Do you have a never-ending to do list? Do you have the best of intentions every day, but the day gets away from you? Do you feel bad at the end of the day when you look at your list and see how little you’ve crossed off?
If you do, I’m not surprised. I’m also wiling to bet that you’re ambitious and perhaps a little overly optimistic. The fact that you’re trying to accomplish a lot is admirable. But here’s the thing. We’re never going to get it all done. And that is OK. That’s life. Ruthless prioritization is essential. Because we’re not going to get it all done, what we want to do is consciously choose to do the things that are in service of our goals, so that you can ensure that, by default, the things you didn’t get to were less important than the things you did.
The fact is, that most of us put stuff on our lists in a way that I think is best described as aspirational. We think about what we WANT to get done, rather than what’s REALISTIC to get done. Essentially, we’re biting off more than we can chew, day after day, and that leaves us feeling like we’re sweeping water. Things get pushed from day to day and feel guilty every time it happens.
It doesn’t feel good, it’s demoralizing, and there’s something we can do about it.
Break it down
Do you keep procrastinating tasks or projects that feel big, overwhelming or amorphous? Break it down into steps. If you don’t know all the steps, can you define the first step? Just figure out the smallest possible step you can take to move this forward. And if you don’t know, then the next step is to add some time on your calendar to brainstorm, or to ask someone.
So, you’ve figured out what the next step is for a particular task or project. When are you going to do that next step? If you are using a task list that doesn’t define dates, it can be super-overwhelming. Everything on the list has the same visual weight. Every day you look at the list and think to yourself (20+ times a day!) “what should I do next?”. It’s exhausting and it leads to decision fatigue. Instead, add dates so that you know what you need to do TODAY, and you don’t need to look at the other 100+ items on your list.
Confer with your calendar
It’s no use adding dates to your task system if you don’t have an idea of how much time you have on your hands. Most people, if using dates in their task lists, put 90% of the tasks on “today”, 7% on “tomorrow” and the remaining 3% at some point in the future. But guess what? You’re not getting 90% of your task list completed today. Look at your calendar when assigning dates and make sure that you actually have the time to get the stuff done that you want to. If you don’t, then you’re going to have to do some ruthless prioritization. If you’ve got back-to-back meetings all day Wednesday, don’t assign yourself ANYTHING for Wednesday,. At best, you’ll be checking email and Slack between meetings. And when you get to the end of the day, you’ll feel a lot better about it than if you had assigned yourself a bunch of aspirational tasks that you were never going to have time to do that day
Be realistic about your mood/energy levels
At 8am we often are overly optimistic about what we will be able to accomplish the rest of the day. At 8am on a Monday, you might think, “yes, I’ll get my taxes done tonight after work”. And then what happens? Your commute is long, you get home and all you want to do is eat dinner and put your feet up. You think, “Tonight I’m tired, but tomorrow I’ll do my taxes.” And tomorrow rarely comes. If you know you’re dead tired after work, well then don’t assign yourself stuff you know you’re unlikely to get done. If you know you have a 2pm slump every day, then don’t attempt to do work that requires your full brain power and all of your critical thinking skills at 2pm. Your energy levels and patterns are real; respect them instead of trying to over-ride them.
The process above? I call that “task realism”.
And if you’d like to live in a world where you spend more time feeling good about the stuff you did accomplish instead of bad about the stuff you didn’t (that in your heart of hearts you knew you weren’t going to get to), then I welcome you to adopt this philosophy.