A Simple System to Increase Productivity and Freedom

I have long valued organization in my life—whether of my time or of my space. I feel better when structure is present in my calendar and in my environment.

One of the practices I use to stay organized in my personal life is a running to-do list, which I call my Weekly General Task Plan. I keep this in an Excel spreadsheet on my personal laptop and like this format because it is easily modifiable and allows for columns. My list contains four columns: Task, Date, Priority and Notes. I’m sure there are more sophisticated strategies out there, but this is simple, and it works for me.

I keep a list of tasks. Some items on the list may only appear once. For example, a list last weekend included assembling my new 6-cube organizer. This is likely to be the only time this particular task will appear on my list. Other items are perpetually on the list because they are done regularly or periodically, and I simply update the date column to reflect the next time I will work on those tasks. Tasks in this category include organizing the weekly calendar and sending it to my family or managing my finances each payday.

I like having this list because there are things that I want and/or need to do, but I may not be ready or able to do them right away. By capturing them on my list, I don’t have to spend mental energy trying not to forget. I know they are on the list, and I have assigned a date for tackling each project. Once it is on my list, I can let it go until the assigned date.

This basic system has worked well for me for years. In the past, my list has looked somewhat different. For several years, I kept it on paper and just transcribed it to a new sheet in the notebook each week. This worked okay, but it was more cumbersome and less efficient for capturing future projects. I have used the spreadsheet method for a couple years now.

Late last year, I started to notice that I felt a sense of fatigue each time I looked at my list, like a heavy, hopeless weight was dragging me down. I felt more anxious and less productive because of it. I decided to make a simple change that has made a surprising difference for me.

“Nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.”—Gretchen Rubin

I decided to limit the number of tasks that I assigned to and prioritized on a given day. As a general rule, I will assign no more than three tasks to a work day with no evening activities, one task to a work day with an evening activity and five tasks to a weekend.

This is not a foolproof strategy, nor is it an exact science, for several reasons. First, not all tasks are equal. For instance, updating my website takes considerably longer than planning the calendar for the week. Not all days are equal either. A night with a haircut leaves more time than a night with a Scholars Bowl meet. However, this small adjustment in my strategy has been tremendously helpful.

Immediately upon implementing this new approach, I felt a lightness come over me. Before paying attention to how many tasks were on a given day (A weekend day might have a list of 13 items!), although I had no real expectation that they would all get done, they all felt like obligations hanging over me. Not completing them all felt like some level of failure. Now, not only did I have the possibility of the success of completing all my tasks in a given day, but I also had the possibility of something amazing—free time!

It had been a very long time since I really allowed myself free time. Since my daily lists seemed endless, I felt like I always had to be working on the items on the list. Taking time away from them, except for exercise and family obligations, felt like slacking off.

Suddenly, although the total number of items on the list may be similar to what it was previously, they are spaced out more realistically, and each day appears much more manageable. And, once I complete the tasks on my daily list, rather than start on tomorrow’s list, I give myself permission to read, watch a movie with my husband and son or do something else for enjoyment.

This may not seem like an earth-shaking idea—putting a realistic number of tasks on the day’s to-to list—but it has been transformative for me. It has led me to consider the importance of time and space and of creating space in time in our lives. Being organized and getting things done does not require being busy every moment of every day. And, putting an achievable number of projects on the list for the day does not mean that I am lazy. It means that I value my time, and I value the items on my list enough to work on them in a span of time that allows the reasonable possibility of accomplishing them.

Sometimes, items still get pushed to the next day or to the next week, depending on their urgency, but I work on them in order of priority, so this is not usually a big deal. They are still on my list, and they will still get done. I am respecting the fullness of my life, while still moving forward with activities and projects that are meaningful to me.

It has been surprising that something so simple has made such a big difference, but I am getting more done, and I feel less stressed and weighed down by the things that need to be completed.

It is easy to implement a system like this for yourself.

  1. Use your favorite method to create your list. The modifiability of an electronic system appeals to me, but you might like something else.
  2. Make a list of all the recurring, short-term, and long-term tasks that are on your mind or on other lists. For me, the order doesn’t matter because I prioritize them in another column.
  3. Assign a date that you will work on each task.
  4. Each evening, prior to going to bed, assign a priority ranking for the next day’s projects, from one to five on weekends, one to three on work days without additional activities and just one for workdays with other activities happening.
  5. If you find that a day has more than the appropriate number of items–five, three or one—depending on the type of day, choose other days for the lowest-priority tasks.
  6. Work on your projects each day, but have a cutoff for bedtime because sleep and self-care are important, too.
  7. Whatever is not done at that time gets moved to the next, or another, day.
  8. Check-in nightly to prepare for the next day.

I think you will be surprised—both at how liberating it is to limit the number of to-do items each day and at how your productivity increases.

Certain projects may be more involved and require multiple steps. The steps can represent items on your list. If it is really important or a very big project—for instance, a course proposal that I recently put together—I break the project into steps and then block out a certain amount of time each week to work on it. On the given day, the project functions as one of my task items, possibly the only one if it is a work day evening.

While I may tweak my system over time, I am happy with the changes I have made and have seen a noticeable improvement in both productivity and quality of life. It is incredible what creating a little space in my schedule can do.

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