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Harness Back-To-School Season For Your Most Productive Fall Ever

It’s September. The time for setting goals is behind you. Set a schedule instead.

Harness Back-To-School Season For Your Most Productive Fall Ever
[Photo: Flickr user David Mulder]

I recently dropped my son off at his first day of kindergarten. He met his new school with that intense combination of excitement and fear that’s unique to 5-year-olds. That morning he cried, but by mid-afternoon was telling me how great it all was, what friends he’d made already, and how nice his teachers were.

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My day, however, was drastically different. I was realized there were only four months left of the year, and I still had so much to do.

For kids, back-to-school time is a season of newness and possibility. For adults, it can be a season of dread. We’d started the year with such high hopes for what we could accomplish and who we could become. And here we are, nine months in, wondering how we got here so quickly, and with so much still left undone.

This doesn’t have to be the end, though. It can be a new beginning. A friend of mine runs a gym and calls this time of year “the second New Year.” Every September, he sees a big influx of new gym memberships and personal-training clients, many of whom are parents who now have somewhat less hectic schedules with their kids back in classrooms for much of the day. In many ways, they’re telling themselves, “I promised myself I would do this back in January, and now it’s time.”

Indeed it is. Here’s how to take advantage of it, and make the end of the year your most productive stretch yet.

Time Is A Gift And A Curse–Accept Both

The good news is there’s still time. The bad news is there’s not a lot of it. One reason goals are so easy to set in January is because we have a full 12 months to look forward to all that can be accomplished in a year. A year just feels like a long time. Even if we get off track for a month or two, there’s still plenty of time to hit “reset” and still accomplish our goals. But that’s not true any longer as we race toward the final quarter of the year.

Psychologists have long understood that the act of declaring a goal is motivating all on its own. Sometimes it’s even as satisfying as actually accomplishing it, a circumstance that helps explain why New Year’s resolutions are so easy to commit to yet so hard to follow through with. But come September, we’re only left with the hard work of doing what we said we’d do; there’s no time left to procrastinate.

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Related: The Ultimate Guide To Goal-Setting For People Who Never Set Goals


At times like this, it may be helpful to embrace the Stoic reminder of “memento mori,” remembering that time is limited, death comes to us all, and we must wisely do something with the life we’ve been given. Think of it less as a cause to mourn the time you’ve lost than a call to action–as a way of embracing the gift of time without being blind to its limits.

Not only is the end of the year approaching, but so is your death–some day. So let this spur you on to not waste another moment. You don’t have time to do everything, but you do have enough time to do something. Check your priorities and get on with it.

Look For Opportunities, Not Excuses

In his 2012 book Finding Ultra, endurance athlete Rich Roll tells a story about how he crashed his bike just as he was on the brink of winning his first major race.

By the time Roll had reached a stopping point where he could receive proper medical treatment, he’d already decided to quit. After all, his bike pedal had broken. Then the crew member of another team produces the pedal. They bandage his wounds. His wife says, “I think it’s gonna be okay.” “This is not over,” the captain of a competitor’s crew reassures him. And with that, Roll climbs back onto his bike and completes the remaining 135 miles of the race.

Every day, we’re presented with choices on how we choose to achieve our goals. As the clock runs down, it gets easier than ever to find an excuse to quit. Day by day, week by week, those excuses seem more and more reasonable and justified–making it harder to spot the opportunities to succeed that are still available to you. And in my experience, whatever we’re looking for, we tend to find.

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Don’t Set New Goals, Set A Schedule

The time for lofty goals is over. No more goal-setting. What you need now is to create daily habits that ensure the work actually gets done. And the best way to do that is to put it in your schedule.


Related: Setting Goals Might Be Preventing You From Actually Changing Anything


Today, I’m wearing a T-shirt provided by CoSchedule, my favorite social media management tool, which says “schedule everything.” It sounds like overkill, but it’s smart advice. After all, your schedule does not lie. More than what you say, it’s your calendar–all its appointments, meetings, project deadline, and social events–that tells you with cold, hard honestly what your values are, what you truly appreciate.

So take advantage of that this time of year. Use your schedule to set aside daily time to do what matters most to you. Once it’s blocked in, it’s a lot harder to ignore.

Focus On The Process, Not The Results

In general, people like events but struggle with process. Setting a goal is an event, a commitment you made at a given time and place. Accomplishing that goal takes work, and it unfolds gradually, sometimes in fits and starts. When we set a goal, we’re picturing an outcome, an end result. But what if, instead, we didn’t envision the outcome as much as we focused on the process of achieving it?

While this shift in mind-set isn’t easy to make, most things in life are actually already structured this way. You don’t lose weight, write a book, or launch a business simply by setting a goal. You do it by focusing on producing habits that ultimately allow you to reach your desired outcome. As as writer, I’m often asked about writer’s block and similar creative challenges. How do you overcome it? How do you work past that feeling of being hopelessly stuck?

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My simple answer is always the same: You overcome writer’s block by writing. You do something, even if it doesn’t make any sense when you think about the end goal. The fastest way out of inertia is to just move. The more you move, the more momentum you create, and the easier the next motion becomes.

When I dropped our son off at school, it was hard that first day. The next day, it was a little easier. By the third day, he was asking when he could go back to school. That’s not to say there aren’t tough days–those happen to us all, long after we stop going to kindergarten. But the more we move, the better we get at beating our own internal resistance. And as long as we remember that time is finite, and that habits need to be scheduled in order to stick, it’s still possible to look for opportunities instead of finding excuses.