Most Mondays I stare at a list of tasks that grows longer throughout the week. Whether you run your own company, work as a freelancer or are just starting out as an intern, this is a reality that doesn’t go away.
Somehow, every Friday, I’ve found that I’ve completed almost every task on my list as well as a few extras for good measure. Over the years I’ve found a few tips that are more specific than the usual “Get organized” (although that can help). Here’s how my to-do list gets checked off every week.
1. Use Your Motivated Time Wisely
We all have a time of day where we work our best, most willing to charge forward with a new task or able to take on more stressful projects. Find it.
To do this, just experiment. Let’s say you have six blocks of time in your day: morning, mid-morning, mid-day, afternoon, mid-afternoon and late afternoon. Pick a few tasks on your list that you’re really not looking forward to and choose different blocks of time to get them started.
Make quick notes about your progress and how difficult it was to stay motivated. You’ll find that a few blocks of time will stand out for you. I’m a morning and mid-morning gal, and sometimes I can find the motivation in the late afternoon.
Once you’ve found your motivated times, use them wisely. Avoid scheduling meetings during those times. Plan to tackle the stuff you hate to do or the tasks that need to get done during this time. And for goodness sake, stay away from your email!
Which brings me to my next point …
2. Turn Off Your Email Notifications
You know what I’m talking about. The sounds. The popups. They are really only distractions. Even if you make a point to ignore them, you know they’re there, tempting you to turn away from your work.
Two hours later, you’re in an impromptu Skype meeting that will result in you taking more work without getting the things done you were supposed to before it all began.
Specify certain times you’ll check your email throughout the day. I usually check in after I’ve taken advantage of my motivated time in the morning. Then again after lunch. And once more about 30 minutes before I plan to sign off for the day.
You’ll be amazed at not only how much more you accomplish during the day, but also at how many fewer emails you receive. When you’re constantly checking in, your email can look like a war zone of back-and-forths, but if it’s only a few times a day, it seems relatively peaceful.
3. Take Breaks
Even if it’s only a quick walk around the office parking lot or getting up to grab a cup of tea, try to give your mind and body a chance to rest.
Think of work like you would a wave on the ocean: composed of the buildup, which is when you learn about the task, the crest and crash, when your work gets done and finally the washing away on the shore. That’s when you take a second to breathe.
Research has shown that people who take breaks actually have increased productivity. So why not give yourself permission? You’ll get more done.
4. Break Big, General Tasks Into Small, Specific Pieces
Just like the advice of “get organized” can be difficult to follow, so is a general giant project. When I was invited to a speaking engagement, I used this method and it worked wonderfully. I’ll use it as an example.
If I had just put “work on speech” on my to-do list, I would have looked at that and felt overwhelmed. So I took out a piece of paper and determined an outline for my speech. Then based on the engagement date, I determined how long I had to work on each piece of the outline. From there, I scheduled each piece on my to-do list.
So instead of a big, looming project in front of me, I had “Write introduction to speech” on my list. Ok, I can do that. And you’ll feel that way too, making it easier to cross those larger projects off your list.
5. Ask for Deadlines
Did you notice how easy it was for me to get my speech prepared based on how much time I had? That’s key when it comes to finishing tasks. A deadline gives you a better idea of what kind of energy to put into it, and with how much intensity.
For instance, if your boss asks for a report based on the last quarter’s data, it’s probably a good idea to know when he or she wants it. Is this something you need to put at the top of your list and bust out today? Or can you break it up and work on it slowly and get it finished by the next week?
If you’re your own boss, set some deadlines. Sure, they might just be your own, but if you’re anything like most of the entrepreneurs I know, you hate to disappoint yourself. You’ll get it done. Nothing focuses someone like a date looming in the future.
6. Banish perfectionism
I adopted this from the Cult of Done Manifesto by Bre Pettis and Kio Stark. If there is anything that is poison to finishing a task, it’s perfectionism. As the manifesto says, “It’s boring and keeps you from being done.”
Regardless of what kind of work you do, there’s always room for one more tweak or a few minor edits or a bit of an adjustment. But is it really necessary?
That’s what you have to ask yourself. If you’ve put hard work into something and you’re pretty proud of yourself, shouldn’t that be good enough? I could edit this article 14 times, but after the first two or three drafts, the only person that’s going to notice the changes is me.
If you’re interested in being productive, crossing tasks off the list and getting to the next week without carrying any baggage over from the week before, you’ve got to let perfection go. It’s boring anyway.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being finished with a hard day or a hard week’s worth of work. I’m always looking for ways to be productive and would love your feedback. What things do you swear by in getting your to-do list done?
I actually schedule time to answer emails, and my email stays closed the rest of the day. Extremely helpful to me, I used to answer emails all day long and get nothing else done.
Nice post, Rebecca. You make some excellent points. For someone like me who sits in front of a computer all day, it is important to be conscious of the the most productive times of the day. So, I think point 1 is very important.