When my husband was in graduate school for English, he had a professor named Chris Bachelder who, among other things, introduced him to the concept of the “back wall”. This is one of those ideas that has now weaseled its way into our relationship short-hand, so it’s a concept I think about a lot.

In writing (movies, TV, or literature), the idea of the “back wall” is that the reader or audience should always know what the characters are working toward. In other words, you should have some idea where the story is headed and it should be clear that the audience will know when the character has gotten there.

This isn’t always the main plot point, either. Rather, it’s the most immediate problem or question that needs to be resolved. So good stories will generally have multiple back walls. And when one is reached, another one will be there to replace it, just further away.

LET ME TELL YOU A STORY THAT WILL HELP EXPLAIN WHAT THIS HAS TO DO WITH PRODUCTIVITY.

My family went down to Nashville for a month to stay with my (incredibly generous and patient) parents. While we were there, my mom had given each of us a to-do list to help her prep for a big party they were hosting.

My (beautiful, wonderful) mother is… singular in the way she approaches delegation.

When I ask her what she needs me to do, it will often turn into a much longer conversation that sounds something like, “Well, we need A, B, and C, but when the cleaners come, that means that B is then going to need D and E, but we won’t know until later, and it will just be easier if I do A, and I think your dad said he might take care of C.”

Which means I’m usually left sputtering in my head, “So… what do you need me to DO?”

“I need a back wall,” I told Cory as he and I were working through our respective to-do lists. “I need to know exactly what she needs and what the end point is, otherwise I feel like everything she needed is only half-done because I’m not clear on what she’s asking me to do.

In other words, we needed clear direction and we needed to know when the work would be done.

This is not only a super helpful reminder for any of you who delegate work to VAs or other assistants, but it’s also helpful in your daily to-do lists. Does your day, week, or quarter have clear direction? Are your goals specific? Do you know when you’ll have reached them?

MAKING THESE DISTINCT AND CLEAR HAS A HUGE IMPACT IN YOUR MOMENTUM IN YOUR WORK.

Cory recently told me that the way he works through to-do lists is that he will keep adding items to his list as he works through it. And what this means is that by the time he finishes the 10 items he expected to get done, when he looks at his list, there are 25 more items on it.

It exhausts him and makes him feel like he will never get done. He never gets that feeling of accomplishment, of a job well done. That little shot of dopamine that tells your brain, “Hey, good work!”

He needs a back wall.

Deciding your back wall for the day can be as simple as deciding your top three (or 5… or 1, even) priorities for the day, then knowing that if you finish those and that’s all you can handle for the day, you can stop. Or you can set a new back wall and keep moving.

I recently sat in on a webinar led by one of my favorite business coaches and humans, Michelle Ward (The When I Grow Up Coach). She reminded us in the webinar of that handy little “45-minute timer” tip.

Decide that you’re going to work on something for just 45 minutes. It’s a short enough time that it feels manageable, but a long enough time to actually accomplish some work.

Not only is that so true, but it’s also a great example of instituting a back wall. The end of that 45 minutes is your back wall, and when you get there, you get to choose whether or not to set a new back wall. AND when you get there, give yourself a pat on the back and acknowledge what you accomplished!

So what’s your back wall for the day? Hit “reply” and let me know