It’s possible to have a to-do list that energizes you, helps you prioritize your day, and motivates you to keep moving forward, even after those inevitable distractions or setbacks. Yet, so many people who write out lists find themselves unable to check everything off by 6 PM.
And that’s mostly because they’re not making their lists correctly. In fact, many people are habitually killing their own productivity.
If you’re guilty of any of the following, I might be talking to you.
1. You’re Setting Aside Time for Energy Vampires
Even if you’ve never heard this phrase before, you know who these people are: They sap your energy by focusing exclusively on themselves and not the good of the team. Your time and priorities don’t even register on their radar. And for some reason, this person’s constantly emailing you to help out with something, more often than not, a time-consuming something that ends up on your to-do list (despite having no benefit to you).
Easy. If it’s not an urgent, company-altering matter, you can politely detach with a simple “I’m under a tight deadline now and unfortunately can’t help out this week.” If the person persists, follow up with a question that points out why this doesn’t belong on your plate: “I’m currently working on [what you’re working on here]. If this is urgent, I can loop in my manager and ask him how he’d like me to prioritize.”
2. You’re Listing Items That Are Unclear
Put simply, any item on your list that can’t be listed as an action shouldn’t be there. This includes both tasks that are vague (respond about project) or multi-step (launch new line). You’re either stuck trying to remember what project you wanted to respond to or getting overwhelmed at the prospect of launching a line in an afternoon.
Instead, use clear phrases for the items on your list, always use more detail than you think you need. Because at 4 PM, your 9 AM thoughts may be a distant memory. And, when it comes to those bigger items, break them down into smaller steps. In fact, an item on your list could be, “Draft timeline for new product line launch.” That timeline then becomes those smaller action items that you can put on your list each week.
3. You’re Loading Your List With Too Many Items
If your list is more idealistic than what you can realistically accomplish, you’re setting yourself up for failure and preventing yourself from getting that end-of-day sense of accomplishment. Plus, when you write too many things down, you’re more likely to find it too daunting. You won’t know where to start and you’ll increase the probability of procrastinating.
“One of the most counterintuitive but effective methods I've found for increasing my productivity is to limit how many items I add to my to-do list. One way to do this is by choosing one to three most important tasks, or MITs. These are the big, tough tasks for your day that you really need to get done; the ones that will keep you in the office past the time you planned to leave, or working after dinner if you don't get through them.”
How do you determine what’s most important? It’s usually those activities that are measurable, as well as those that are generative, meaning when those are completed, they move the whole project, team, or company toward achieving objectives.
4. You’re Forgetting to Schedule Breaks
Sure, in an ideal world you could come into the office at 9 AM and work nonstop until 6 PM. But this isn’t an ideal world and you’re going to get interrupted, get hungry, and get antsy sitting for hours on end.
Fast Company writer Courtney Seiter suggests that no matter how busy you are, you should take breaks throughout the day to recharge and re-energize—and you can do this by working on tasks in 50 to 90-minute work blocks. By using time-tracking and the productivity app DeskTime, Muse writer Julia Gifford discovered that the most productive people work for 52 minutes, then take a 17-minute break:
“Specifically, the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back to it…They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest.”
This could include taking a walk (my personal favorite), grabbing something to eat or drink, or visiting a useful or inspiring website. Need ideas? This list highlights 55 useful and inspiring websites perfect for a quick work break.
5. You’re Not Allowing Yourself Any Buffer Room for Interruptions
You’ve gone to a lot of effort to understand your priorities and write them down. But then you get distracted. By email, by your co-worker, by breaking news—the list goes on and on. So despite all your hard work and color-coded references, you’re off-track the second that first urgent message comes into your inbox.
Leave a few gaps in your schedule each day where you schedule nothing. This will give you margins to work in these unexpected moments. Worst-case scenario? Nothing urgent pops up and you finish your day early.
In addition, you can also head off many interruptions by being proactive: make your status “busy” on any internal chats, set your phone to go straight to voicemail, and adjust your email settings so you’re only alerted when specific people message you. (Here’s how to do that on Gmail and Outlook.)
There’s no right way to make a to-do list, but the way you approach yours can either make or break your day. So regardless of what you use—an app, your computer, old-fashioned pen and paper—avoid these five productivity killers and you’ll get the right things done on time.