How do you stop worrying about unfulfilled tasks and do what's most important? Advice from Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps successful people improve as leaders, build better teams, and inspire their organizations to achieve superior results. The author of the best-selling book, "18 Minutes.
"How was your day?" - my wife Eleanor asked me one evening.
"Great," I replied, and told her a couple of news stories. And then added, "It's just a shame I didn't get to do everything I had planned.
She smiled sympathetically. "You say that every single day."
And she was right: I said it every day. What a shame.
I am ashamed to admit this problem because I wrote a book, 18 Minutes, on how to manage my time. But admitting the problem is necessary in order to solve it. This problem has haunted me since university when I revise my essay or write outlines.
The problem of productivity is especially acute these days, when many people work from home, in a much less structured environment. Nowadays, it's easier than ever to keep your head down from work all day and still not make progress toward a critical goal (what's that, is it evening already?).
So instead of continuing to complain to Eleanor, I decided to change things up: find a way to feel satisfied at the end of the day with the fact that I got the most important things done.
I tried it on myself and rejected some popular solutions:
Try harder. If a recurring pattern irritates you, maybe it's not that you're not good enough or that you're not trying hard enough. Perhaps you are hampered by obstacles that cannot be eliminated simply by putting in more effort and tightening your discipline.
Work from a long to-do list. An overabundance of opportunities leads to procrastination. Sheena Iengar and Mark Lepper did a great study on this addiction: if shoppers are given too many choices, they are less likely to buy something.
Engage in self-injury. Everyone looks carefree on Instagram and flawless on LinkedIn. It's all untrue. Don't waste your energy comparing yourself to others.
These approaches didn't work for me; they probably won't work for you, either.
But one solution trumps all the others. It works for me all the time, and it might work for you. What is that solution? Let's call it "one thing."
Here's what to do:
First, make a long list of things to do. Don't deny yourself anything: Mine had more than 50 items on it.
Now take a blank sheet of paper and write out just one thing on it from that long list. Just one - the one you most want to do. If you choose something huge (say, "Write another book"), divide the chosen thing into smaller pieces and choose a task you can accomplish in one sitting ("Write the first page of the introduction").
Set your long list aside and don't look at it until you've finished that one thing.
When you're done with it, cross it off your list, review the list again, and choose one more thing to put on your "One To Do List."
When I do this, I enjoy using paper and pen the most. It helps me think through my tasks properly. But you can write your one to-do on a post-it note and stick it on your monitor or use an app to work with your to-do and your long list. Do it the way you feel most comfortable.
The long list is the aggregate of everything you need to do. This aggregate is not a guide to action, but a memo. Add things to it without ado and cross off anything that is no longer relevant. The purpose of this memo is to keep you from forgetting anything important. You will never act on this list.
A to-do list reflects your strategic and purposeful choices, your decision of what to do next, what task to focus on before you complete it. It may seem silly, but writing out that one thing on a separate sheet of paper is the key to success. That way it becomes a commitment that you are much more likely to complete.
Using this method, I've written several articles, developed a week-long executive training program, hired a new marketing person, edited the synopsis for a book I'm writing, written a newsletter, prepared for a speech, and solved a number of customer service related tasks. All in one week.
I did each of these things because I put them, one at a time, on my to-do list.
You may be asking yourself: "Which of my 50 or so priorities would I designate as my one thing to do?" Give yourself a second to think about it, and you'll figure out what's most important. If you're really not sure, go through your list and ask yourself what you're avoiding. Perhaps this is your most important thing. Your next single thing.
Here's what's important to understand about your one thing: It's hard to go wrong in choosing it. Determination to do the one thing will help you solve a really important problem. Even if you feel like you're stalling, don't give up. If you're writing, keep writing, even if you don't like what you're doing. Don't get distracted, even if you're worried about unanswered emails or other unfinished business. You will get out of the quagmire if you keep going. If you give up a difficult task for something easier, you may cross more things off your long list, but you won't feel satisfied.
Pick one thing to do, hide the long list, and get to work.
Then, if you're asked how your day went, you'll say, "Great! Remember that thing that made me procrastinate? I got it done."