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Whether it’s an official resolution or not, it’s likely that you’re hoping to get more shit done in 2015. My credentials are my confirmed history of Getting A Bunch of Shit Done, whether it was working two jobs plus an unpaid internship while a full-time college student, being an Autostraddle associate editor 20 hours a week while holding down a full-time job, or being a senior editor ~35 hours a week while also being a full-time graduate student and teacher. We do have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé, and while we’re never going to accomplish what she does, we can at least get a little more out of them. Here’s how.
1. Make A List, Check It At Least Twice
I realize I’m biased here because I love lists and make them recreationally, but I want to make a case that even those of you who “don’t work that way” or “keep it all in your head” or have some sort of organizational system involving runes and raven feathers can benefit from doing at least a little bit of listing.
Big Lists, Small Lists, Short Lists, Tall Lists
What people sometimes do is keep a single list that’s supposed to cover everything — things to do, to read, to remember, to check back in on later, and to accomplish before dying — and then aren’t sure why it doesn’t really work for them. It’s because while the idea of one list to rule them all is sort of philosophically appealing, it’s super unwieldy — it’s like trying to open a lip balm tube with the Jaws of Life. You’re looking through it trying to figure out what groceries you need to buy, but instead you’re seeing your long-term goal of one day opening the first lesbian-owned cat cafe.
So: make different lists! Recognize that different goals/tasks have different purposes. Think about what kinds of things your life and work mean that you need to be aware of or keep track of. Do you travel a lot and need to make a basic packing list to return to over and over? Does your job involve a lot of cold calling and you’d benefit from keeping a list of people to contact? Do you manage people and need to make a list of each employee’s projects, so you can keep track of what you’re expecting from them? The list world is your oyster.
There’s one type of list I’m really going to push for, however. Even if you make no other lists, please do this:
Get Your Priorities Straight
To-do lists are fine, but depending on the kind of person you are, they can be kind of self-defeating. For instance, because I’m overachieving and there’s a brief period between about 9 and 10 am when I’m unreasonably optimistic about what the day may hold, I would often make a to-do list with 15 different things on it, varying in difficulty from “shower” to “clean out entire inbox,” and then feel like a useless asshole when it was 7 pm and obviously I had only done four of those things and “shower” wasn’t even one of them, because I am just a human woman.
What works (for me) a lot better than doing that is to make a list of priorities for the day. Those are the things I’m telling myself I’m focusing on and committed to for the day; the things that need to get done before tomorrow. If other things besides that also get done, that’s great, but they’re gravy. The most important rule for a priorities list is that it be short, otherwise it misses the whole point. Ideally your list is only three priorities for the day; if you absolutely must, you can go as high as five, but that’s it. Try not to do that.
Even aside from helping you prioritize your time and work, this strategy helps you figure out any problems in the way that you’re currently operating. You know those days where it feels like you’ve been working from dawn to dusk, and somehow nothing has really gotten done? If you start making priority lists, you’ll start to see that those days are usually the ones where you weren’t focusing on tasks that were actually a priority to you, and were instead just doing whatever was right in front of you or whatever seemed easiest.
Seriously, if you try nothing else, try this — I can’t say that I do it every single day, but I can say that I notice the days I don’t do it, because they noticeably suck, and are the days when I look up and realize it’s 3:30 pm and nothing important has been accomplished and I wish I could move to the moon. Try it for a week and see if you feel like it helps.
One Well-Written List is Worth Two in the Bush
This has already been covered pretty thoroughly in a lot of productivity advice, which I love and read voraciously, but the way you write your lists matters a lot. Think of it like writing bullet points on your resume: there’s a specific type of phrasing that works best, and it’s usually action verbs.
A lot of the time when we write to-do lists, we write them generally and with each list item as a certain concept. This makes a lot of sense because it’s how our brains work — “ugh, I really need to do email today” — but it doesn’t really reflect how things are accomplished. If all I write on my to-do list is “email,” then I could easily spend two hours staring at my inbox, reorganizing all my labels in gmail, opening one email and composing half of a response and then saving it to finish later, and then emailing my mom to ask for a soup recipe and still tell myself I accomplished my to-do item, when actually I had done basically nothing. Writing a more specific to-do list item that makes it clear what actually needs to accomplished, including breaking bigger tasks into smaller ones, eliminates this possibility. This may technically create more items, but it will also make it a lot easier to get things done. For example:
A bad to-do list:
A good to-do list:
answer Jenny and Keisha’s emails
check with Mom about the dates for plane tickets
buy plane tickets
check voicemail & answer any messages
make outline of slides for presentation
finish at least first three slides in PowerPoint
2. One Thing at a Time
Okay, great! You have a list! You know all the things you’re going to do today. Now how do you do them? One at a time, my gentle woodland friend!
This sounds simple, but if you pay attention, you’ll realize how rarely we actually do only one thing at a time. In the process of writing this article, I’ve also been checking the platform we use for Autostraddle team communication for new messages, checking my inbox, talking to my partner, and clicking over into another tab every five minutes to read an article. It’s not ideal. Even if we’re not engaging in what we traditionally think of as “procrastination,” we’re usually not giving any one thing our undivided attention. Unsurprisingly, tasks go a lot faster and turn out a lot better when we do!
Giving something undivided attention doesn’t just mean turning off “bad” or “fun” distractions, like social media, but also getting out of the habit of interrupting work to do other work, which I do a lot. With very few exceptions, nothing bad will happen if you only check your email every hour instead of every three minutes. Even if you have a brilliant idea for the next step on something else you’re working on, you can take two seconds to write it down on a post-it (or add it to a LIST!) and then return to your task instead of totally shifting gears to do that instead. It’s wild how much quicker and easier getting something done becomes if you just make it the only thing you’re doing.
But that sounds hard! Yeah, it is, kinda. Here’s how to make it easier:
3. Use A Timer
You can do basically anything as long as it’s just for a little while. For instance, I was able to watch virtually all of Nicolas Cage’s feel-good Christmas romcom “Family Man,” because I knew that it would only last for 125 minutes. While focusing on a single task is actually pretty difficult — especially if it’s a task you don’t really want to do — you can get it done by compromising with yourself and setting a (short!) period of time to work on it. Set your phone or an egg timer for 10-25 minutes — don’t go longer than 25 minutes, even if you’re feeling really revved up to work on your tax return for a full two hours — and just commit to your task for that long. After the timer goes off, take a five-minute break; walk around the room, make another cup of coffee, watch “Anaconda” on youtube, whatever. If the task did not get completed in that time period, set your timer again, and get back to work.
This is a helpful strategy for a few reasons. First, it makes tasks less intimidating to break them up into chunks and limit time spent on them, which makes you more likely to do them at all. Second, this usually ends up making your time use way more efficient — when you intentionally break up time periods into “working” and “not working,” things magically get done a lot faster than when you spend the whole day “mostly working but also sort of not.” Third, this is a really clear-cut way to see how long specific things actually take you, and I’m willing to bet that most of the time they take you a lot less time than you thought they would, and once you notice that pattern, it makes you feel more motivated and less whiny about getting stuff done in general. Which is important, because you’re going to need to feel that way in order to:
4. Do the Hardest Thing First
This is tough, I won’t lie. There’s a reason it’s the hardest thing — you don’t want to do it. BUT hear me out.
Whether it’s a specific one-time task that you’ve been putting off or a habitual thing that you have to do regularly and hate (for me, it’s anything involving my inbox), commit to figuring out what it is and doing it first thing for at least a week. This keeps you from sabotaging yourself by deciding “I’ll do it soon! Right after this other thing.” It’s also the best gift that present-you can possibly give future-you because future you gets to live without having to worry about this annoying thing! When the hardest/least pleasant part of your day is over, everything else seems like a breeze. You will seriously be amazed at how much easier the rest of your day/life gets when you don’t have dread hanging over your head about the thing you are avoiding doing. And if you’re mono-tasking and working in blocks, then the thing you’ve been dreading doing is probably going to take WAY less time than you’ve been imagining it will, so it won’t even be that bad.
That’s it! Not so hard, and you didn’t even need to buy a new planner. (Although buying new planners is really satisfying, I don’t want to discourage you.) Whether you’re trying to get your small business off the ground in 2015 or just finally finish that epic genderswapped Guardians of the Galaxy fanfic novel you’ve been working on for two years, here’s to getting it done.