Six 10-minute tools for improvement in the new year

Many grand plans for the new year fail because they're too complex, too daunting, or require a high degree of commitment. If you've got an hour, try these easy techniques.

New Year resolutions concept.

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We're in the midst of the end-of-year season of self-improvement, when we're likely setting grand plans to accomplish various goals, being bombarded with advertisements for diets and fitness regimes, and perhaps regretting that second (or third) serving of holiday cake. 

We've all likely set a lofty goal or tried to launch a new behavior, only to see it gradually fall by the wayside after a few days, weeks, or  months. Rather than embarking on a grand plan for a complex transformation, why not try breaking down your goals into bite-sized chunks? 
Here are six tools that should only take a few minutes to try.               

SEE: Top 5 ways to get to inbox zero (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1. Spend 10 minutes planning

Most of us spend too much time reacting to the events and demands of the day, and not enough time planning how we'd like to approach the day. When you have a quiet moment (I like the time after the kids leave for school, but before I head to work), take 10 minutes and plan out your day and week. The first session might be focused on triage, but make this a weekly habit, and you'll start mapping out longer-term goals and the near-term tasks to achieve them.

2. Run a focus experiment

A major challenge of our "always-on" work culture is that our attention is demanded in dozens of places on a seemingly simultaneous and never-ending basis. Our culture praises "multi-tasking," yet our brains perform at their best when focused on a single task. Take 10 minutes and try a "focus experiment" during which you focus exclusively on a single task. Shut down your email, mobile phone, etc., and do nothing but focus on that activity. Alternatively, next time you're in a meeting or interacting with a colleague or someone outside work, force yourself to focus solely on that conversation. Don't think about other things, or even think about how you'll respond to what they're saying; challenge yourself to consider every utterance before allowing your mind to move on. In both cases, you'll likely find you accomplished more and had a more meaningful interaction than if you'd been trying to do and think about a dozen disconnected activities.

3. Send yourself a letter

When we first set a bold goal, it's an exciting time when possibility seems limitless. Later, we forget the excitement and perhaps focus on the difficulty of consistently executing. Why not capture your excitement and grand plans of the moment and send a letter of encouragement to your future self? I recommend writing a letter you'll open in about 90 days or, if you're feeling ambitious, write yourself a short note for 30, 90, and 180 days. You can use the "send later" feature of your email program, or go old school and write or type a note to yourself, stick it in an envelope with an "open on" date on the front, and tape it to your bathroom mirror or another prominent location.

4. Pick a stalled project and invest 10 minutes

Most of us have a project or task we're dreading. It might be a complex, multi-month effort that's stalled, or a relatively simple task that's been put off for too long. Set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes and focus exclusively on that task. You'll likely find that the 10-minute investment was far less painful than you had assumed, and perhaps those initial 10 minutes will break the mental logjam that's prevented progress.

5. Clean a frequently used space

One of the major blockers to longer-term self-improvement is a chaotic mental state, which can be dramatically affected by chaotic physical spaces. While this might sound a bit ethereal, think of when you've sat down to work at a clean workspace, or opened your email inbox to a handful of messages rather than years of unread cruft. Take 10 minutes to clean a single physical or digital space that you interact with on a regular basis. This need not be a work-related space to have a positive impact on your work. I try to clean up my bedroom closet every three to six months since it's one of the first spaces I interact with each day, and I find my workday gets off to a better start right after I clean this space. Other targets might be your workspace, car, digital desktop, or mobile phone.

6. Plan a fun activity or vacation

All this self-improvement stuff can seem like drudgery after a while, and many of us get so focused on the mechanics of execution that we forget the longer-term objective and positive aspects of what we're trying to achieve. Combine this with the fact that many leaders get so overwhelmed with the daily grind that we forget to unplug and recharge, and these tips might seem like yet another addition to an overloaded plate. Why not take 10 minutes to plan your next getaway? Set your timer and block your calendar for a planned holiday, then take some time to browse potential destinations or activities. It's absolutely acceptable to apply focus and discipline to planning your fun!

Self-improvement is not only about becoming a better technology leader, but ultimately a better human. Creating lasting change need not require a complex and all-consuming change; rather, a few minutes can begin a sustainable and beneficial journey that lasts beyond the lifespan of typical resolutions.

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