Your To-Do List Is, in Fact, Too Long
“How was your day?” my wife, Eleanor, asked me one night.
“Great,” I answered, sharing a few highlights. Then I added, “But also frustrating, because I didn’t get through everything I had planned.”
She smiled empathically. “You say that every single day.”
She was right: I did. And it was frustrating.
Although I’m embarrassed to admit that (I did write 18 Minutes, a book about managing time), admitting a problem is essential to addressing it.
The productivity problem is especially challenging these days, when many of us are working from home, with less structure than usual. It’s easier than ever to be busy all day and still not make progress on critical work (where did that day go?).
So rather than continue complaining to Eleanor, I set out to change things — to find a way to end my days feeling accomplished because I got my most important work done.
I considered and rejected some popular solutions:
Trying harder. If you’re frustrated by a repeated pattern, it may not be because you’re not good enough or aren’t trying hard enough. It could be that you’re facing obstacles that can’t be overcome simply by applying more effort and discipline.
Working from a long to-do list. Too many options can lead to procrastination. Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper did great research on this: If shoppers are faced with too many choices, they are less likely to buy anything at all.
Beating yourself up. Instagram makes everyone look as though they have a great life, and LinkedIn makes everyone look as though they have it all together. That’s not the case.
Don’t waste your energy comparing yourself with others.
Those approaches weren’t working for me, and they probably don’t work for you, either.
But one solution rose above all others. It has worked for me every time, and it can work for you, too.
That one solution? Think of it as “one thing.”
Here’s what to do:
Start with that long to-do list. Don’t hold back — mine included more than 50 items.
Now take a clean sheet of paper and write down the one thing from that long list — only one — that you most want to accomplish. If you pick something huge (“Write my next book,” say), break it down and pinpoint a task you can complete in one sitting (“Write the first page of the introduction”).
Put away your long list and don’t look at it again until you’ve finished your one thing.
Once you’re done with that one thing, cross it off, look at your long list again, and pick one new thing to put on your one-thing list.
When I do this, I find using paper and pen particularly satisfying — it helps me wrap my head around all my tasks. But you could write your one thing on a stickie and tack it to your monitor or use an app to track your one thing and your long list. Whatever works for you.
The long list is a compendium of everything you need to do. That compendium is not a working list; it’s a memory list. Add items liberally and remove things that no longer feel relevant. Its purpose is to keep you from forgetting anything important. You won’t ever actually work from that list.
The one-thing list reflects a strategic and intentional choice about what you will do next and continue to focus on until it’s done. It might feel silly, but writing that one thing down on its own list is the key. It makes it a commitment that you are far more likely to follow through on.
Using this method, I wrote several articles for Harvard Business Review, designed a week-long leadership program, hired a new marketing person, edited a proposal for a book I’m writing, wrote a newsletter for my email list, prepared for a speech, and handled a number of client-related and administrative tasks. All in a single week.
I accomplished every one of those things by placing them, one at a time, on my one-thing to-do list.
You might be asking yourself: Which of my 50 or so priorities should I choose as my one thing?
If you give yourself a moment of contemplation, you’ll know what’s most important. If you’re really not sure, look at your list and ask yourself what you’re avoiding. That’s probably your most important thing. Your next one thing.
Here’s the thing about choosing your one thing: It’s hard to go wrong. Being intentional about one thing will get you working to completion on something that matters. Even if you feel stuck, stay with it. If you’re writing, continue writing even if you don’t love what you’re producing. Keep at it even if you feel the pressure of emails awaiting replies or of other things left undone. It’s working through the muck that gets you to the other side. Leaving the challenge for something that’s easier in the moment may let you tick off more items on your long to-do list, but it will leave you with a hollow sense of accomplishment.
Choose one thing, hide your long list, and get to work.
Then, when someone asks you how your day was, your answer will be, “Great! That thing I’ve been procrastinating on? I did it.”
By Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps successful people become better leaders, create more effective teams, and inspire their organizations to produce great results. First published on https://hbr.org/ August 11, 2020