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Does this sound familiar? You are at work, have finished your coffee and are rewriting your to-do list for the day. Problem is, it seems bigger than the day before. Whether you are a fan of pen and paper or an online to-do list, you are probably always thinking that you just can’t get on top of your workload and be productive.

Well, take solace in the fact you are not alone. Research from company iDoneThis indicates that 41% of all to-do list items are never completed. So why does this happen and how can you break this cycle? This is a question I have pondered and researched for a long time to find some actionable insights that can make us the most productive we can be.

Tackle the Difficult Tasks First

As a to-do list does not account for time there is tendency to tackle the easy ones first and leave the harder ones till later. We all have a limited amount of mental energy, and as we exhaust this energy, our decision-making and productivity decline rapidly. As such, when you put off tough tasks till late in the day because they’re intimidating, you save them for when you’re at your worst. To beat decision fatigue, you should tackle complex tasks in the morning when your mind is fresh.

5 Minute Rule to Stop Procrastination

Recently I came across an article where they were interviewing Kevin Systrom the billionaire CEO and Co-Founder of Instagram. He has a simple trick for tasks he wants to put off. “If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing,”

Christine Li, a clinical psychologist specializing in procrastination says even if we’re motivated to accomplish a task, fear of failure, criticism, or stress pits us against ourselves. We want to finish the project, but we also don’t want our fear to become reality. This five-minute rule helps you overcome this conflict by tricking the mind that you can quickly have a go without any issues if you don’t continue.

Don’t Use Due Dates on All Tasks

Due dates are handy for big projects and small reminders, but they’re not necessary for everything. Most of the time they are artificially constructed. We decide that something needs to be done by a particular time so we assign it a due date. We have all been there, we make a list of all the tasks we want to complete and duly assign a due date to all of them. Fast forward a week and all of sudden there is a sea of overdue red on your to-do list. Why is this? Michael Linenberger has an interesting take on this.

“…if you set a date that’s fake you’ll know it’s fake and you’ll ignore it. In fact, you may miss some important deadlines because you’ll get in the habit of ignoring all due dates you write down.”

Put simply, if the due date isn’t real, it’s likely that you’ll ignore it because you know it isn’t due on that date. The result of this, you feel defeated and demotivated due to your ever-growing sea of red.

Avoid Multitasking

This is one of the great myths. You hear people say all the time that you need to get better at multitasking to increase your productivity. Research conducted at Stanford University confirms that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Research also suggests that it takes 15 consecutive minutes of focus before you can fully engage productively in a task. As such, switching between different tasks all the time makes it harder for your brain to concentrate properly. A simple example of this is watching someone walk while texting, it doesn’t work.

Multitasking enables the delusion of being productive because you are doing more things at once. A perfect example of this is emailing while on a phone call.  On face value, it appears that you have completed two tasks in a more timely fashion. However, because you didn’t have clear focus on either one, you are training your brain to never fully focus on one task. This will cost you in the long run with reduced concentration and difficulty in focusing on complex tasks when you need to.

Check email on a schedule

People have become accustomed to being available 24/7 and regularly respond to emails as quickly as they come in. In fact, it almost seems like anything sent via email seems to automatically have a greater perceived urgency applied to it for no apparent reason. People do not require an answer immediately and by doing so you are setting the foundations of unrealistic expectations. Don’t allow email to dictate your day and be a constant interruption. When you need to focus and get work done have periods throughout the day where your email is off.

Have Less Meetings

Meetings take up so much precious time throughout the day. Meetings should only be run when there is a clear agenda and a set timeframe to follow. Otherwise the trap is to continue talking about issues and events without doing anything about them. Use meetings when required to have open discussions and form actionable items for people to follow up on. Otherwise you will end up having another meeting about the previous one because nothing ended up happening.

Productive Time Blocking

If you only try one of the above techniques this is the one to try. Time blocking simply involves setting aside blocks of time on your calendar to finish different sets of tasks. This sounds simple but the fact is most people don’t allocate an actual time to complete something. We book in a time for a meeting but not an important task. So for example, let’s say you have a heap of emails to get through, start by scheduling two blocks of time, one in the morning and afternoon. During this time close any other Internet tabs / programs that might tempt you into distraction. Dedicate these time blocks to just emails. You will be surprised when you focus, avoid multitasking and other distractions just how productive you can be.

Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management says,  the high-performers he interviewed never talked about their “to-do lists,” but instead talked about their calendars and how they were organized.

Organizing your time instead of your tasks also has psychological benefits, Kruse says. There is also a psychological reason why time-blocking makes more sense. In what is known as the Zeigarnik effect, which basically states that we remember what we haven’t done better than what we have done, and uncompleted tasks weigh on us. “This can lead to stress and insomnia. However, when we have all of our tasks placed into a specific date, time, and duration, we sleep more soundly knowing everything that needs to get done is in its place,” Kruse says.

I myself was super sceptical when I first came across this concept recently. However, after trying it out I will not look back. I only wished I discovered this simple hack years ago. If anything, give it a go for just a couple of days and see how you go. If you are interested in getting started a great simple little tool which combines a to do list with calendar integration side by side is Get Plan.

Just remember to not be too hard on yourself and don’t feel the need to time block your whole day.


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