The “MIT” solution — How to identify one key task each day to make consistent progress
Do you sometimes not want to start your day when you look at your to-do list in the morning?
Do you see 34 tasks, 33 of which you either dread or don’t see the point in?
You have to walk the dog. Write a blog post. Answer emails.
Then you’re supposed to walk the dog again. File some papers. Call a prospective client.
I get it. To-do lists can be a burden. Not too long ago, I had the same problem.
My to-do list looked like this:
No order, no specific tasks and don’t you think I would just make lunch when I feel hungry?
As a result I felt stressed and had lots of days where I didn’t make any progress towards my important goals, because the tasks relating to them just got left on the wayside.
Do you know the feeling?
But ever since defining my ONE GOAL, I knew there had to be a simpler way for this as well.
That’s when I found MIT.
No, not the school.
(Sorry Will, not talking about you here)
MIT stands for Most Important Task. When you know what your MIT is, your to-do list consists of one item only — and that can be a huge productivity boost.
After implementing it, my to-do list looks like this:
You might think this would hurt your productivity, but it actually helps you make progress faster and more consistently than ever before.
Want your to-do list to look the same? I’ll guide you through the process.
Now, it doesn’t matter whether you call this your MIT (like Leo Babauta from zenhabits), your One Thing (like Gary Keller) or eating that frog (like Brian Tracy).
The point of the MIT solution is to know the exact one thing you will do each day to make consistent progress towards your goal.
There’s a reason the word ‘priority’ remained singular for 600 years, meaning ‘that, which mattered the most’. Only in the 20th century did we start pluralizing it, thinking we could take on multiple priorities.
Setting said ‘priorities’ for each day is one of the most coached goals on coach.me (over 70,000 people and 100+ coaches), and when I asked my friend Zach Hammer what the most common question is he gets as a productivity coach, he said it’s this:
“How do I know what is most important to work on each day?”
This post will give you the answer in 5 simple steps.
Five steps to identifying one key task each day to make consistent progress
A few days ago I showed you how to find your ONE GOAL and keep it in sight. Having your goal on top of your mind at all times is good. Taking action each and every single day to make consistent progress towards it is even better. Let’s jump in.
Step 1: Break your one goal down into monthly sub-goals
It’s clobberin’ time!
Time to break it down.
We want bite-sized action items.
So get out your hammer and smash that big number into pieces.
First, the monthly break-down.
I recommend creating a mindmap for this.
Go to bubbl.us and sign up (it’s free).
Hit new mindmap.
In your first bubble, write your ONE GOAL. In my case it’s 10,000 email subscribers.
Then create a child bubble.
Now, to find your monthly goal, divide your one goal by the time frame you set, in my case 18 months.
10,000/18 = 555.
I rounded it to 550 to make things easier.
Enter that number, together with your starting month, into the child bubble. Then, you want to create siblings.
Enter the following months and keep adding up your monthly goals.
When you’re done, it should look something like this:
Pretty straight forward.
Within 5 minutes you know exactly where you want to be each month for the next 6 months.
Some more examples: If your goal is to make $1000 per month in 12 months, you have to make $83 the first month, $166 the next, and so on.
If you want to build relationships with 100 influencers in your industry to land a job within 12 months, you need to reach out to 8 in the first month, another 8 the next months to arrive at 16, and so on.
Note: If you’re having trouble with the tech part of things, grab the video tutorial I made from the bonus section.
Step 2: Define up to 3 projects that will move you towards your ONE GOAL
Great. You just went from your 18 month target to your 30 day target.
Now you need to identify what will help you get there.
Ask yourself: What project has a high chance of moving me closer towards this goal?
For example: If you’re running a bakery and your goal is to sell 500 pies this month, then a project could be hosting a pie baking competition or running a facebook ad campaign.
If you’re a freelance writer and you want to pitch your copywriting services to 10 prospective clients this month, then trying a new pitching approach on one of them could be a project.
This is the first time you’re moving away from pure numbers, so it’s important to keep a few things in mind:
How do you know it’s a project? It takes more than a day to complete, but ideally not longer than a week or, at most, a month.
How do you define the outcome? Make it very clear by setting either an end number (3 pitches, 1 finished pie baking competition on July 27th), or an end date or time frame (facebook ad campaign for 30 days).
Combining all 3 helps.
How many do you come up with? At least 2, but not more than 3. Why? Chances are you’ll have to wait for feedback at some point (your facebook ad to be approved, your venue to confirm, an email response etc.), so it makes sense to have at least one other project you can work on in the meantime.
Work on more than 3 and you’ll become ineffective again.
When do you come up with more projects? When all of the ones you defined are done. Not one, ALL of them. Otherwise you might drag along projects for months.
Don’t overthink this!
Just pick 2 projects you think would be fun and will get you closer to your goal. Think of it as coming up with experiments. The faster you complete projects, the more you can do, the faster you find out what works and do that again.
This is much more about speed than about coming up with the perfect project idea.
When you have come up with 2 projects, add them as child bubbles in your mind map to your current month, or, if they take a month, assign them to this and next month.
For example, here are two projects I work on in June and July:
Note: This step is related to the productivity system presented in Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less”. If you don’t know how to come up with good projects, check out the project picking spreadsheet I created to help you with this. I even walk you through how to use it in a tutorial video!
Step 3: Create a next actions list
How often do you look at your unfinished to-do list at the end of the day and think: “Ahh, I’ll do the rest tomorrow?”
Here’s the one major problem with daily to-do lists: They make you believe you could know in advance how much you can get done tomorrow.
Which. You. Can’t.
This is the reason you always start rushing to get those last few items done once 4 pm rolls around.
Your car broke down. Your sister called you in tears over her break-up. That one guy who wouldn’t shut up at lunch kept you 30 minutes longer than you planned.
You need to build forgiveness into the system. A lot of it.
That’s why you’re going to create a next actions list.
Note: The idea of a next actions list is presented in the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.
I like to do this in Evernote.
You can just as well use any other type of text editor or just do it old school with pen and paper.
Think in steps. Baby steps.
For example: If I want to give you instructions on how to prepare some delicious oatmeal, I could do it two ways.
Lazy and confusing: Add oatmeal to boiling water and stir until it’s thick, then add some fruit and maybe nuts plus a sweetener. You can also use cinnamon, if you like.
- Put 5 oz of water in a pot.
- Heat until water boils.
- While the water heats up, wash 1 apple.
- Dice the apple into little pieces.
- When water boils, add 1 cup of oatmeal.
- Lower heat.
- Stir for 5 minutes until oatmeal is thick.
- Add apple pieces.
- Add 1 tbsp of sliced almonds (optional)
- Add 1 tbsp of honey or maple syrup (optional)
- Add a few dashes of cinnamon (optional)
Which one is easier to follow? Baby steps.
Which one produces the better oatmeal? Baby steps.
Which one is more work to write? You guessed it, baby steps.
Your next actions list should be exactly that. Baby steps.
It will be a little bit more work up front, but it will produce results which are 10x better.
The goal of the next actions list is to have all of your current projects broken down into tiny, digestible action items that you can ideally complete in an hour or less (the less the better).
With a next actions list you can
a) simply pick one to-do each day, which will move you closer towards your goal, and continuously make progress and
b) whenever you have time to spare just pick an item you can do in your current environment (waiting at the airport, traveling on a train, weekend at home) and work on it.
For example, here’s what my next actions list looks like for starting an in-depth blog post series in June:
Let me walk you through the details.
Each step has a very clear outcome. A finished outline, 2 finished written steps, an intro, a recorded video etc.
The milestones are highlighted. Think of them as closing a chapter of your project, before moving on to the next one. T
he nature of the steps alone will be a good indicator of what your milestones should be.
You do not necessarily have to complete all steps in order.
After I published the first post I didn’t have time to do the next item, because I was swamped with client work, but I did find the time to write the outline for the next post.
You can also leave things open of which you are not sure yet.
For example I didn’t know how many steps this second post would have, so I just put an X in place. Now that I know I have 5 steps I could change it to 1.
In our pie baking example, if you want to run a facebook ad campaign, your next actions list could look like this:
- Create simple facebook fan page
- Sign up for facebook ads
- Read facebook ad guide blog post
- Create image for facebook ad
- Create ad (this could be a milestone)
- Set audience for ad
- Set duration and budget for ad
- Submit ad for approval (this could be another milestone)
Tip: When you do this in Evernote, hit Cmd+Shift+T to create a to-do check box in your note instantly. As you type out your list Evernote will automatically create a new box with every new line you create.
Step 4: Set a weekly milestone
Now you have your 30 day goal and the roadmap. Time to start driving!
But then this happens.
What went wrong? You never stopped to turn around and check if you’re still on track!
You focused so much on driving, you forgot to look at the map.
That’s what the weekly milestone is for.
Take the first unmarked milestone from your next actions list, and make this your target for the week.
To make sure you check back and see how you did, I like to set a weekly reminder for my next actions list, just to make it pop up each Friday. In Evernote this will be in the top right corner.
Note: I’ve experimented with different versions of this. A lot of people will suggest you add actual deadlines to your weekly goals. Don’t.
Deadlines kill people. There’s a reason for their name.
You have a ton of deadlines forced on you as it is, so don’t set yourself up for a serious depression by going all corporate consultant on yourself.
If you don’t reach your weekly milestone, guess what, there will be another week for you to try and achieve it.
The point of this system is to make you work consistently towards your goal.
It keeps your goal on top of your mind so much that you never forget about it, but not so much that it becomes just another crushing burden.
If you’re off by 3 months when you reach your goal, will you care about the 3 months? No. But if you pressure yourself so much you give up in frustration and never reach your goal, will you care about that? You tell me.
Step 5: Pick your most important task for the next day
In this final step you’re going to pick one item off your next actions list, and make that your MIT (most important task) for tomorrow.
Note: Again, it doesn’t matter how you call this, but the idea for MIT comes from Leo Babauta, who runs the zenhabits blog.
Why? Because pre-deciding has been shown to make it massively easier to follow through with your plan.
For example: Have you ever decided to go eat Italian and in that same instant picked the pizza of your choice? Much easier than being invited by your friends and having to figure out what you’re going to eat right there staring at dozens of menu pages, right?
It’s the same principle that applies when you book a flight for your vacation, often months in advance.
When you committed to sitting on that airplane to NYC on October 9th by paying a few hundred (often non-refundable) bucks in June, you’re going to make sure you arrive at the airport on time, come hell or high water.
When you have to figure out what you’re going to work on the moment when you want to sit down and actually start working, this will be an extra step, causing you to lose your motivation, distracting yourself in the process (e.g. by starting to check emails) and often resulting in you working on nothing important at all, let alone your MIT.
The easiest way to do this is to use an app called Stickies.
It’s built in on Mac (in your other folder in applications), but can be downloaded for free on Windows as well. Open Stickies, hit Cmd+N for a new note and then just type it in, for example:
“Your MIT for the day:
That’s it. As long as you leave Stickies open, it will now sit comfortably on your desktop, nagging you until you’ve done it.
Here’s mine from today:
(badass wallpaper huh? — I’ll throw that in as a bonus if you start NOW)
I bolded the activity, in this case writing.
Again: always decide what your MIT is the night before.
Then it automatically becomes the first thing you have to do the next morning. Why does this work?
- You’re pre-committed to doing the task.
- It’s a very simple and easy-to-complete task.
- You’ll do it first thing in the morning.
- It is the only task that matters.
The results of this strategy?
For me: several completed 2000+ word blog posts and an ongoing writing gig.
For you: Your first facebook ad campaign? A new client? Your imagination is the limit.
Tip: Be creative with how you formulate this depending on how the rest of your day looks like.
If you have a day job, make your MIT “Spend 30 minutes on X”, so you can complete it before leaving for work.
If you’re a creative and have lots of time, just try “Start designing logo for Y” and if you get into the flow, roll with it.
If you’re MIT is a milestone and needs to be completed that day, word it accordingly (“Complete intro to make post ready for publication”).
How can you pinpoint tomorrow’s MIT right now?
Let’s recap the steps you need to take right now to start making consistent progress on your goal tomorrow (that’s July 3rd 2015).
Step 1: Break your ONE GOAL down on a monthly basis using a mindmap.
Step 2: Come up with up to 3 projects that will move you closer to your goal.
Step 3: Create a next actions list summing up all baby steps you need to take to complete your projects and highlight the milestones.
Step 4: Set a reminder for your weekly milestone.
Step 5: Pick tomorrow’s MIT from your next actions list and pin it to your desktop using Stickies.
Now you have all the tools you need to start making continuous progress.
The goal in sight. The roadmap.
But both of these are useless without one more thing: execution.
A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.
— George S. Patton
The planning section ends here.
Technically, all you have to do from now on is get up each morning, and work on your MIT — and some of you will.
But most of you won’t.