How to boost your productivity with one easy hack

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Do you know how to boost your productivity? It starts with making a list… 

I started writing lists when I was 10 years old. I recall sitting at the whitewashed student desk in the corner of my childhood bedroom and itemizing all the tasks I wanted to accomplish that day. (What urgent tasks did I possibly have to do when I was 10? I can no longer remember although I do recall they felt important.) No one told me to make lists — I was just born this way. Let’s call it a birth defect.

Being organized has always made me feel better. My family was cash-strapped so undoubtedly it made me feel in control, which was a sensation I welcomed. As I grew up and started earning money of my own, the cash problem went away but suddenly I was poor in time. Too much to do and not enough time. Giving birth to triplets only magnified this problem. Once again, lists helped me stay organized.

Today, my list-of-choice is called Wunderlist. A free app that works for both Macs and PCs, it allows me to track all the tasks I need to do from now into infinity. Even better, I can attach a date to each task and it disappears from my screen until the date it is due. (I’ve therefore learned not to limit myself to entering the due date on stories I need to write. If I figure the writing will take two hours then I’ll schedule those two hours well ahead of the deadline. Ditto for researching. Ditto for editing.) I also like the way it allows me to separate tasks into various categories.

Recently, however, my productivity has gone through the roof and I’ve been using Wunderlist for years, so I knew it wasn’t responsible for the improvement. What could it be, I wondered? Then, I realized I started doing something new about a month ago. Here is what it is:

My easy, 2-step hack

Every morning, I take five minutes to identify the three to five tasks I want to accomplish that day and I write them down. Then I schedule the time of the day that I’m going to do them. It’s important that the list include no fewer than three tasks and no more than five. Fewer than three means I’m aiming too low. More than five is too much and, worse, too hard to remember. But the really important step, I believe, is the scheduling. Because I have the work scheduled, I’m less likely to lose hours of time to email, which is my own fatal habit. (I consider myself fortunate to never have been drawn in by Facebook. I post a link every morning but otherwise spend almost no time on the site.)

Then, late every afternoon, I take five minutes to identify all the tasks I accomplished that day and to reflect on how I could have made the day better. Early in this process, I quickly noticed that some days I was allowing myself to get dragged off of my schedule and this made me more adamant about not allowing that to happen in the future.

The result? I estimate my productivity has increased by more than 50 percent. Why is this sort of planning or list-making so effective? A few reasons, I think:

  • I can schedule my most challenging work for times when I have the most energy. For me, that’s mornings. For you, it might be afternoons. It doesn’t matter. Planning your own time allows you to follow your own best schedule.
  • It’s motivating. Whenever I can tick an item off my task list my brain releases a little squirt of dopamine. This neurotransmitter helps regulate emotional response and makes me feel good. This leads to a self-perpetuating circle of goodness: the more I do, the better I feel and the better I feel, the more I am able to do.
  • It helps me be prepared for the unexpected. Yes, unexpected things happen all the time, in my life and yours. But because I know exactly what’s urgent on my schedule and exactly what can be put on hold, I’m in a better position to “drop everything” and deal with an emergency when it arises.

Note that this easy hack takes me no more than 10 minutes — five in the morning and five at night. I only wish I had learned this trick 20 years ago.

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My video podcast last week dealt with the question of writing vs translating. See it (or the transcript) here and please consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you make yourself more productive? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by March 31/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Ifferisms, by Mardy Grothe. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. 

Posted March 28th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Charles Broming

    Barbara Oakley says exactly the same thing in her book and her Coursera course (Learning How to Learn): five things–max; any more will turn success into failure, possibly to try.

    • Yes, for some reason we shut down if we try to do more. (I’m a big fan of Barbara Oakley, by the way!)

      • Charles Broming

        I know you are; I found your blog through her work and course and her references to your practice as a coach…:)

        • Pat Bowden

          Barbara Oakley will soon release another course – Mindshift (https://www.coursera.org/learn/mindshift) which, in Barbara’s words, “You’ll see that by using certain mental tools and insights, you can learn and do more—far more—than you might have ever dreamed!”

  • sthrendyle

    Soon, we’re all going to be so productive we’ll be like the pregnant Lyft driver in the NewYorker article who took a fare on her way to the airport to have a baby!

  • LJ

    Yes agreed–making goal list short is key to doing it. I find that my brain is so full of ideas that can get easily sidetracked. So taking just couple goals off longer list is helpful as you say, and leads to greater productivity.
    I’ve used OmniFocus for list-making and it’s pretty good.
    Thanks for post.