Some people are natural engines of productivity. They can set down a list of tasks and power through them every day, moving smoothly from one to the next, dealing with speed bumps and major issues in stride.
The rest of us, as we look at our to-do lists and wonder where we’ll find the other eleven hours in the day to finish them, are jealous and a little angry at those people. The danger of the to-do list is that it can easily get out of hand, and it’s hard to keep up and get everything done, day to day.
What can you do to enhance your productivity and your ability to make it through a task list in a single day?
1. Plan today so you really will get it done tomorrow.
Perhaps one of the most important things to do is start you day off right by knowing what’s on your plate before you show up in the office. Take some time to prepare the night before, either in the last half hour or so before you leave the office, or during a break in the evening at home.
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Planning out your to-do list ahead of time avoids the need to spend the first hour of the day figuring out what you need to do. Assign each task a priority level from one to three: level one tasks are those you absolutely must do today; level two are good tasks to do; and level three tasks aren’t necessarily important to do today but would be nice to finish. Additionally, try to estimate the amount of time each task will take you, so you don’t try to cram 24 hours worth of work into an eight-hour work day.
Starting with your expectations too high is a surefire way to fall short of your goals, so setting reasonable limits on your time is crucial.
2. Ignore your inbox, at least first thing in the morning.
If something is truly important, whoever needs to contact you will call you. The nature of email allows you to put it off for at least a little while in the morning. For a typical day, you might want to delay email until an hour before lunch, and a couple hours before you duck out for the day.
The problem most people face when checking email first thing in the morning is how it tends to dominate the day. You find a list of tasks people want you to perform, and more flow in throughout the day. You either end up working through email all day and ignore your to-do list, or you feel stretched in both directions as you try to cram email tasks in between to-do list items.
3. Pick a problem and lean into it.
Every task list has that one level-one task that you just dread. Either it’s a massively complex task, or it’s one that involves something you don’t particular enjoy, or it’s just a large and tedious assignment you simply don’t want to do. Regardless of what it is, try to tackle that one first.
Starting with the difficult tasks means you have all the energy of a fresh new day at your disposal. You’ll be able to progress through it faster and more effectively than if you put it off until later in the day. Plus, once it’s done, the largest hurdle is past.
For a massively complex task that seem too daunting to complete, you can make a to-do list specifically for items within task. Break it down, and then break it down again if you need to, until it’s digestible in easy chunks.
4. Don’t stress about what is unfinished.
At the end of the day, you’re probably going to have a few tasks you weren’t able to complete. That’s why I recommend the three-level categorization; ideally, those will all be level three tasks. When you go into it aware that you won’t necessarily get everything done, you don’t have to feel bad about pushing a task to the next day.
More importantly, discard your list at the end of the day. By the time five o’clock rolls around — or six, or seven, or whenever you go home — you’ve done what you can do. You can start building a new list for tomorrow, and you can use the experience of today to revise your time estimates so you don’t over-schedule yourself anymore.
No one is born naturally productive. Those folks we’re jealous of, at the end of the day, simply know their organization and their capabilities more clearly than we do. That’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s just an opportunity to improve.