When a task or project languishes on your to-do list for days, weeks, months or even years, you need to decide whether to drop it or get moving on it. Lack of momentum saps your energy and reduces the likelihood of creating your ideal life.
If continuing the activity or getting it done is a true desire, you can’t rely on willpower (self-discipline) alone. The ability to resist short-term temptations for long term gains is not enough to resolve competing priorities, make high-quality choices, and take ideal action.
Try following these 3 essential steps — which boost willpower but don’t depend too much on it — to get important things done:
1. Limit your to-do list to your highest priorities
Having too many things to do requires you to make too many decisions, which uses up limited resources, such as time, energy and willpower. Roy F. Baumeister, research psychologist and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, says limiting decisions and focusing on goals, sequentially, instead of all at once, help you build your willpower instead of deplete it.
Keep your to-do list short to avoid getting overwhelmed and exhausted. Limit your daily to-dos to the most important action items that you can realistically do in a day. Make space for sufficient sleep, regular breaks, and healthy eating. Reflecting and refueling are just as critical as taking action and moving forward.
The most effective to-do lists tie into your greatest ambition, inner purpose and heartfelt desires. They differentiate between essentials and non-essentials. They don’t revolve around easy tasks that mainly serve to keep you busy or create an illusion of progress. The best to-do lists include specific action steps for moving toward challenging and internally rewarding goals.
Procrastination is not always a bad thing. It works to your benefit when it allows you to concentrate on more meaningful tasks and avoid doing unnecessary tasks or addressing trivial issues.
If you find yourself postponing action on certain to-dos, take time to reflect on whether you really want to get them done. Meditating, journaling, and talking with a trusted confidante are some ways to consciously decide what you deeply want.
Delete from your to-do list any activity, project or experience that is no longer aligned with your highest values and merely takes up mental space. Deliberate selection and reducing your options make it more likely you will focus on what matters.
2. Schedule your highest priorities
If you truly want to gain an experience, perform an activity, or complete a project that is on your to-do list, the next step is to make time for it through scheduling.
Is there an exotic destination you’ve been wanting to visit? Book the airline ticket so you have a specific date and time you will head there.
Are you interested in learning a particular new skill? Sign up for a regular weekly class that keeps you accountable and on task.
Do you need to get moving on a project? Pick a time slot during the week – whether it’s 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour or several hours – to work on it and experiment with it.
In your weekly schedule, you could dedicate a specific day for a specific activity or type of activity. And you could pick a day for not doing a certain thing. For example, on Sundays, I stay away from doing legal work or checking emails from clients and prospects, even when I am tempted to do so as a solo lawyer with a growing firm. This frees up my Sundays for family events, social gatherings and creative projects.
Researchers suggest that willpower (or self-control) is highest in the morning and gets depleted as the day progresses. Although you can recharge by taking a break or switching to another task, your productivity tends to be highest when you tackle the most critical things first. If you choose to do easy things first, set a time limit and move on to the harder stuff sooner than later.
Design a schedule that is compatible with your natural rhythm, preferences and tendencies. Each person is different when it comes to ideal times to get things done. Regardless of whether you are a night owl or morning lark, the setting of a schedule and sticking to it will help you gain traction, especially on tasks that demand mental discipline and creative insights.
Scheduling enables you to take well-chosen actions instead of merely react to whatever is going on around you. Try setting a schedule for something simple and notice the difference. Check emails and social media in the mid-morning, afternoon and at the end of the day, instead of constantly throughout the day. You are bound to get more important things done when you’re not killing time by consuming (usually useless) information.
Once you pick a certain time of the day or a certain day to concentrate on a to-do, you develop a routine that leads to ongoing progress, without depleting your resources.
3. Make your highest priorities into sustainable habits
Scheduling your priorities into your routine allows you to make them into habits that are easier to sustain. It takes a whole lot more willpower to start things you do only sporadically.
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explains that every habit starts with a neurological loop of three parts: First, there’s the cue or trigger that leads to an automatic response. This includes the time of day, your emotional state, your location, or the people around you. Next is the routine or the behavior itself. Third is the reward that satisfies a particular craving. The reward is something your brain remembers and likes. You repeat the behavior to keep getting the reward.
Creating good habits or breaking bad habits comes down to your routine. Instead of waiting for inspiration to get things done, set aside a time and reserve a space to do what you most want to get done.
It’s easier to create new behaviors and sustain them for the long term when you work with an existing routine. I used to struggle with making time to play piano or practice a piece I learned in a prior lesson. Then several weeks ago, I noticed I had an ideal time slot on the evenings my husband gets our toddler ready for bedtime. As soon as our dinner ends and my family gives me alone time, I sit down at my piano and play for about 30 minutes. This has not only become a part of my normal routine, but also a cherished evening ritual.
Sometimes, though, you need to shake up your routine if it’s no longer workable due to changed circumstances. If you used to run in the mornings, but changed jobs and now have a longer commute to work, you could switch to an afternoon run during your lunch break or an evening run after you get home.
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When faced with a project that you want to complete, break it down into small, manageable steps on your daily to-do list. Set aside non-negotiable time to make steady progress with the right amount of effort. Create habits that enable you to get important things done, no matter how bored, overwhelmed or uninspired you might feel.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up when you postpone and procrastinate. Perhaps the task or thing isn’t so important after all. And if is, you can always come back to it, work it into your regular schedule, and transform it into a habit.
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Photo by: Gregory