Many of us will make resolutions to be more productive in the new year. If you feel there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish everything, you’re not alone. Unless you’re a genuine slacker, “working harder” is almost never the answer. But working smarter, being mindful about how you actually spend your workday, while making intentional adjustments, can reap real benefits.
As someone who has made this resolution in previous years—and failed a few times before gaining traction—Here are my four tips to help master your to-do list, reduce procrastination, increase focus, and crank up productivity.
Master your to-do list, so it doesn’t master you. I used to have a colleague who compiled multi-page, handwritten to-do lists. He loved his legal pads! He added to them constantly, so he never seemed to make progress, even when he checked off something. His impulse was to jot down every action item, idea, and idle thought—mostly so he wouldn’t forget. But keeping them all on one long, unfiltered list was a motivation killer. It became overwhelming and quite often caused him to freeze up and withdraw from taking action.
In a way, this never-ending list is the existential crisis we all face—so much to do, so little time. But who needs to face that every day at work? My solution is to maintain two lists: one “master” list and a daily brief “to-do” list. Use the master list to capture projects, tasks, and ideas you don’t want to lose—you can use a small notebook or an app (I’ve been using Asana ‘basic’ (aka free) for a couple of years and like it’s easy interface and list-making features. Other popular list-making apps include Evernote and Todoist). I check my master list every few days, or at least weekly, to see how I’m doing and what can be crossed off.
For day-to-day work, a brief to-do list is essential. Every morning I jot down the 3-5 things that I absolutely must do, or that require some form of my attention, before I leave for work. I write them on a post-it note, so I can’t add too much. I break down longer-term projects from my master list into smaller tasks and milestones and identify one or two items to work on that day. Whenever possible, I write down the next day’s “must do” list before I go home.
2. “Eat that frog” or Mastering procrastination. Wise humorist Mark Twain once said that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you can be sure nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. In other words, painful as it may be, don’t put off the “frog.”
Most of us have a natural urge to delay doing things that we know (or suspect) will be difficult or aggravating, even though we know procrastinating won’t make them any easier. In fact, the discomfort we feel about an unpleasant task can end up clouding our whole day until we take care of it. Next time you’re faced with a “frog”—whether it’s a difficult phone call, headache-inducing spreadsheet, or an overdue report—try tackling it first thing, before you start anything else. You might be surprised how much less awful it is when you’re doing it—and how much better you feel when it’s done.
3. Try The Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and refers to the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that author, software designer, and productivity consultant Francesco Cirillo uses for his popular time-management technique.
The method is simple: Choose a task you’d like to get done, set a timer for 25 minutes, then work on your task until the timer goes off. Cirillo’s a fan of the old-school kitchen timer, with its manual wind-up and satisfying ring—but there are various apps and other options, if you prefer.
Twenty-five minutes is enough time to make progress and stay focused without interruption. If for any reason you are interrupted, start the timer again. When it rings, give yourself a 3-5 minute break before returning to work. You can continue to set and reset your chosen “pomodoro” throughout the day, working in 25-minute increments with short breaks between tasks. After completing a few “pomodoro sessions,” you take a slightly longer break, for lunch, a walk, or a chat with a colleague, creating a balance between getting work done and taking much-needed time away.
4. “Block off” your time. This approach combines elements from the other three tips: List making, attention to where your “frog” appears during your day, and blocking off set periods of time. The idea is to identify ahead of time what you plan to focus on during your workday and set boundaries.
Start by scheduling or listing your work in 30–60 minute increments. For example, create a written outline that includes each block of time and the related task at hand, say, from 9–10:00 a.m. (usually my “frog”), 10–10:30 a.m., and so on. Make sure you account and plan for your own “frogs,” as well as some down time for breaks and the interruptions that will inevitably pop up, even if it’s just 15 minutes. I try to stay firm (but friendly) with colleagues if I sense they’re pulling me off track, explaining that I really need to get back to my work. This can be especially important if you work in an open office environment, where distractions are common.
Of course, you won’t be able to follow your outlined schedule to a tee every day, but adopting this practice has helped me accomplish much more than I would by reading and reacting to emails in the moment or drifting from task to task.
In the end, do what works best for you. Not all of these approaches will work for each individual person, project, or job role. But by experimenting and being mindful about what works for you—what times of day you’re most focused, what tasks you’re drawn to, and which ones you tend to avoid—you can structure your workday accordingly. The goal isn’t simply to “do more things” but to actively claim your time at work and how you spend it. This can lead you to increased productivity and a greater sense of accomplishment as well.
Elisabeth Flynn is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor, and has spent the last 15 years working in the nonprofit/social innovation sector, including stints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ-focused health and wellness provider.