline for its completion. Use Evernote’s Daily Planner and Weekly Planner, and create entries for every step you need to take—and don’t forget to reward yourself for the progress you make along the way!
- Review your plan daily. To stay on track, set a reminder to review your goal note regularly—daily if possible. It’s a great way to set your intention for the day and keep your focus where it belongs.
- Stay on target. As you complete each ‘chunk’ of your plan, take a moment to celebrate your progress and reevaluate your plan: Is it still practical? Are there any adjustments you need to make? That will help remind you of why you started in the first place, and give you a much-needed boost of energy.
In times of uncertainty (*gestures at everything*), the goal isn’t to match your peak productivity levels. Instead, it’s about finding pockets throughout the day that are more conducive to focusing, and gradually reducing distractions.
Here are four ways to stay on task and get your work done:
- Train your mind to ignore distractions. When you need to focus for long periods of time, less is more. That’s the science behind The Pomodoro Technique, which recommends dividing your workday into 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks. You can use this Evernote template to capture your Pomodoro tasks.
- Learn your ultradian rhythm. Within a 24-hour day, we cycle through 90-minute blocks of productivity and heightened focus, known as our ultradian rhythm. Use this Evernote template to track your levels of focus, enthusiasm, and energy, and save your most creative, strategic projects for when you feel most focused.
- Zone out. No, seriously. Giving yourself permission to daydream—at predetermined times— can be a surprisingly efficient productivity strategy. Schedule a time for deliberate mind wandering, then set a reminder in Evernote, but be sure to choose a window of time when your ultradian rhythm is not primed for focused effort.
- Choose the right location. If you don’t have a home office, contextual clues can make a shared space feel different. Take a picture or create a checklist of the items in your ‘work space.’ That’ll make it easier to get set up each day, and get down to work.
Disorganization wastes time and money. The ultimate goal is to organize your life to help you find calm and think more clearly. While this will look different for everyone, you can experiment with different approaches to see what resonates with you:
- Create standard naming conventions for labels and digital files. This helps keep you and your digital workspace organized. Try using a special character or emoji at the start of your most important notes so they always appear at the top of your note list. Or, if sorting by date is helpful to you, use a YYYY-MM-DD date format so alphabetical order is the same as date order.
- Leverage automation to connect apps. Jumping between apps all day long not only impacts your productivity, it also increases the chances of losing information or having too much data siloed in certain apps. Tools like Zapier and IFTTT can help you connect your favorite apps, so information automatically flows between each one.
- Optimize your desk space. Identify the three to five items you use most regularly and keep only those things within reach. Or have your desk mirror our natural tendency for linear processing: Place ‘incoming items’ (like your computer or phone) on the left and ‘outgoing items’ (like completed paperwork, stamps, and staplers) on the right.
- Go paperless. Scanning paper files into Evernote is as simple as using your smartphone’s camera. While in the Evernote app, tap the camera icon and point your device at the item you want to scan.
- Make organization a habit. Make time for organization like you would for a meeting or big event. Block off ten minutes at the end of each day and set a reminder to clean up your digital and physical space, or leave an hour on Fridays to focus on organization. You can keep track of it using Evernote’s GTD Weekly Review Template.
Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”
Here are three steps to making those elusive connections and boosting your creativity:
- Train your brain in divergent thinking. This encourages spontaneous, free-flowing thinking that entertains multiple solutions to a problem. One way to develop the ability is with synectics exercises. To begin, choose any two things, like a lamp and box of tissues, and write down as many associations as you can think of. Repeat the exercise everyday with new items.
- Capture all your ideas. It’s important to capture everything, so you can graduate from making connections between two random objects to finding an inspired connection between two previously unrelated ideas. Start by creating an “Ideas” notebook in Evernote to capture all your ideas, then set aside a regular time to review them all.
- Introduce the unexpected. The more diverse your experiences are, the more likely you are to innovate. You can jump-start your creativity by reading history, starting a new hobby, listening to music, or talking to someone new. Save and annotate PDFs and other content in Evernote to keep track of your thoughts and reactions as you are exposed to the unexpected.
Be open to possibilities
While it’s important to focus, too much focus on one thing can cause a kind of mental tunnel vision, closing you off to new ideas. As a result, your work can begin to feel mundane and uninspired.
Here are four strategies for breaking the monotony so you can be more open to inspiration:
- Invite something new. People tend to be more inspired when they’re open to new experiences. So it isn’t just a matter of stepping away from the problem at hand, it’s about stepping toward something outside your normal routine to purposefully clear your mind and make way for fresh ideas.
- Seek different perspectives. This isn’t about comparing yourself to anyone; it’s about seeking out quality content in your field that comes from different perspectives. Save anything that sparks an idea for one of your projects to Evernote, whether you’re on your computer or mobile device.
- Practice without pressure. Building your chops at whatever you want to accomplish is like laying the tracks for inspiration to come. To begin, check your calendar at the start of each work week and schedule at least 30 minutes of free time. Just like that, you have a sacred space in your week where you can refine your work-related skills.
- When inspiration comes, welcome it. If you’ve ever failed to capture a fleeting insight, don’t worry; it happens to the best of us. Instead, keep your tools for capturing unexpected brilliance always at the ready. Sync your Evernote account to all your devices and use shortcuts to keep the notes where you capture inspiration always at your fingertips.
Capture your ideas
Evernote’s founder Stepan Pachikov once said, “An interesting moment in life lasts only a moment.” The challenge is grabbing hold of those moments—those brilliant ideas—so they can live forever. To do that, you need a strategy for capturing them when inspiration strikes.
Here’s how to get ideas out of your head and into a note:
- Quiet your doubts with freewriting. The goal of freewriting is simple: write without stopping. Choose a time limit, put your pen to paper or your hands on the keyboard, and don’t stop until the time is up. Create a dedicated note in Evernote that acts as a journal, where you can store all your freewriting.
- Dictate your ideas. If you’re feeling stuck capturing your creative ideas with a pen or keyboard, record yourself explaining them out loud. Record an audio note directly into Evernote, then add comments to it later. You can even use your device’s speech-to-text capabilities to transcribe your ideas.
- Draw a mind map. When a new idea is still just a seed, it’s impossible to focus on the specifics. Instead, capture that small spark—a single word or image—with the goal of jump-starting new streams of inspiration. Sketch a mind map directly in Evernote on your iPhone or iPad using your finger or a stylus.
- Create a space for collaboration. To begin, simply create a notebook in Evernote and click the Share button to invite your colleagues to contribute. The end result is a collaborative, multimedia representation of everyone’s ideas. They can save and annotate images and PDFs in Evernote, and use Web Clipper to capture inspiring web pages.
You can’t always know or control what tomorrow will bring, but you can control how you react to change. Will you flounder and drown, or will you find stable ground and take advantage of fresh opportunities? Your adaptability, along with the overlapping traits of resilience and emotional intelligence, may well tip the balance.
Here are three sets of specific tools you can use right now to become more adaptable, and navigate even the scariest change:
- Follow the North Star. To become more adaptable, you need goals big enough to provide a True North in your life, and enough self-understanding to figure out where you stand in relation to those goals. Ask yourself: What is my personal or professional purpose? What makes me feel fulfilled as a human being? Which parts of me are so fundamental that external change can’t ruin them? Write your answers down and come back to them whenever you’re feeling anxious or adrift.
- Expand your comfort zone. Thankfully, you don’t have to choose between comfort and panic. There’s a third zone in between—the learning zone—where we become more adaptable. A commonplace book or spark file in Evernote can help you capture interesting ideas, articles, and images, and provide a bottomless source of inspiration.
- Learn from your mistakes (and your successes). This might sound like a ticket to low self-esteem, but a failure log is actually a powerful tool for growth. Look for the specific reasons things didn’t work out. Did you need more training? A better plan? More support from your colleagues? How can you better prepare for the next attempt? The takeaway is not that you screwed up, but that you can improve.
Despite all the disruption this year has brought, each new day is an opportunity to reset your outlook, recalibrate your aim, and try again. Along with creating a plan for what you want to achieve, there’s one vitally important skill you need to master: self-discipline. Then, when unexpected events occur (as they surely will), you’ll have the strength to resist temptation and stay laser-focused on your goals—no matter what life throws at you.
Some of the tools you’ve already picked up on this journey have multiple uses, so here are three tips for building self-discipline that’ll help you stay strong in difficult times:
- Capture and commit. If you set out to drive across the country without a map, you’ll arrive somewhere, but there’s a very good chance it won’t be where you expected. It’s the same with your goals: Without a plan, who knows where you’ll end up? Instead, create a note in Evernote and add a checklist to build an action plan for each goal. Use Web Clipper to capture anything from the web that helps you visualize the achievement of your goal.
- Understand your strengths… AND weaknesses. Once you have a deeper understanding of where you perform best and where you may need a little help, you can play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Use Evernote’s Daily Focus and Energy Tracker to help you identify your most productive times, and plan your day accordingly.
- Track, reflect, and correct. It’s easy to get discouraged when you mess up, but the fact that you tried is a victory; and you’ve learned something valuable in the process: what doesn’t work. Use Evernote’s Weekly Review template to take that information, make changes where you need to, and keep trying until you succeed.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that no matter how well you plan for the future, there will always be surprises. True success comes from learning how to navigate those unexpected changes and stay focused on what you want to achieve. Sometimes that will require a change of plans; sometimes it will mean rethinking your entire definition of success. But with a clear understanding of the challenges you face, and the determination to overcome them, you can still reach your goals.
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