I’m pretty sure there is no new information you could come up with as it relates to productivity and procrastination. Just about anything I could tell you has been written about at some point by someone, and in many cases, at many points by many someones.
So with that in mind — knowing that you’ve heard some variation of this advice before — I’m going to share what works for me personally.
One of the most common questions I receive is, “How are you able to be productive while working for yourself?” It’s not easy — and no matter how polished someone looks on the outside, I have yet to meet anyone who has it completely dialed in. I’ve tried a lot of different things: I’ve read Getting Things Done, checked out the Pomodoro Technique, worked with various productivity apps — the list goes on.
Yet when I look at my most productive days from the last couple years, there’s one very simple thing that they have in common. On any given day, there are going to be tasks you don’t want to do. It doesn’t matter how great your work is or how much you love your life, there’s going to be stuff that needs to get done that you just don’t want to deal with.
What usually happens? If you’re like me you put those things off until all your creative energy is gone for the day, and it inevitably gets pushed to the next day. (And the next, and so on.) I’ve been working hard to minimize this phenomena as much as possible, but no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to stop this cycle completely.
So, how do you make sure you get these things (and others) done on a daily basis? It’s actually pretty simple, and I call it “The Top 5 Method.” Every night before I go to bed, I write a list of top five things that absolutely have to get done the next day. It’s not a novel approach; however, it’s not simply writing this list that makes it effective. The order in which you do them matters too.
I order them like this:
- Something easy and/or fun. By crossing something off early, I can build momentum that makes me want to cross off more things on the list
- The hardest thing (and/or least fun thing). If you do this first, it can be tough to gain momentum. But if you put it off too long, you’ll have no energy or motivation to do it. So do it second.
- The second-hardest thing. Build off your momentum and knock the more difficult or less fun things off early.
- Something else that has to get done. By now you’ve already knocked off something creative and fun as well as the two things you least wanted to do, so it gets a lot easier from here.
- Something fun. For me this is often something that isn’t work related. I try to have fun every day, and according to my friend Peter Shallard who writes often on the subject, there’s a huge psychological benefit to this. So maybe it’s going golfing, going to the gym or something else that is fun but still has positive benefit.
The reason we so often get hung up with procrastination is because we don’t know what to do next. Decision-making can be very difficult, so you have to take that aspect of your schedule out of it. By waking up and knowing exactly what you have to do, and in exactly what order, you can make your coffee and get right down to business. By ending with something fun, you’re also adding extra motivation to get your work done early.
Whenever I’m able to follow my own personal “no work after noon” rule, it’s always because I had this list setup the night before. That night before part is crucial: You can’t trust yourself to make these decisions in the morning. You’ll inevitably put off the things you don’t want to do and not get them done.
So tonight before you go to bed, give it a shot. Create your top five list. I bet you’ll find that tomorrow is one of the more productive days you’ve ever had.
A version of this post appeared on the author’s blog.