A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she adds trivial tasks to her to-do list just so she can cross them off. Confession time: I’ve done this, too. My bigger sin, however, is doing small stuff—think phone calls, filing, checking in with my accountant—early in my day so I can shrink my to-do list and feel productive (there’s something so addictive about crossing off to-do items, isn’t there?)
It’s a decent strategy on days where I’m dragging; then, at least I’m accomplishing something instead of staring at a blank screen.
More often, though, it means that I end up feeling rushed or burned out when I begin to do important work, like writing a magazine article or working on my novel.
Research from Roy Baumeister at Florida State University shows that humans only have so much willpower on any given day. Essentially, if you use all of your mental muscle on, say, attempting to stick to a strict diet, then you’re going to have a really hard time getting yourself to the gym, too. There are some ways to replenish willpower: taking a mental break and having a small, carbohydrate-rich snack (love that!) seem to help. In general, though, Baumeister’s research confirms what I’ve been feeling anecdotally in my own life: you have to put first things first if you want to make sure that you do them, and do them well.
With this in mind, I took a closer look at my schedule and realized that my worklife was upside down.
My career priorities are:
1. Write my second novel
2. Pay the bills with interesting magazine and online stories
3. Grow my blogs
4. Stay on top of paperwork and taxes
Yet this is what I was doing (in order), on an average day:
-Schedule sources for SELF story
-Check in on Twitter
-Post event on Facebook fan page
-Write SvelteGourmand post
-Write draft of Arthritis Today story
-Check email again way too many times
-Fiction – revise last three pages, write 200 words
-Draft WAHM post
-Attempt to squeeze in more fiction
See what I mean? Totally backwards. So I’ve decided to make some changes. Namely:
1. Starting the day with what’s important. Right now, that’s fiction. It’s true that I’ve been writing novels at night for several years; I love that the evenings are quiet and my inbox isn’t blowing up. I don’t intend to entirely give this up, but I’m also going to start writing for a minimum of one hour, and ideally two, each morning before I move on to magazine stories, blogging and the rest of the day’s work.
2. Making smarter, priority-driven to-do lists. Now, the non-urgent stuff gets grouped together in its own section and listed after everything that’s important.
3. Using online diversions as rewards rather than time-sucks. The willpower research I mentioned above supports the notion that it’s impossible to do intensive work around the clock—i.e, as much as I’d love to, it’s not realistic to think that I can spend three hours on a novel then dive right into a research-heavy magazine draft without a break. So, instead of allowing myself to pop into Twitter and check email whenever the mood strikes, I’ve begun using them as a reward for when I finish an intensive task. So far, this has cut down on the amount of time I waste online, and I’m more focused while I’m writing, too.
4. Taming trivial tasks. In the name of a less-intimidating to-do list, I’ve resolved to stop doing things that don’t really need to be done, rescheduling things that don’t have to be done today, and delegating tasks that someone else can do. Yesterday, for example, I was on deadline for two stories, so I opted to skip all administrative tasks and scheduled them for later in the week instead.
I’ll check back in in a few weeks to report on whether my new strategy is effective. In the meantime, any to-do list or willpower techniques to share?