The end of the year can seem like the “Time of the Overwhelm.” So much to do and so little time. Emergencies pop up. Priorities change. And you can slip farther behind.
We’ve spent a lot of time working on personal productivity improvements over the years. As we’ve worked on our personal “second brain” projects this year, we started to collect some of our best personal productivity tips and strategies. We wanted to share twelve of them in one place. The result is this three-part blog series.
Let’s jump right into part one.
Waiting, Frog Eating, Kanban Boards, and Routines.
The Waiting Category.
Often you can feel that your to-do list contains too many items. The sheer number of them can cause you to feel overwhelmed. Once you examine those items, you might find something that surprises you. Much of your backlog might not actually be your own to-dos.
Think about your current list. You will probably see that there are things that you are ready to start, seem to be in limbo, or have not moved off your list for a while. There are things you are working on that you really can’t do anything about because you’re waiting for somebody else to do something.
That can take many different forms. Somebody may need to call you, email you, reply to something, or send you information. Yet, you keep it on your active to-do list, adding to the number of items.
Our key insight is that if you keep those on your active to-do list, it will look and feel like you have many more tasks than the number you control. It’s a simple observation. The items in the waiting category aren’t really anything that you can do about, except maybe to send out a reminder in a few days to someone.
The simple solution: put those tasks into a separate place on your list called “Waiting.” They are then out of your way, but you won’t forget that you are waiting on someone or some other action.
Essentially, the Waiting category helps you avoid the burnout that comes from treating somebody else’s to-do as one of your own to-dos.
Explore this idea of a waiting category. You probably will find there’s a surprising number of things that you think are your to-dos that are actually someone else’s tasks. Get them out of your way.
Eat the Frog First.
Another simple tip is often called “eating the frog first.” Brian Tracy even wrote a book called Eat That Frog! on this topic.
If you look at your to-do list for the average day, there will likely be one—maybe more, but at least one—task on there that you really don’t want to do. It has as much appeal to you as, well, eating a frog.
It could be something that you might be procrastinating about or that’s difficult or challenging. You might want to do every other task on your list just to get around doing it. But it’s important. It needs to get done.
We call that the frog. The frog is the most important thing, but not the most appetizing thing.
Identify your frog at the beginning of your day or when you’re doing your planning. Then, first thing, eat the frog—do that hard thing first. If you take the hard task and do it first, you’ll be amazed at how easy or at least more productive the rest of your day feels after.
Kanban boards are great if you like visual or “mapping” approaches. Kanban boards typically have three vertical columns: To Do, Doing, and Done, or some variation on those names. Dennis has grown to like a five-column approach: Backlog, Ready, Doing, Waiting, and Done.
If you tried the eating the frog technique, you would start your day with only that one item in the “Doing” column and not start anything else until you moved it into the “Done” column. Then, you’d move another item (or several) into the Doing column.
What we like about this approach is how visual it is, and, perhaps more important, you can move things from one category to another. If you use sticky notes for your tasks, you can physically move them to another column, which can feel even more satisfying. Once you finish something that you’re doing, it goes into the Done category. Then a “Ready” or “To Do” item can go into the Doing category.
We also like that rather than crossing done items off your list, you see what you’ve done in the Done column gloriously showing you what you’ve finished. For Dennis especially, that gives more of a sense of accomplishment (and tracking accomplishment) than erasing something from his list or drawing a line through it. It’s a great visual mapping tool, and it creates a positive motion through your day as you move tasks to Done.
We all have daily routines, weekly routines, monthly routines; all the things that need to happen periodically. Do you actually schedule those or put them on your to-do list? This area is one in which technology can make your life a little easier than it is now.
Tom has set up his to-do list so that he has a separate task list for his daily routines, for his weekly routines, for his monthly routines, and for his quarterly annual routines. He’s set them up to fire off reminders to him every day or every week or every month or whatever that period happens to be. Those are reminders of the things that he needs to get done because even though they’re a routine for him, he doesn’t always remember to do them.
He likes having these reminders on his list to make sure he did everything for the day. These can be as routine as taking out trash bins, watering plants, changing filters, approving expense reports, or anything else that happens on a regular timely basis.
Don’t assume that you know and will remember all the routine stuff. Have a way to account for it and put it into your task management system—and set reminders for those routine items.