Ditch that Old To-Do List and Become a Productivity Super Star

Ditch that Old To-Do List and Become a Productivity Super Star

A business plan and a To-Do list can be a great start to achieving your goals, but they can also be paralyzing.

There’s always that temptation to jam-pack your To-Do list with tasks. Inevitably you can’t get to all of them, and they get added to the next day.

Each day becomes more overwhelming and frustrating as the tasks pile up and stare you in the face. Eventually, procrastination rears its ugly head, followed by depression.

Maybe you have a few good days in a row, which leads to you overestimating yourself. You try to do too much again, the work piles up, and the whole cycle repeats until your eyes explode.

That’s what happened to me. Well, maybe not the eyes part, although I get the occasional dry eye during allergy season.

What I want to tell you is that there’s hope. It took me a while to figure out how to work productively. I tried different systems, some worked better than others, but once I was able to implement a few simple changes, I found myself getting more done, enjoying my work (instead of dreading it), and hardly ever procrastinating on Facebook (I’m still human).

If you follow these steps, I think you can guard against procrastination and inefficiency, too, and do your best work. 

1 – Take all of your tasks on your To-Do List and organize them into categories

I have only five (blog, video, website / SEO, Encourage (social media), and learn). Yours might be website, research, design, copywriting, etc.

You will need to think this through and be realistic. We are going to use these categories to create your time blocks. If you have twenty categories, you will be right back in the same place, and it won’t work. 

Not everything I do fits into these categories either, but it doesn’t have to. We will leave time for that minor stuff later. The categories are just for big, creative, or important things. It’s up to you to decide what those are.

2 – Put this small list of categories back into your To-Do List and give each a time limit

A time limit will help you make sure you are giving the proper amount of time to each category and not spending way too much time on one thing or way too little time on another.

I have six major categories that I know I can realistically tackle each day, and the time I spend on each ranges from a half-hour to two hours. Two hours is the limit of what I feel I can spend focusing on something before I need to reset my mind with another activity, and anything less than a half-hour feels too little to me, but you may feel different.

Your Work Day Won’t Be the Same

You will still refer to your list or document with all the prioritized tasks for each category, but it won’t be staring you in the face whenever you check your To-Do list.

Not only does this help fight against getting overwhelmed, but it also allows you to be more efficient as you realize there is only an hour to work on the website, you can’t waste any of it procrastinating on Facebook and you have to focus on your biggest priorities.

Make sure you’re realistic about your time too. Don’t fill your entire day with time blocks. We still need to save time for other things like lunch, emails, bathroom breaks, etc. For an eight-hour day, I usually do six hours of time blocks with the other two hours to give myself room for breaks, emails, planning, or anything unexpected that might come up.

3 – Put the most important / most demanding stuff first

I put the creative tasks first because that requires the most brain activity. It is also an essential part of what I need to accomplish. Odds are your most relevant categories will take more mental energy than it does to answer emails or comment on social media.

I get drained a little mid-afternoon too, so that is where my less mentally demanding tasks go. As the day goes on, my tasks get easier.

4 – Time your blocks

You can set a timer on your phone. I also use an app called, Save-My-Time. It creates a list of categories on your phone, and each time you turn your phone on, it will ask what you have been up to since you last touched it, complete with how many minutes it’s been since then. The app helps me to keep track of what I’ve been up to in case I accidentally forget to hit my phone timer (which probably happens at least once a day).

The real benefit of time blocking is that I know I only have an hour a day to focus on something like the blog. That means I have to be as productive as possible within that time.

I switch to an hour of website work after that. Then 2 hours of video, followed by the rest of the things on my schedule.

If I have planned well, then it won’t matter if I don’t get a task done because I will have put in the time toward getting it done.

The day seems to move much quicker this way instead of the old way of having a To-Do list of specific tasks. I found I spent much less time deciding what to do next or switching between tasks.

5 – Leave some time unblocked

There will always be the temptation to jam-pack your day with time blocks to make it as effective as possible, but you need to give yourself some space, as I mentioned earlier. If you don’t, then you will quickly end up in the same place you were in before (overwhelmed, inefficient, and working late).

I only schedule six hours of time blocks for an eight-hour day. Why is this? Because I know other things will creep in.

6 – Leave emails for later.

I know this might be hard for some people. If you are in a job where you need to communicate a lot, you might have to respond more immediately, but you can still take steps to set up boundaries. Let some people know that you won’t be replying during a specific time, for those that need an immediate response let them know that you are trying to be more productive and have them label anything that requires a fast response as urgent.

If necessary, consider delegating some emails to an assistant so you can focus on what’s most important.

7 – Give yourself time to review

At the end of the day, look over what you have accomplished and decide if any of your categories need to be adjusted. Should you give yourself more time for working on the website? Are you using your time effectively for social media? Are the tasks in each category productive or could you do them in less time with the same results?

This shouldn’t take much time, but you must ask these questions. Doing so will help you to keep your priorities in focus and adjust your categories as needed.

Time blocking isn’t a rigid system. You can adjust it, and your blocks will change as you get into your rhythm. What’s important is that these changes aren’t made during your time blocks. Adjusting and changing your blocks on the fly is a quick road to multitasking and inefficiency.

Don’t let busyness allow you to skip this step either. Careful planning and reflection are vital to this whole process. 

8 – Guard against Creep

After you have completed your blocks, did all those other minor things (like email), and planned for the next day, then you might have some time left. Don’t let the pressure of working on something from your time blocks get put into this space.

It might seem efficient, but what you are telling your brain is that you can work on tasks outside of their reserved time blocks. So the next time you work on one, you won’t be as efficient because you won’t take the restrictions seriously.

Don’t let yourself work on tasks outside of their time blocks. That means no SEO work during social media time or vice versa. I know it can be difficult, but if you can stick to it, you will find yourself more efficient than you have ever been before.

9 – Reward Yourself

So what do you do with the last fifteen minutes of the day?

I say do the most mundane stuff possible. Clean up your desk, organize your computer desktop or file system. You know. All the little things that aren’t that important, but you feel the need to do when you want to procrastinate.

This does two things. One, it rewards your brain with all of those little tasks you feel the need to work on instead of the stuff that really needs to be done. The next time you feel the itch to do something mundane during a time block, it won’t be as strong because you know there will be time later.

Two, these mindless tasks help to reset your thoughts and separate you from work. It’s hard to move from work to home life (especially with many of us working from home).

Doing these little tasks helps cue your mind that work is over and gets you ready to be present with your family.

10 – Use voice notes

Even though I’ve found the mundane helps to separate my mind and be more present with my family, I would be lying if I said I could completely separate work and family.

There will be those times when you are pushing your kid on the swing, and the right wording for the website will present itself.

Likewise, there have been times at work when I remembered something I needed to do at home. Making a quick voice note in Google Keep has been a lifesaver.

Sometimes you don’t have even a few seconds to type it out, and this allows you to put it down and refocus on what you are doing. Being present is something that we could all do better.

Is this Practical?

Maybe you’re thinking, this sounds great in theory, Jim, but I can’t work that way! I have deadlines and clients I need to respond to ASAP. I understand that we all have different business models, but don’t let that be an excuse for poor time management.

Even if you are some kind of superhuman immune to the siren call of social media and cleaning up your inbox, then you’ll at the very least waste time deciding what to do next, neglect important responsibilities and work slower. You can’t run a healthy business that way. Take it from someone who tried.

I will admit that your time blocks will be different from mine. Maybe you need a half-hour in the morning to call people or answer emails. That’s okay as long as you remain focused on the right emails and not on reading your Netflix recommendations (I’ll go into a simple way that I make email time more effective in another post).

Michael Harris, the author of The End of Absence, put it well when he said:

“When we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually multi-switching. That is what the brain is very good at doing – quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality, we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.”

I agree but would also add that it’s about more than just being productive. It’s about having a better understanding of where your time is spent, so you can refocus your priorities, stop repeated mistakes, and make better choices.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Test it out yourself. Implement these steps for thirty days and watch it transform your work life.

Jim Miesner

Jim Miesner is a writer, videographer, and small business owner in Rochester, NY. He's passionate about empowering small business owners and anyone looking to start a side hustle.