The One TO DO List Hack that will Maximize your Productivity

Most of the time when we look at our TO DO lists we get overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter what software we use: Asana, Trello, Todist, etc., your lists just keep getting longer, making them harder and harder to stay on top of. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of techniques out there that help us break down our lists and organize them. We can categorize them into projects. We can mark them as “someday”  or “later” and hide them from our view. We can assign priorities, give them context, and schedule them to reappear later. But ultimately, our ability to stay productive comes down to the actionability of the tasks themselves.

In David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”, he stresses that tasks need to be actionable. When you put something on your task list, you simply need to answer: “What’s the next action?” If you have “Update website” as an item on your TO DO list, you are going to glaze over that task every time you see it. What needs to be updated on the website? What new images do you need? What content needs to be written or researched? Without defining the next action BEFORE putting it on our list, we require ourselves to make those decisions when we see the item in front of us. This leads to a well-known phenomenon called “Decision Fatigue.”

Decision Fatigue (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_fatigue) refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making. It becomes more difficult for us to make decisions as the day goes on and we start to make “trade-offs” that often lead to poor decisions. Having inactionable items on your list forces you to make more decisions throughout the day. The more decisions you have to make, the more likely you are to 1) make a bad decision, and 2) become “decision adverse”, meaning you’ll just not decide and skip that task altogether.

The solution is actually quite simple. Find a time early in the day, before you’ve been inundated with your daily onslaught of decision making. Look at your task list, and for each item make sure that a “next action” has been clearly defined. You can organize them into projects if you’d like, for instance, “Update website” is a good project. Then take a minute or two and ask yourself, “What is the next action I need to take to move this project forward?” How about, “Make a list of the pages that need to be updated” as your first actionable item? When it’s late in the afternoon, and you’re tired, and your ability to make decisions is at its lowest, you’ll see an item like, “Make a list of the pages that need to be updated”, and you’ll think, “hey, that sounds easy enough!” Then you can happily jump into that task with little to no mental energy expended.

I’ve been using this method for a very long time and I constantly find it incredibly useful. Whenever I come across one of these ambiguous tasks that makes its way onto my list, I usually skip it and think about it tomorrow morning, when I’m in a better place mentally to define a next action for it.

Hopefully this will help you become more productive, too. Good luck.

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