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.

No Regrets

What does it mean to live with no regrets? How would committing to doing so change my decisions daily and over the long term?

As I have reviewed 2018 and thought ahead to 2019 over the past several weeks, I have decided that my theme for 2019 is “No regrets.”

I will turn 50 in June 2019. That number seems both impossible and momentous. It feels like it is time to get serious about the things that truly matter to me—to be clear on what those are and to take concrete steps toward achieving them, with tangible results. So, I will start 2019 thinking about where I want to be when I turn 50 and then use that base as a springboard to keep moving in the direction of no regrets.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

(often attributed to Mark Twain, but not verified)

My recent review of 2018 revealed too many disappointments—mostly in myself over decisions I have made, inaction, stalled progress or indecision. I want to reach the end of 2019 and look back with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment and hope for the future.

Toward this end, I have written a “No Regrets Manifesto,” detailing the actions I will take to make 2019 a year of no regrets and one that propels me forward in a life of no regrets.

I have already started asking myself two questions in my journal each night:

  • Do I have any regrets about my choices today?
  • How will I live with no regrets tomorrow?

I will also review my manifesto at least monthly to make sure I am on still on the right track, and I will be willing to adjust if I am not.

My manifesto articulates what living with no regrets will look like this time next year, identifying three priorities. In my daily mindfulness practice, I will hold in my mind and heart the vision of a life of no regrets, with these priorities in the forefront. As I am faced with decisions, big and small, throughout the year, I will ask myself, “Does this serve my three most important priorities? Will it help me to live with no regrets?”

“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Truly committing to living with no regrets is scary, as important pledges probably should be. For me, it means little room for error. Others may be more forgiving in a plan to live with no regrets (and it might be healthier to be), but I know myself, and I have low tolerance for my own missteps. Of course, that can be counterproductive because it may also cause me to avoid risks that could help me live with no regrets, so it will be a constant effort to make sure I am really choosing the best path. Truly committing to no regrets also means committing to live boldly. It is a fine line between living boldly and minimizing error. I think my biggest errors are likely to be choosing not to take a risk in situations where doing so could help me live with no regrets.

An important factor in living with no regrets is to start living NOW as though I already own those behaviors, characteristics and lifestyles I want to achieve. By living as though I already do those things and live that way, they feel more real, more attainable and less frightening.

“A goal is a place to come from, not a place to get to.”

–Rich Litvin

As I mentioned in my last post, The Comfort Conundrum, when I apply Cantril’s ladder exercise to certain aspects of my life, it is clear that I will have regret if I don’t take action to make changes. Life is short and uncertain, so my approaching 50th birthday shines as a clear indicator that the time is now to steer my life in the direction that leads to a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

On the cusp of 2019, I am ready to jump into the new year with power and purpose, as I work with coaching clients to do. It will take daily reflection to stay on the path of no regrets, but I am excited and hopeful and wish those feelings for you.

What will you choose as your theme for 2019? How could committing to living with no regrets make a difference for you?

The Comfort Conundrum

For a long time, I have believed that it was nobler to choose a direction based on moving toward a desired destination than on moving away from a current condition. Recently, as I have thought about this idea, I have recognized what I am calling “the comfort conundrum.”

I have become aware that I sometimes have difficulty taking meaningful action toward a change because my current situation is comfortable. It is not always clear to me if inertia or a deep longing for stability is behind the pull of the comfort of the known. Maybe, it is a little of both. I have a strong fear of being mired in inertia, but I acknowledge that it is possible that inertia plays into the equation. As I get older, I am also aware of a longing for stability with relationships, with career and with habits.

Stability feels honorable. Inertia feels repugnant. Where is the line between them?

When pondering taking a risk to move in a new direction, as I have said in another post, I sometimes find myself thinking, “It would be easier not to . . ..” That is not a good enough reason for me, though.

As Michael Bungay Stanier says,

“You need to get clear on the payoff for changing something as familiar and efficient . . . as an old behavior.”

Or, as Simon Sinek would say, we must be clear on our “why.”

I realize that comfort is a blessing, a gift, something that so many people in the world do not have, in even the most basic ways. I am grateful for my comfort, but I am also troubled by the comfortable state of “good enough” because I am often just comfortable enough that I am not compelled to make a change. My pull to stay put can be a cyclical thing, varying with my current level of comfort or discomfort in a given situation.

This conundrum presents itself as ambivalence—a constant tug-of-war between the comfort of stability and the excitement of possibility.

Shortly before I left on a recent bike ride, I came across a simple method for quantifying happiness. I was reading the book The Upside to Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. The book, as a whole, did not resonate with me, but it mentions a 1965 study by Dr. Hadley Cantril, which used a simple image of a ladder to quantify happiness. Dr. Cantril asked study participants to visualize the ladder with numbers from zero to ten on each ascending rung. With the lowest rung being the worst possible life, and the highest being the best possible life, participants rated both where they currently placed themselves on the ladder and where they expected to be in five years. I used my time on that bike ride to consider this ladder exercise for myself. It was revelatory for me to this, and I came to the conclusion that there is a tipping point in the conundrum. It is easier to recognize this, if I look at different aspects of my life, rather than at my life, as a whole. Quantified, the conundrum zone seems to be five to seven. In this zone, I am “comfortable enough.” Stability is appealing here because it is known and safe, and there are things I really like about it. The tipping point, where it becomes too uncomfortable to remain, seems to be four or lower. As Anais Nin said,

“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Picturing my placement on the ladder in five years was an instructive wake-up call. It would be easy to remain in the zone of the comfortable known, around a six in certain areas of my life. But, when I consider that I would be in exactly the same situation in five years, without having moved the dial on certain things that I really do want to change or goals that I really do want to meet, I realize that I will have regret and disappointment.

Because the conundrum zone is comfortable enough, this recognition came with some sadness and even a little dread, but the fear of regret and disappointment in myself is even more persuasive than the draw of stability.

In certain areas, stability wins. In others, I know that I must dig deep for the courage to move out of the comfortable status quo, in order to avoid being in the same place (or possibly lower, due to regret and disappointment) on the ladder.

I also found it interesting to use this exercise retrospectively. It seems even more difficult than projecting into the future, but, looking back, where was I on the ladder—as a whole and in various aspects of my life—five years ago?

I haven’t solved the challenge of the comfort conundrum, but I have new insight on it, and on the necessity of overcoming it, after doing this exercise.

Although I don’t think this was the application that Dr. Cantril intended, the ladder exercise seems a useful tool for any of us who find ourselves struggling to achieve a goal or make a change that, on the surface, we believe we want. Paired with the idea of the comfort conundrum, we can recognize why we may not be following through on our goal, change or habits and ask ourselves how we would feel about being on the same rung in five years.

I encourage you to try it. You may want to look first at where you currently would be on the ladder, from the perspective of your whole life. Then, where do you expect to be on the ladder in five years? Why? How do you feel about that? Where do you want to be? What would need to change, in order for you to move up to that rung?

Then, if there is a specific change you have been considering—a habit, a relationship, a career move, weight loss, something else—but have not made any real progress, apply the exercise to that change. Where are you on the ladder currently? Do you find yourself in the zone of the comfort conundrum—five to seven? If so, are you okay with still being there in five years? If you are, maybe it is time to let go of that goal and adopt one that is more compelling for you. If not, what needs to happen to put you on track to climb up the ladder to where you want to be?

After my ride and this thought exercise, I had a clearer picture that, although I am comfortable enough in certain areas of my life, the idea of remaining on the same rung in five years is heavy with the dread of disappointment and regret. With this recognition, I realize that I have the responsibility to take the necessary steps to climb to my desired rung on the happiness ladder.

How about you? Are you satisfied with where you expect to find yourself on the ladder in five years?

“You must want change more than you want the status quo.” Marcia Ramsland