Crossing an item off your to-do list is delightful.
Realizing you did all but the most important task is anxiety-inducing.
We, humans, are painfully good at tricking ourselves
It was 2 years ago my partner and I started creating daily to-do lists as an accountability practice. They worked. We got more done, but as time went by I noticed something.
I was aiming for the dopamine hit. For quantity over quality.
My usual list was long and had many low priority tasks on it. Every day I would try and complete as many of the tasks as I could.
This resulted in a false sense of accomplishment. In a sense of I have done things today!
The reality was different. I was often knocking out unimportant tasks while leaving the meaningful ones unattended. I was faking productivity. I lacked focus and priority.
Do you struggle with the same?
Are you feeling unhappy despite constantly knocking out 80% of the things on your to-do list? This might be because you’re working on things that deep down are not important to you.
As time passes and the important undone tasks accumulate you may begin feeling anxious. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of them.
Unfortunately, I have yet to discover a productivity technique that doesn’t lose some of its effectiveness over time.
But what I will suggest is damn close to it.
I learned this technique from a 46-year-old book by Alan Lakein - How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. Then adapted it to suit my needs.
The book’s ripe age leads me to think that this approach will continue to work as the world changes.
It’s a 3 step process that will take you 20 minutes to complete. I guarantee you that the time invested will pay off on the first day you’re using this approach.
Step 1: Make sure you’re working on things that matter
To do this you need to find out what’s important to you. Where you are going in life. If you are certain you know it - skip ahead to the last point on the list below.
The following 8 points will take you around 15 minutes to complete:
- Take a sheet of paper and put a question at the top - What are my lifetime goals?
- Now set a timer for 2 minutes and list as many goals as you can think of. Personal, professional, family, spiritual, financial, everything goes. Don’t limit yourself or question the legibility.
- Set a timer for 2 more minutes to make any changes necessary to the list. Add something that occurs to you from how you go about daily life. Don’t judge the goals yet!
- Take another sheet of paper and put a question at the top - If I knew I would be struck dead by lightning six months from today, how would I live until then?
- Assume you have set out your will and the cemetery plot and other technicalities are taken care of. Take 2 minutes and list how would you live the remaining 6 months. Would you keep working? Travel? Spend the time with your loved ones?
- Afterwards, take 2 more minutes to revise. This part is intended to pinpoint the things that are important to you which you are not doing right now.
- Now take 2 more minutes or more to review and improve your goal statements. See how the lifetime goals overlap (or not) with the 6-month list.
- Tackle the last problem - too many goals competing for your attention! Take both lists and spend one minute on each of them deciding upon the top 3 goals on that list. Mark them A1, A2 and A3 accordingly.
Optional: You may get better results if you repeat the exercise tomorrow on a fresh sheet of paper.
You just skimmed through the list, didn’t you?
I get it, you have a lot going on as it is.
Use this shortcut to get a taste of Step 1:
- Take a list of long term goals you already have. Yearly goals will work.
- Do the final step from the exercise above.
- Read below to find out how to act on them daily.
Step 2: See what activities you can take to reach your goals
Setting goals is great and all, but they are too large and abstract for consistent daily action. You need to decide what actions you can take towards reaching your goals. You need to list your activities.
Take each of your prioritized goals and list the activities required to reach it.
What exactly are activities?
Activities are something you can do.
If your goal is to be the best known real estate agent in Seattle you can’t exactly do it. An activity that you can do is Send 20 emails to potential clients.
As there is often no limit to the activities you can do, start by listing those that should be done first and adjust the list later. The list of activities is something you will update often.
Step 3. Plan and prioritize your short-term activities
You now know where you want to go in life and the activities that will bring you there. That’s almost it!
Sadly, you can’t sit back and hope you will remember your activity list or even choose the right ones for the day.
Make weekly and daily activity lists!
Every Sunday evening list the activities you intend to do over the next week. This should be easy as you already have the activities listed for every A priority long term goal.
If some of the activities are too big to do in one sitting, break them apart.
Then, use them to make a daily prioritized to-do list. Again, if something is too big to do in a day - break a weekly activity up into doable chunks.
A good way to choose priorities is this:
- Use A for the important activities towards your long term goals.
- Use B for activities with A quality, just not as urgent.
- Chores, something nice to do, but not overly important is a C.
I seldom do my C activities and sometimes even keep them in a separate list. The important ones will increase in priority, but most will disappear.
That’s right! C activities often become irrelevant and you skip doing them entirely!
In the end, the way you will do this is up to you, but remember - wrong priorities will lead to the same old problem of working on the wrong thing.
Don’t obsess over the way you do this. As long as you are actually making progress towards your A goals and are happy with life - you’re on the right track!
I believe Step 3 is the most important thing you can do for your everyday productivity
Yes, a daily list would work nowhere as good without the long term goals laid out. But it would still work better than long term goals without daily activity planning.
In the beginning, I promised this would lead to less overwhelm and anxiety. For this to be true, remember:
Your to-do list is a beacon, not a chore!
Don’t go overboard with your list! Keeping your sanity, avoiding overwhelm and burnout are all more important.
Your goal is to do the things that really matter. The A priority tasks. The Bs and Cs can wait.
Try it out and see where it leads you.
Adjust and improve what you learned to create something that works for you. See how it suits you. How it makes you feel.
If you feel my approach is lacking - read Alan’s book.
Revise your goals as time goes by.
You as a person will change and your goals and priorities will too. I revise my lifetime goals 2 times per year and see if the activities are still the same.
And if you ever notice you’ve neglected one of your top goals - take a tiny step, complete an easy activity. The small steps add up. They bring you closer to where you want to be.
P.S. Do you have a productivity system that works for you? Share it!
P.P.S. Click here to find out the productivity tools that I use and love.