Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Ditch Your To-Do List and Get More Done

Everyone loves the good feeling you get when you check an item off your to-do list.

But that oh-so-gratifying rush could be the very thing that’s preventing you from making more progress at work. In fact, if you ditch the to-do list altogether, your career might really take off.

Lists can be potent procrastination tools,” writes Aytekin Tank for Entrepreneur. “Yet, the projects we avoid are often the true game-changers.”

Tank says there’s nothing wrong with lists per se. The problem is that our lists are usually an undifferentiated, chaotic mish-mash of the meaningful, the must-do, and the mundane. We tend to pick the low-hanging fruit first and leave the big stuff for later – or never.

A better approach, he says, is to take a page from Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Successful People” and start scheduling our priorities rather than prioritizing our schedules.

Enjoying the Completion “High”

Here’s another problem: most of us are terrible at predicting how long it will take to finish a task. This study found that 83 percent of people grossly underestimate the completion time for everything from balancing our checkbook to preparing for trial.

That’s why Tank is not big on aggressive deadlines. Instead, he recommends identifying your most urgent and important task, rolling up your sleeves, and getting to work.

There is science behind Tank’s methods.

“We get a high every time we check that ‘finished’ box,” he writes. “As Ralph Ryback explains in Psychology Today, ‘The satisfaction of ticking off a small task is linked with a flood of dopamine. Each time your brain gets a whiff of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to repeat the associated behavior.’ Craving another feel-good moment, our brains often push us to complete a low-level task instead of something that really matters – just to get more dopamine.”

Tank’s 2 Steps to Productivity

Step One: Identify the day’s top task. “Buy a stack of Post-It notes and put them on your desk. When it’s time to work, pull out a note and write down one, high-impact goal you want to achieve that day. Stick it in a prominent place and get to work. If distractions or other dopamine sources call your name, look at your note and tune them out. After a few weeks, ask yourself whether you’re feeling more fulfilled. Are you seeing results? Are you making more progress?”

Step Two: Harness your peak hours. “When we engage with key projects during our peak hours, we typically experience less burnout. We may also have more energy and drive, and we’re usually willing to finish what we start. Research even suggests that the timing of a project can account for up to 20 percent of cognitive performance variations. For example, if you’re naturally an early riser, you’ll probably work smarter and faster on a creative project at 8 AM than at 3 PM. And while 20 percent might not sound like a lot, it can make a huge difference over the course of a month or even a year. Understanding your own peak hours begins with some personal tracking. Make a spreadsheet or start a journal to record your energy levels throughout the day. Note how your focus, creativity, and interest change at different times, then look for patterns across a full week.”

So what do you think about the ditch-your-to-do list approach? How do you prioritize your time and tackle big tasks?

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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