Be A Person Who Gets Shit Done: A Gentle Guide

feature image via Shutterstock

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.

shutterstock_179799191

I’m making a list of all the IKEA furniture names that would also be cute for my future children//feature image via Shutterstock

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.

I want to hug EVERY leaf, but I know I need to prioritize the three most important leaves if I want to  use my time effectively.

I want to hug EVERY leaf, but I know I need to prioritize the three most important leaves if I want to use my time effectively.//feature image via Shutterstock

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:

TO DO:

email
plane tickets
voicemail
presentation

A good to-do list:

TO DO:

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

To do: eat this sandwich, write a blog post about eating the sandwich, maybe make another sandwich

To do: eat this sandwich, write a blog post about eating the sandwich, maybe make another sandwich//feature image via Shutterstock

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.

Ok I only have to stay in this pose for 13 more minutes and then I can take a water break

Ok I only have to stay in this pose for 13 more minutes and then I can take a water break//feature image via Shutterstock

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.

 


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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 1015 articles for us.

54 Comments

  1. This is great! I’ve found that the timer idea works really well for me. I had to write a presentation that I had procrastinated horribly (shocking), and doing what Unfuck Your Habitat calls 45-15’s–45 minutes of work, followed by 15 of break–helped keep me off tumblr during the work periods.

    On the other hand, hi, I’m at work right now, reading this article… oops.

  2. Any.do has been incredible.

    It’s on my work machine, my home machine, my phone, and it pings me little cutie pie reminders in the morning, like “Take some time to plan your day.” MAYBE I WILL.

    A big fan of multiple, mission-specific lists, mine currently have 2-8 items in any given category:

    PERSONAL | WORK | PETITE | DAILY GOALS | HOME | SHOPPING | BILLS

    You can create subtasks, set timers, add contacts and attachments, even share and assign so that it almost becomes a life path project management tool, depending on how you use it.

    BUT it’s so slick and seamless, you hardly feel the beginner slump of learning yet another app. Highly recommended!

  3. For me, literally the only difference between a productive vs. non-productive day is whether I stick to my resolution to not Internet until after my tasks are done. If I get sucked into Facebook or Autostraddle or Language Log or The Toast, I’m done for.

      • I HAVE AN INTERVIEW ON FRIDAY AS A DIRECT RESULT OF THIS POST THANK YOU RACHEL I WANT TO CONSENSUALLY KISS YOUR FACE OR JUST LIKE GIVE YOU A HIGH FIVE OR SOMETHING!

        sorry for shouting, I am excited.

        And I believe in you, Dante! Conquer the hell out of this year.

        • DON’T APOLOGIZE FOR SHOUTING! YOU DESERVE TO SHOUT YOUR HAPPINESS, CUZ YOU ARE AWESOME!! Like seriously, that is amazing to hear! I hope everything goes well for you! 😀 YOU CAN DO IT!!

          And, as a result of your fantastic efforts, I am now even MORE MOTIVATED to conquer this year. So much thanks to you and Rachel!

          • Yayy thank you for your positivity! I really, really need this job (or any job, really)and I’ve been unemployed for months now and my confidence is way down because of it.. So nice people on the internet really do make a huge difference for me. Now I just need to find the confidence to walk in there on Friday and crush my interview! One step at a time!

  4. Autostraddle, you always know what’s on my mind…

    I have just recently gotten into list-making. I get it from my dad, who is Mr. List. But yeah, lists are great! They make me feel productive when I’m writing them, which motivates even more to actually get stuff done.
    Also I already bought a new planner. 😉

    Wonderful tips, Rachel! Thank you so much for sharing. Let’s hope I’m actually productive this year. No no, I WILL be productive!!

  5. Lists are my go to, but I rarely get my shit together enough to have them more organized than different colored pens for each main category. When I get super busy I’m a huge fan of adding the random things that come up (which can be absolutely anything, one of the joys of teaching littles) to my list and immediately crossing them off.

    Say I was supposed to be correcting papers, I still accomplished something productive in the fifteen minutes it took me to confiscate everyone’s scissors (due to the mysterious chunk of uniform sweater that appeared on the floor). Onto the list goes “confiscate and elevate all scissors” then promptly cross it off. Such success!

  6. I’m a freelancer/writer/freelance writer, and I really needed this. Another tip: set an alarm in the morning and actually get out of bed. It’s so easy to sleep in until noon when I’m my own boss, but damn, self, be a responsible adult and wake up. Eat breakfast…and not at 2 pm.

  7. I’ve been a househusband for a few months now, and the biggest productivity thing for me is putting on real pants in the morning. Its simple and dumb sounding, because obviously I can make bread and apply for jobs in my pajamas, but the mental shift to “work time” makes it much easier for me to get going on stuff.

    Also, I didn’t realize my constant baking was an unconscious version of the timer method, but it totally is! I get so much more done while the muffins cook or the bread rises than I do when I have unlimited time.

  8. Also, for when your brain just will not yield to a self-directed timer method: Freedom.

    It’s a program that disables your internet connection for a set amount of time, up to eight hours. My dad makes fun of me for it, but really, this thing has saved several semesters.

    I have a tic of opening my browser reflexively every time I can’t form a good sentence, to assuage the burst of anxiety. Putting Freedom on and taking my browser icon off the bar helps immensely.

    You can try it for free 10 times, and then you can pay 10$ to own it forever.

  9. I love lists and make them constantly. For a while, my strategy has been a plain moleskine which I would use both as a planner and as a journal. My lists would be pretty detailed, but there was really no accountability. Because I like to make lists that span tasks over the period of a week or so, I had a tendency of procrastinating. For xmas I asked for the moleskine planner, and it’s been super helpful. There’s a lined page next to the actual days, and this way, every Sunday I feel a need to be “done” with that specific list, and can start a fresh one on Monday. It has at least worked for the first two sundays of the this year, hopefully it continues 🙂

  10. THIS HELPED ME SO MUCH. I needed a push to actually get my 2013 taxes filed. Yeah, you read that right. I never filed them last year. Due to a series of REALLY unfortunate events regarding a W2 form, I met with a tax specialist last spring and then promptly “forgot” to do anything else by way of my taxes for the rest of the year. So now it’s been weighing down on me for upwards of six months and it’s honestly made me so anxious and sick. So this week I’ve resolved to deal with it, and I made an extensively detailed list breaking down everything I need to do. Please wish me luck guys. I am hopelessly afraid of the IRS 🙁

  11. Can I tell you something really distressing? Oh my gosh. So we are renting a house from my girlfriend’s parents. They gave us one days notice to move into their house temporarily “DON’T BRING MUCH” because they were renovating the bathroom. We were meant to be back in by Christmas and it went on for two weeks.

    Now we are back in the house but my cat is still holidaying with my mum because builders are in and out every day. There are no lights in our bathroom. There are giant, prehistoric cockcroaches and also a rat living in the house. Our lounge room smells like rat wee and to top it off, her dad moved all of our belongings to THAT end of the house.

    Rooms worth of things are piled on top of each other in one end of the house.

    I can’t… I can’t sort it. It’s too much! I have depression and it’s hard to do basic cleaning tasks let alone attacking the rat urine puzzle that is my life.

    We didn’t have a rat or cockroaches before because my cat was there.

    I also have to try to wake up before the builders arrive otherwise I hold my bladder until I drive across town to go to the toilet.

    Basically I’m finally home and I can’t stand it and don’t know where to start.

    Maybe these lists will help.

    • The family keeps being like DON’T YOU LOVE THE HOUSE NOW

      and it’s like

      …no… you did stupid things like put our microwave outside and it got rained on as well as several other things. you contributed to two months of anxiety and eating nothing but bread because we were still paying rent WHILE NOT LIVING THERE and they said they’d provide us with food but didn’t

      additionally we were constantly told we were too messy, had to clean their stuff more etc etc and did a million loads of laundry for them and no matter what we did they would constantly say that we have to show them respect by being clean.

      we have a one year old too and they didn’t show respect for us by making things baby safe. I’d come home and find wood saws on the table and tiny plastic lids.

      Just… urgh. EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE.

      but lists are good. yes.

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