Tag Archives: get things done

3 steps to get important things done

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.

* * *

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.


# # #

Photo by: Gregory

How to Make To-Do Lists Work for You

stepping stonesAn effective to-do list helps you take action on the right priorities at the right time.

It’s a useful productivity tool that can bring a sense of order to your busy life.

But all too often, you find yourself rushing through tasks, finishing only a few to-dos, having items linger for weeks or months, and getting frustrated by unplanned events. A long list of to-dos and unfinished items can make you feel overwhelmed and unfocused.

To skillfully create and complete to-do lists, you need to know the reasons why they might not work and what you can do to make them work better:

Reason #1: You’re using too many mediums or the wrong medium.

Spreading out your to-do items among different mediums, from Google tasks to Outlook calendar to Wunderlust to your weekly planner, makes it harder to stay on track. Using a trendy to-do app, when a plain notepad is more your speed, also hampers your progress.

Solution: Choose one medium that’s right for you.  

Find the medium that suits you, makes it simple to update your to-dos, and is easily accessed throughout the day. You don’t have to test out every single application that comes your way. Stick with one that works.

My personal choice is a technologically backward hard cover, 24-hour daily appointment book that combines both my calendar and to-do list. This allows me to use one platform to focus on important events and critical tasks. Staying away from online to-do apps also reduces the time I spend logging on to see my to-dos, only to end up surfing the Web.

Reason #2: You have too many items on your to-do list.  

True productivity is not about doing many things in one day. It’s about working on your highest priorities that have real impact. Having too many items on your list can lead to scattered attention and wasted energy.

Solution:  Keep it short and simple.

Be realistic with how much time and effort it takes to complete your to-dos. Let’s assume you have 8 hours in a typical work day. Completing 6 items that each takes an hour or 20 items that each takes 15 minutes is within your reach.

But what if each item actually requires more hours or more minutes to be done effectively? What about when you’re waiting for a response, feedback or approval? What happens to your productivity when you’re sleepy, not engaged, or feeling stuck? How is your focus affected when the telephone rings, an email pops up, or someone walks into your office?

Limit your to-do list to a few (preferably three) very important tasks that you can realistically do in a day. Keep the list closed. Add items throughout the day only when they are both critical and urgent; otherwise put them on tomorrow’s to-do list. Make room for lag time, delays, interruptions, distractions, or just plain lethargy.

You can also chunk your action items into batches. If you need to reply to emails, set time aside to respond to a group of them, instead of responding to each email upon receipt. Chunking related tasks together helps you to simplify your to-dos.

Reason #3: You have the wrong items on your to-do list.

Cluttering your to-do list with tasks you don’t want to do, or at least don’t need to do, sets you up for needless frustration. Life doesn’t get more fulfilling or rewarding just because your day is packed with activities.

Solution: Be more selective.

If you’re not eager to do a task, ask yourself whether it’s vital for you to personally complete. If it is, face the music and take action. If it’s not, dump it from your list, delegate the task, or move it to your someday/maybe list

Being more selective helps you create space for tasks that generate flow and are truly significant to you.  Don’t clog up your day listening to seminars or attending events just because they’re free.

Reason #4: You define your items too broadly.  

End goals and big projects are the worst types of to-dos. Seeing items like “build your website,” “create annual report,” or “prepare presentation slides” are intimidating. Because they are so huge, they do little to trigger action.

Solution: Break down goals and projects into tiny action steps.

Your to-dos need to be easy to follow, execute and accomplish. Divide big tasks into smaller sub-tasks. Define them in detail and make them action-oriented.

Start with the first physical action that you can take, such as “call web designer for price quotes,” “schedule meeting with accountant,” or “select design for slides.”

Include telephone numbers, website links, self-imposed due dates or external deadlines, and any other information you need to take the first step.

Reason #5: You focus on minor tasks and ignore your big agenda.     

You could spend a day preparing to plan without actually creating or executing an action plan. Instead of addressing your big-ticket item, you get busy checking off easy tasks that do not  further your main agenda. You can argue that replying to emails and running errands are unavoidable. But when will you get to your most crucial tasks?

While doing something might be more productive than doing nothing, you need to watch for “productive procrastination” (doing things to keep busy to avoid things that really need to get done.)

Solution: Do the most important/difficult task when you’re at your peak.

In Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Brian Tracy advises us to start each day by doing the most difficult thing on our to-do list (i.e., “eat the frog”). That way, even if you achieve only one task that day, it’s an important one. You also get the feeling of accomplishment that helps you build momentum and makes the rest of your day easier.

While the “eat the frog” concept makes sense in theory and often works, it can be a hard practice to follow. Some of us are morning persons. Some of us are night owls. Some of us are most energetic in the late mornings or late afternoons.

Knowing your own peaks and valleys is crucial to completing your to-dos. Tune in and observe when you are most mentally astute and physically alert. Work on difficult tasks that require the most focus, creativity and grit during those times. Do routine, no-brainer work when you’re at your low.

Reason #6: You’re too hard on yourself

Powering through your to-do list as if you were a machine can be self-defeating and demotivating. Stressing yourself out with micro-detailed lists can kill spontaneity and shut out unexpected opportunities.

Solution: Give yourself a break and celebrate wins.

Missing a few tasks here and there is normal. You can’t predict with precise accuracy how long each task will take. Stuff happens.

Your energy is limited. Discipline and willpower can only get you so far. You need to take your body’s natural rhythms into account. Take time to relax, renew and reflect.

Just because you didn’t get through your entire to-do list doesn’t mean you weren’t productive. Maybe you didn’t make the planned sales call. But perhaps you received an unsolicited call from an ideal prospect and negotiated a great deal. Keep a separate “done list” to reflect the things you did accomplish.


# # #

Photo by: Maria Keays


Why Use a To-Do List?

todoWith the New Year underway, many of you are relying on your to-do lists to help you prioritize daily activities and reach long-term goals.

The rest of you might have sworn them off as a waste of time.

To-do lists carry disadvantages and pain points. They can set you up for frustration, induce guilt, discourage openness to unexpected opportunities, and take the fun out of important and otherwise enjoyable tasks. They might contain the wrong priorities – sidetracking you from real progress and accomplishment. When created thoughtlessly, they are hard to execute. When left unchecked, they just keep growing but never shorten or stabilize.

Moreover, the to-do list is just one tool among the many. You could use a calendar to get organized, manage tasks, and keep you on track. You could use a vision board or a life map to stay motivated and focused on long-term goals.

But before you burn your to-do list or decide that it’s not for you, first consider its core purpose, main features and unique benefits.

Purpose and Features

The to-do list is a simple list of prioritized tasks that you have to or want to perform, usually to meet certain goals and deadlines. It is best prepared daily, with the most important tasks or high-impact tasks at the top.

The list ought to be short because the hours in your day are finite. Once you begin your day, aim to cut the list and not expand it. If you end up adding items during the day, make sure they are important and urgent. And to make room for the new item, remove your least critical, pre-existing item from the list and do it tomorrow.

There’s no magic number of items to have on your list. But the more complicated and time-consuming the tasks, the shorter your list should be. Limit the list to one or two major activities that will get you closer to your big goals; the rest is gravy.

The to-do list is not the same as your someday/maybe list or your long-term projects list. It should contain actionable, specific tasks that you can reasonably complete on a given day. Projects like “build a website” do not belong. The list is for smaller, achievable tasks, such as “call web designer about logo.”

The list is also not a place to itemize your routines so you can give yourself a false sense of accomplishment. Do you really need to have tasks like “shower and shave” and “buy groceries” on the list?

Appointments, meetings, events, deadlines and time-sensitive errands go in your calendar, not on your to-do list.


To-do lists can help you in the following ways:

1. Increase your motivation

When you have long-term goals, you can use the list to break them down into actionable and achievable short-term steps. As you complete each step, you gain the momentum and confidence you need to finish the big project.

2. Get organized

Without a to-do list, you might find yourself winging it most of the time with no clear purpose. You spend your day in reactive mode, putting out fake fires and squandering your time on trivial matters.

Creating a to-do list, on the other hand, encourages you to reflect on your priorities, record due dates, strategize your action steps, and gather resources you need to complete the task.

3. Boost productivity

The list helps you stay focused on your highest priorities. You can use it to channel your attention on the present activity or task, instead of worrying about what you need to do next or what you might have forgotten. Fewer mental distractions will help you achieve flow, bolster creativity, and enhance output.

4. Remember important things you might forget

Some say you should be able to remember everything you have to do. They say if something is really important, it will keep coming back until you do it. But faced with limited short-term memory, busy lives, multiple distractions, and pure inattention, we often need external reminders to perform important tasks. The to-do list serves as a useful memory aid.

5. Reduce stress

The list can be a stress buster because it allows you to shed stuff from your mind. At the end of the day, you can put your unresolved issues on a to-do list for the next day (or perhaps a someday/maybe list). Chances are you will sleep better when you’re not obsessing over tasks possibly slipping through the cracks.

* * *

Now that you know the advantages of to-do lists, you still need to create one that works. This means the list is relatively easy to execute and actually helps you get the right things done. The next blog post will provide tips on how to do just that.


# # #

Photo by: Courtney Dirks