I used to think that I had to make things complicated. After all, I’m a student taking 17 hours of classes, participating in the Auburn University Honors college, running my own tutoring and creative writing teaching business, working part time, and writing a novel — not to mention writing things such as these. With all of that going on, I thought I needed a 27-tiered organization system to keep track of it all. In the end, the exact opposite appeared true.
It’s been said a million times before but it’s worth saying again: having more apps and logistical things to take care of, and overall being more busy, doesn’t necessarily equate to increased productivity. The inverse tends to be accurate.
Through cutting down that 27-tiered organization system, however, I’ve discovered some really simply ways to stay focused and get a lot of work done. Each of these five strong suggestions are those that can apply to just about anything. I’ve used them to make more time with friends, be more productive in my limited work time, and stay on track in school.
1 || Have a highlight for your day
Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, is one of my favorite books about time management and productivity. It is straight-forward, full of ideas that work for different people in different ways, and exactly what I needed to open my eyes to the fact that my productivity system had become way too complicated.
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” — Stephen Covey
One thing that they advocate for, no matter what other of their habits you try, is having a highlight for the day. This is similar to the concept used in Intelligent Change’s productivity Planner, where you give yourself a most important task — that which you’d be happy and fulfilled in completing even if you didn’t get to anything else that day. They frame it as this, but also as the thing that you can look forward to, and that which you’d sacrifice everything else for.
Priorities were meant to be singular.
This is an incredible minimalist tactic because it reminds you that, in reality, you can’t have more than one “most important thing” — that your priority needs to be singular, and that all else should fall beneath it. I’ve used this strategy in my life with great success, helping me to focus on just one thing everyday.
With this tactic I have two kinds of days. I either get the highlight done and feel so motivated and inspired that I keep going, or I only get that one thing done and I can go to bed that night knowing everything else can wait.
2 || Schedule time instead of tasks
Trying to find little bits of time for all of your minute tasks eventually becomes a task in and of itself. I know that I’m not the only one who somehow finds herself with a task list a mile long — one that includes everything from “Finish writing your novel” to “Print XYZ piece of paper and put in folder”. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and not know when to do it all.
Knowing how much I love to see how many tasks I can get done in a certain amount of time, I’ve decided to start scheduling time for all of my little tasks. For housekeeping tasks, my calendar will read exactly that — “Take care of house time/Housekeeping”. And if it’s just random task I’ll make an event in my calendar that says “Conquer to-do list” or something similar.
“A plan is what, a schedule is when. It takes both a plan and a schedule to get things done.” — Peter Turla
This is not only more fun for me, but it’s a heck of a lot more efficient. That way I’m not having to schedule time for tasks that are often times really small. And if I do have a larger task, like “Finish writing novel”, then I’ll make a separate event for that and move it off of my task list.
3 || Split up your tasks by category
If you schedule an event for doing all of your tasks and they still feel a little mismatched in the time slot and just generally overwhelming, try splitting up the different types of tasks that you have. I’ve often found that if I need to print something but I also need to write something, those can be hard to do in the same slot of time because of how different they are.
Divide and conquer.
In high school, when I was a competitive policy debater and was constantly writing, researching, outlining, printing, and organizing briefs — I would split up the types of work that I would do. In the mornings on the days when I was only working on debate, I would spend about thirty minutes outlining all of the briefs I had to do.
“Most things which are urgent are not important, and most things which are important are not urgent.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
This often involved creating a template and copying and pasting it into thirty or so different GoogleDocs. Once that was completed, I’d spend several hours writing the briefs and researching different things for them. Later, I would go back and do all of my sources for all of the briefs at the same time.
Because of this semi-structured separation of tasks, I didn’t have to waste time switching gears more than necessary, and could really get into the flow state working on the writing, researching, and source-citing portions of the brief creation because I didn’t have to start and do something else.
Think in terms of urgency, importance, and time needed to complete the task in full.
You can use this example to apply to all of your tasks. I think about it in terms of the Eisenhower matrix as well, splitting up your tasks into the four different quadrants with varying importance and urgency. Do all of your urgent but small tasks together, like printing things off, creating lists, texting people about meeting up that week. Then, schedule out specific blocks of time for each of your large and important tasks, like writing your novel or crafting a proposal for your job.
However you find it most effective, split up your tasks by the type of task that they are, and you’ll find yourself enjoying your work more, getting your time back, and getting more done.
4 || Sequence daily tasks into habits
There are some things that you’ll need to do everyday. These things can include writing, checking email, texting people back, outlining something, reading something, meeting with someone. Whatever it may be, make it into a habit. My mom is a teacher, but also the mother to my two brothers, who have to take lunch to school each day.
“First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” — Octavia Butler
Every morning, she wakes up and their lunch is made — because she put it together the night before. This is a great example of a daily task turned into a habit, now something she doesn’t even have to think about.
Free up your time for what really matters to you.
It’s worth considering doing this with email, other communication tasks, and other daily to-do’s as well. Find a time where these work best, and commit to only doing them during these slots of time. I’ve found that this helps me find time to write my book, as well as write articles online and do other freelance writing-related work.
This is a great minimalist tactic because it helps you free up your time, almost seamlessly. You have less distractions from your daily, more mundane tasks and more time to work on what you really want to be working on.
5 || If you’re project based, have a system
My system-based project sequences are best reflected in the way I run my Notion page — where I literally keep everything. This is where I put my notes for classes, my to-do lists, my future plans, a list of birthdays, my daily plans, and so much more. My bullet journal, however, with daily tasks and general plans for the day, stays on an editable PDF in Adobe on my laptop.
My schedule, finally, resides in GoogleCalendar — keeping track of all of my appointments, classes, meetings, project-specific time, and gatherings with friends and other groups that I’m apart of.
“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily.” — Unknown
If you do any sort of thing like I do that involves projects and lots of moving parts all at once, have a system. Know where your tasks and schedule reside, and have some sort of system or application that can keep track of all your open tabs — literally, if necessary. Notion, for instance, keeps track of all of my tutoring profiles for the kids that I teach math to.
I also keep a Notion page to track which chapters of my novel I’ve written and edited, as well as information about different writing camps I host, among other projects. Many productivity YouTubers who double as self-proclaimed minimalists use this technique as well — having systems for keeping tracks of progress. This helps you to focus on the important work that you’re doing, practically automating the actual admin side of it to maximize efficiency and time for the real work that you want to be doing.
In the end, getting work done and doing what you love wasn’t meant to be complicated, or a huge burden. Rather, it’s something that you can get a handle on. You can have a minimalist work approach and still be productive, organized, and firing on all cylinders with all of your various projects. Keep it simple, and get stuff done.
To read more from me, feel free to check out the free sample for my book, On Purpose: Discovering Who You Are With The Enneagram. For business related inquiries, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.