How I finally became productive after radically reducing my to-do list

I’ve tried every productivity system out there and figured out the secret to getting things done

Unsplash photo by SW

Ok, while writing my PhD thesis on an obscure medieval topic I tried every productivity idea out there to get me to write the dang thing, from the Pomodoro method to Getting Things Done-ifying my life (yes I went and bought a file cabinet), to The Pledge, Unbeatable Mind, and many others.

Despite three years of energetic focus, of journaling and creating new habits and all, I was still clawing myself to the finish line. The problem wasn’t that it was an insurmountable task. It was that I had too many other side projects going on and was trying to do them all at once instead of one after another.*

Once I realized this, I wrapped up that thesis in five months.

Now, looking back from the mountain of my experience, I give you the wisdom of my experiments with productivity, which boils down to this:

For the love of Zeus, if you want to get anything done, just focus on one thing.

I know, I know, who has time for this plodding nonsense! You’re already behind on writing that novel and getting fit, how else can you catch up except to barrel down and do it all at once?

But hear me out, you!

Once I shifted my game plan from doing a bit of everything every day, to just prioritizing one project, the project became suddenly easier. I went to sleep happy and patting myself on the back because I could see the daily progress happening. I think I even took a bath. By focusing on only one thing, I freed up the anxiety of trying (and failing) to get many important things done every day. And that freed up anxiety is translatable to extra energy, my friend. Extra energy that you can use to focus on your one big thing.

A step-by-step plan to help you focus on just one thing:

1) Radically reduce your to-do list

John Zeratsky shared the intriguing proposition that he became more productive when his to-do list focused on important projects instead of a giant to-do list.

The idea is to eliminate all the small, throwaway tasks from your daily list so that the important goals stand out. For me, that meant things like “repair zipper on pants!” and “seal back door from ants!” no longer belonged on my list.

Ideally, you then want someone else to nag you about your project, like some scary boxing dude or your mom. Notwithstanding that, using an app like One Big Thing is a great way to keep you focused on your important tasks, because it only gives the option to fill in one main task! The whole point of the app is to help you concentrate on one thing, with the option to add some smaller tasks. I just fill in the main task and leave it at that, because I don’t even want to be distracted by other projects.

2) If you have several big projects, do them sequentially.

Back when I was trying to do several big projects at once, I was in a constant state of stress. If one day I wrote a few pages, then I was worried that I wasn’t writing songs. So the next day I’d switch it up and prioritize the songs, with a lesser emphasis on writing, but then I still felt like I was not making any progress anywhere.

In fact, Tim Ferriss critiques this kind of task overload as being unproductive and even lazy:

“Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective — doing less — is the path of the productive. Focus on the important few and ignore the rest.” 
(Tim Ferris in The 4-Hour Workweek).

This is when I decided to ruthlessly eliminate all my projects except for one. It required consciously letting my other projects get moldy on a shelf until their turn (though granted, at first this caused me anxiety and lingering melancholy).

Guess what though? It works! For example, this year I’ve gotten four side projects done, one at a time (write a bunch of songs, start two community meetups, make a personal website, learn the banjo) and am starting the next one (doing a back walkover**). I have, in a relatively short time, become a productivity phenom!

I have the same big goals as always — the only difference is that I am now doing each project sequentially.

3) Develop grit.

Grit is the tenacity required to stick to one’s goals — and excel — no matter the circumstances. Like swimmer Michael Phelps becoming an Olympic star despite being told by a teacher, that as a child with ADHD, he’d never have focus.

Moreover, research psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has identified grit as being dependent on having a long-term goal that you are passionate about.***

Taking this into account, now when I reflect on what project to prioritize, I imagine that I’m looking back at myself as a 90-year-old who talks about what pursuits made her happy. Turns out that 90-year old me finds learning the banjo more meaningful than writing a novel, so I just stopped working on my novel! (A novel for which I had already: taken a writing workshop; joined a writers’ group; talked to a publisher; written a bunch of pages…you get the idea. I just shelved that project because granny me loves the banjo!).

According to Angela, having a goal is a precondition to developing the tenacity to finish it. So if you’ve identified the goal that you’re passionate about, you’re already halfway to achieving it!

Now you need to focus on your project, which requires grit. Here’s a nice tale of grit:

I once had a dance teacher in her fifties who, when asked how she pushed through the fatigue of dancing professionally every day, said in all seriousness that it required mentally renewing her vows to dance every day. At the time I was shocked by the direness of her statement, but now I get it. There was no goddess of dance or anything filling her with inspiration, just a constant commitment to her main goal. Writing down your goal each day (whether in your journal, or using an app, or even saying it out loud) is a good way to keep that pledge at the forefront of your thoughts.

Honestly, while words like “grit” and “tenacity” sound, well, painful, the magic is that once you identify your passionate goal, you will naturally focus on it — if you clear your plate of other projects. That banjo? I love it and therefore practice all my spare time.

To recap, do these steps to become productive:

  • Reduce your to-do list to important goals only.
  • Do your goals sequentially, meaning finish one project (even if it takes a year), and only then move on to the next one.
  • Figure out which project honestly fills you with passion. It may not be what you think!

* The advice here addresses how to manage side projects, assuming that you have anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours to yourself after work, taking care of the kids, etc. This advice is meant to help you actually get a side project off the ground by explaining how to prioritize ONE side project at a time.

** You may think this sounds easy but I can’t even do a proper yoga bridge yet. Also, I have this theory that doing the bridge is the cornerstone of good health. But that’s for a future post.

*** Grit is also dependent on other factors like figuring out how your work serves others, and believing you have the ability to improve. See This is How to Increase Grit, According to Research.