I wrote a post recently about ways that you can work smarter, not harder. As I worked through the list of techniques I’d collected, the post became so long that I had to split it in half. Here are even more suggestions to help you make your day more productive without putting in extra hours.
1. Limit your to-do list
I’ve written about the history of the to-do list before, and how to write a great one. One of the most counterintuitive but effective methods I’ve found for increasing my productivity is to limit how many items I add to my to-do list.
One way to do this is by choosing 1–3 Most Important Tasks (MITs). These are the big, tough tasks for your day that you really need to get done. The ones that will keep you in the office past finishing time or working after dinner if you don’t get through them. Leo Babauta advocates doing these before you move on to other tasks:
“Do your MITs first thing in the morning, either at home or when you first get to work. If you put them off to later, you will get busy and run out of time to do them. Get them out of the way, and the rest of the day is gravy!”
The rest of your to-do list can be filled up with minor tasks that you’d like to do, so long as you’ve prioritized 1–3 MITs. Make sure you work on these before you move on to anything minor and you’ll probably find you feel a whole lot more productive at the end of the day.
Plan the night before
Another to-do list tip that can reduce work anxiety is to write out your to-do list the night before. I often end up in bed thinking about what I need to do tomorrow and planning my day, which makes it difficult to sleep. Writing out my to-do list before I go to bed helps me to relax and sleep better. And rather than wasting time in the morning because I don’t know what to work on first, I can jump straight into my first MIT the next day.
Focus just on the present day
My most recent and favorite change to my to-do list has been separating my “today” list from a master list of everything I need to get done.
I often feel anxious about all the things I know I need to do at some point — I need to write them down somewhere so I don’t forget them, otherwise I worry about when they’ll get done. But I don’t want these cluttering up my list for today. That will just make today seem busier than it is.
My solution is to make a big list of everything I need done. Each night I move only a couple of things to my to-do list for the next day (I use one big list with priority markers so that anything “high” priority moves to the top and becomes my “today” list). That lets me focus on what needs doing today, but also gives me a place to dump every little task I think of that needs doing sometime.
2. Measure your results, not your time
The whole idea of working smarter, rather than harder, comes from the problem many of us have of putting in more and more hours, only to find we don’t get more done. We want to find methods of being more productive in less time. One way to go about this is to adjust the way we measure productivity.
It sounds like a trick, but it’s not a way out of getting work done. It’s just that if you truly measure what you get done, rather than the time it took you, you should notice a difference in how you work, as well.
If you have big projects or tasks to get done, a good place to start is by breaking them down into completable sections. For instance, I like to break down my blog posts into sections and small tasks like adding images.
With a set of smaller tasks making up a big project, you can check off what you get done each day, even if it takes you many days to finish the whole thing. I get a nice little rush every time I check off a task within a blog post, even if it was just a 200-word section. It helps me to maintain momentum and keep going until the whole post is done.
Another way to measure what you get done each day is to keep a “done list”, which is a running log of everything you complete in a day. I scoffed at done lists for a long time until I joined Buffer, where we all share what we’ve done each day using iDoneThis: