Like most people, I’ve struggled for most of my life to become more productive. One problem I have is I’m not a checklist person. I don’t get any special satisfaction from checking off items on a to-do list. I go for guiding principles. These three have helped me meet important goals over the last two decades.
The first is to Focus on the important but not urgent.
Not every task is created equal. Just because you get a lot done doesn’t mean it’s moving your life forward in a significant way. If you’re like most people, you always have too much to do. Once you realize you’ll never get everything done, it’s freeing.
Understanding “what’s important but not urgent” is a superpower. It helps you to figure out where your time is best spent. Planning, exercising, saving money for the future and building relationships are examples of things that are important but not urgent. They can be easily put off. But if you do, you’ll end up keeping busy without getting important things accomplished.
Conversely, if you don’t focus on what’s important, those things will eventually become urgent. They’re called crises. A system breakdown, a heart attack, a financial crisis or a broken relationship might have been avoided if more time and effort had been put into the important things in the first place.
Likewise, your most important projects are often the ones that are most easily put off. Writing a book, having meaningful discussions with people in the community and developing a more effective approach to ministry might never happen unless you put them before all the other busywork you have on your to-do list.
The second principle is to ask, “What’s your next action?” This comes from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I’ve not totally adopted Allen’s system, known as GTD, but I do focus on next actions. The idea is to identify the next step to move you toward your most important goals. Whether or not you have all the steps figured out, if you know what you need to do next, you’re more likely to do it. Once you do that, then worry about what’s next. This helps you to stay focused without getting overwhelmed.
When I decided to write my first book, it was easy to get overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. By focusing on my next action, I was able to continually move the project forward, mostly by writing 30 minutes a day early in the morning. Consistent effort over a period of time makes a difference. Whether it’s a big project, your health, your finances, or an important relationship, little actions done regularly have outsized results.
Finally, over the years, I’ve learned to follow the Two-Minute Rule.
This is another GTD principle. It basically says if something takes less than two minutes to do, then just do it (to coin a phrase). If you put it off, it will take you a minute or two just to reorient yourself to the task, then the two minutes to do it. That’s almost double the time. Responding to an email, sending a wedding RSVP or putting something in your calendar are examples of things that often take less than two minutes, but are easily put off.
I definitely apply this rule to email. In most cases, responding to an email takes less than two minutes. This not only keeps me at inbox zero, but it avoids having to keep track of a task left undone. The two-minute rule has saved me countless hours in the decade plus that I have been using it. That’s pretty good for a procrastinator like me.
Your to-do list never goes away. How you approach it can make all the difference. It does for me.