Over the years, I slowly stopped taking my to-do list seriously. And now I need to do something about it.
I have been using to-do lists ever since I can remember. Even with school projects, I recall scratching tasks on my notepad. It was a method that always worked for me, it made me feel organized and of course productive. Every time that I was under a lot of pressure and stress, I knew I could always look at my list and I would feel calmer right away. That little paper could give me the motivation and confidence that I needed to continue. And somewhere along the way, my innocent love for lists evolved and reached a more mature and different level.
Now as an adult, I moved on from my little yellow notepad to complex organizational systems with categorized and tagged tasks. I use bullet journals and apps to keep track of all my different projects. Needless to say, I have to-do lists for pretty much every aspect of my life. And although I’m very proud of the system that I created, I’m wondering if I am still using it correctly.
I belong to a generation that likes to be overworked, that thrives in this hustling culture and entrepreneurial world. In my case, I confess that somewhere along the way I became addicted to this rush, this feeling that I need to be doing something important all the time. I need to make something happen. And the reality is that my to-do list is just a pure reflection of this “hustle image” that I try to portray.
Every day, my list is filled with tasks, a lot of tasks, maybe too many tasks.And here is where the problem begins.
At some point in my life, I convinced myself that I simply have too many tasks and projects. But at the time, no matter the changes I did on my organizational system and my list, I always found myself at some point with 40-something overdue tasks. Which then kept me wondering what could be the reason that I wasn’t able to do what was on my to-do list the large majority of times.
I was convinced I set out such a high expectation level for myself that no normal human being could ever reach — me included! Maybe this overachiever mentality was making me have too many balls in the air to juggle, as they say. And so for the longest time, when I was having a “productivity crisis”, my solution was to change the deadlines of a couple of tasks in hopes of fixing the problem. However, sometime after, the cycle would eventually repeat itself: new list, too many tasks, overdue tasks, new dates, new list…
Here we go again?
This was a vicious cycle that needed to be stopped. I had had enough and I wanted to change somehow. It was important to try to understand why I couldn’t follow my to-do list on a daily basis. Eventually, I had this idea to test myself to see if my list had in fact too many tasks.
I decided to track my productivity for 25 days, and every day I would try to finish every single one of my tasks, even if that meant only a few hours of sleep (which happened a couple of times). At the beginning of the day, I would register how many tasks I had planned for that day and if I had any overdue tasks (from past days); and by the end, I would see how many tasks I completed. The goal was to try to understand what would a “productive” day for me look like.
Twenty-five productive days
After during experience, I calculated that my average day would consist of 16 tasks and 5 overdue (21 in total), and I would manage to complete around 19 tasks at the end of the day. Which then left me with 3 overdue tasks for the next days. This last number was very interesting for me, it help me understand my task accumulation problem. I definitely felt the weight of these 3 tasks, because at some point during this experience, I had close to 20 overdue tasks. So we can conclude that these results weren’t perfect and certainly don’t reflect my initial goal. However, it’s important to mention that it was still better from what I used to do. During this experience, I never felt the need to change deadlines or delete tasks all together to try to reach that “zero tasks” goal. I can easily say that this was without a doubt the most productive I had been in years. On a side note, it was during this time that I did something I never imagined that I would be able to do: I published my first blog post.
The question now was to try to understand why I was now more productive. The challenge certainly gave me motivation but I believe that there’s a simpler explanation: I was procrastinating. I realized that all my to-do list problems had nothing to do with the hustling lifestyle. In fact, I can now see that I was putting some type of “busy-bee” show, worrying more about my amount of tasks instead of actually do it. I was rescheduling even the most basic chore just because I knew I could do it on a later day with been affected by it. Constantly making fancy to-do lists and then changing them was my own way of procrastination. The thing in the past that always made me feel productive, had no longer impact on me. I looked at my list and it had no power or value anymore. I basically stopped taking it seriously.
Be a smart bee
This was a very personal and eye-opening experience for me. Maybe the conclusion was a bit obvious and almost cliché, but it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I thought being productive meant. I created an effective organizational system, I just stopped carry about it and not using it correctly. But after this, I learned a couple of things that I hope it will inspire you to go from busy to smart:
Focus on your daily tasks — avoid doing tasks you have scheduled for later days just because they are easier to do, and focus on your current tasks.
Attention to obstacles — keep in mind future events that might disrupt your productivity (conference, wedding, trip…), and try to schedule the minimum amount of tasks for that day, or find a way to do those tasks before the events.
No dead moments — find creative ways to be productive during any “dead time”, I started to bring my tablet with me on the bus to write.
Breaking the productivity chain — I read somewhere that is ok to break a habit chain, just don’t repeat it two days in a row.
Be reflective — at the end of the day analyze what you did, what still needs to be done and if you should make any (smart) changes to your plan.
Just reschedule — it’s completely normal to want to reschedule tasks from time to time, but if you need to do it, really think about the reason behind it — and be honest with yourself.
These are just a couple of tips that help me be more effective and productive. I will definitely continue to apply these into my every day and keep track of my progress (but I’ll probably not do those intense 25 days again). I gained a new appreciation for my to-do list, and I now have the confidence to face it task by task without fear. And all of this because I was able to be honest with myself and stop having outside excuses. Because at the end of the day, you can’t really blame your to-do list.