Without a plan in place for tackling our To-Do list, it’s easy for a whole day to sail right by with very little accomplished. How many days have you woken up ready to take on the world, and then suddenly it was evening and all you’ve managed to do was maybe feed yourself and catch up on some online reading (cat videos) that you’d been saving?
As a leading researcher of internet cat celebrities and cat meme connoisseur, that feeling of “Oh no, how is it dark already?” is so, so very familiar to me.
We’ve already discussed how rest and fuel are the primary (yes, PRIMARY) things to study and adjust when you’re looking to up your productivity. They sound like fluff, but please don’t neglect those steps. I truly believe that most people who think they lack motivation are really just lacking the energy to do and think clearly.
So, once we’ve tackled that, made some adjustments and have ourselves humming along at optimal asskicking frequency, what’s the plan?
Have a chat with yourself about expectations.
I talk about overwhelm a lot, and how I’m an overplanner. If I’m not being very, very aware of how I structure my days, I schedule too many things for myself without enough time blocked out for any of them.
This is the surest way to disappointment, frustration and eventual burnout.
So what’s a realistic expectation for what you can accomplish in one day? It depends on you, obviously, but if you’re just coming out of a slump – a period where you feel like you’ve not been accomplishing much – I’m begging you to resist the urge to be a hero and set very attainable goals that leave room to be kind to yourself.
What does that look like?
Maybe you can realistically accomplish one major thing – drafting that proposal or blog post, tackling that DIY project, doing a big clean of one room, starting that artistic masterpiece.
Then on top of that major thing, schedule in two smaller things – prepping some lunches for the week, minor cleaning, returning a book to the library, cleaning out your inbox or responding to emails, dropping stuff off at Goodwill, grocery shopping.
One major things and two minor things are a totally reasonable and, honestly, really solid list of accomplishments for the day.
It doesn’t feel like much written down on paper, though, does it?
So sit with that feeling a little bit and get OK with it. Resist the urge to schedule too much. You can always find another thing to fill some empty time if you have some, but it doesn’t need to go on your “must do” list.
Don’t overlook the “incidental” events in your schedule.
These are the things that we need to do, but don’t ever really think to put on a To-Do list because we just sort of take for granted that they have to happen.
Here’s the issue: these mundane things are usually what grenade our good intentions. We forget that we need time to shower, pick up the kids, cook dinner, walk the dog.
They feel incidental so we don’t really plan for them, but they eat into the time we’ve reserved for other things and make us feel rushed.
So when you’re thinking about your day, leave time for them. In fact, leave more time than you think you need.
My schedule for my day today looked like this:
8am – 9am: Workout (incidental)
9am – 10am: Shower/get dressed/make the bed (incidental – an hour seems like a lot of time, but my workout sometimes bleeds into this so I leave a buffer)
10am – 11am: Get this amazing chili cooking in the slow cooker (minor thing #1)
11am – 2pm: Write this post (major thing)
2pm – 3pm: Finish my taxes (minor thing #2)
I scheduled my actual To Do list items, in this case my one major and two minor things, and also scheduled those incidentals. Because I know that they’re going to eat up time even if I don’t consider them a real “task”. I’m not trying to squeeze them into the spaces between things and then kicking myself when I don’t know where all my time went.
Gather your tools.
You need three things if you’re going to conquer your To-Do list: a method for collecting and prioritizing the tasks you want to accomplish, an actual daily list, and something to keep you focused.
This worksheet will walk you through three basic steps:
Conduct a Braindump. A braindump is where you conjure up every last thing you’ve been meaning to do and write them down, rapid fire. Everything goes in your Braindump list – from the big, multi-week projects right down to “clean toilet”. Write it all down and don’t worry about formatting or putting things in a particular order.
Next, take any big tasks and break them out into the smaller steps required. This is on page 2 of the worksheet. So if your list included “Paint Bedroom” this sub-list might be: buy paint and rollers, move furniture, wash walls, paint that sucker.
Then, pick which tasks you’re going to tackle TODAY (or tomorrow if you’re planning ahead. Yay planning ahead!) Remember, we agreed that overloading yourself is bad? So I recommend one major task and two minor tasks. You do you, though.
Tool #2: A list that goes with you – Todoist.
You could do this by keeping a simple paper list handy, but I have really come to love Todoist. They have an app for every major platform platform, browser, and phone and you can sync your To Do list across all your devices. There’s even a Todoist for Email option for Gmail or Outlook that lets you quickly turn any email into an item on your To Do list.
Also, a nifty little scoring system that gives you points for crossing things off your list. It’s not good for much, but it feels good!
There’s a premium version available, but I’ve found that the free version does everything I need it to.
I’ll dump my action items for the week into my Todoist inbox and leave them unscheduled, and then each evening I move three or four of those things onto my To Do list for the next day.
Tool #3: Stay focused – The Pomodoro Technique
I am always more skeptical of advice when it comes with a fancy name. So I gave major side-eye to Pomodoro for awhile. But when I finally tried it? I get it. It really is a great way to stay focused on plugging through tasks.
The basic gist of it is that you set a timer for 25 minutes and work on one task, and only that one task, until the timer goes off. If something else crosses your mind while the time is running, you just jot it down for later and then keep plugging away at the current task.
At the end of 25 minutes, you take a 5 minute break. Stretch, walk around, refresh your drink. Just get away from the work for a few minutes.
Then you reset the timer to 25 minutes and repeat the process.
Why it works: When your brain sees hours of work looming ahead, it immediately starts looking for distractions. Why don’t we just take a peek at Facebook? Any new emails? What’s in your RSS reader today? Pretty sure there are some new cat videos on Youtube!
The nice thing about a 25 minute chunk of work is that it is brief and finite. 25 minutes? No problem!
If you stick to the system, those 25 minute chunks add up to a lot accomplished in one day.
There are Pomodoro timers that are web-based, phone based, browser extensions, or you could just use a regular kitchen timer or the one on your phone.
Putting it all together into an actual Strategy for your day.
It’s Sunday. You’re planning your schedule for tomorrow and your gameplan for the rest of the week.
- You’ve set reasonable expectations for yourself. Repeat after me: I will be kind to myself. I will not abuse myself with unrealistic demands.
- Consider what your “incidental” tasks are – the routine parts of your day that still require time.
- Do the Braindump. List everything you want to get done. Break the big things down into smaller steps.
- Pick three tasks for tomorrow. 1 major, 2 minor.
- Using Todoist, your calendar app or a piece of paper, start scheduling blocks of time for tomorrow.
Of course, if you work a job with set hours, that’s going to play a big part in what your schedule looks like and how much “other” stuff you’re able to get done outside of those hours. Don’t drive yourself bonkers and completely neglect to give yourself any free time. A major task that doesn’t quite get done can always just roll over to become a minor task tomorrow.
Two examples of how these might look different:
You deserve to have a super productive day. You deserve to feel like you really accomplished something. But. BUT. Having a productive day is an actual skill that requires practice. Rest and fuel. Structure and strategy. It’s work before you even get down to the work itself.
We fail to create sustainable change because we think we should just DO THE THINGS. I have A, B and C to do. I’ll just do them! Productivity!
And that might get you moving forward for a few days or a few weeks.
But without a system in place for making sure you’re consistently rested, energized and focused for the long-term, that burst of motivation is going to fade. And you will burn out.
So do the work. The work before the work. Turn yourself into a well-oiled productivity machine.