When Laura Vanderkam is dreading something on her to-do list, she uses it to kick off the workweek.
“If there’s something I really need to do and I’m not terribly excited about it — for example, organizing information so my accountant can do my taxes — I’ll assign it to myself on a Monday morning, when I tend to have more energy,” says Vanderkam, author of several books on productivity.
It’s a small scheduling trick, but little things like this can make all the difference when it comes to accomplishing everything you need to do. On any given day, there’s no shortage of items competing for your attention: You have multiple projects to juggle at work, errands to run, personal relationships to pay attention to, your own health and wellness to take care of, a home to keep (at least somewhat) clean. When you add up all the everyday tasks that go into running your life, in and out of the office, the prospect of getting through them all can feel a little overwhelming.
Below, productivity experts share the strategies they use to make sure they get things done.
Incentivize yourself with downtime
When I’m done [with an unpleasant task], I let myself do whatever. I once assigned myself to make a cold call I was dreading at 9 a.m. on a Monday, and when I was done at 9:10, I went for a nice long walk and then read. Obviously, this wouldn’t work for everyone, but the idea of rewarding yourself with time off, even if it’s just a quick reading break, might work.
—Laura Vanderkam, author, host of the podcasts Best of Both Worlds and Before Breakfast; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Do an end-of-day recap
I have an exercise that I do at the end of each day. There are five steps, and each one takes only a minute. First, I write down what I accomplished throughout the day — I find that we often underestimate the work we’ve done, but by taking one minute to think through my day, I’m usually pleasantly surprised. Taking time to celebrate is key for keeping up momentum.
Next, I assess how I felt during the day — did I put too much on my plate? If I’m answering “yes” too often, I make adjustments so I’m setting myself up for success. During minute three, I write down one thing I did to work toward a goal, even if it’s just a small step. Next, I write down three things I’m grateful for that are specific to that day. In the final minute, I write down the big things I want to accomplish the following day. That allows me to go home with less work stress, because I know I’ve prepared myself for the next morning.
—Tonya Dalton, founder of Inkwell Press Productivity; Asheville, North Carolina
Get an accountability partner
The thing that works really well for me is having an accountability partner. Knowing that I have to report to someone helps me get stuff done. If that partner has a tough personality, even better.
— Deb Lee, professional organizer, small-business consultant; Washington, D.C.
I start with the smallest possible step in a task. Once I’ve gotten one thing done — no matter how small — I can’t stand to not follow through and finish the rest. When I need to write a blog post, I just write down the working title to start. When I want to clean the kitchen, I put all the cleaning products on the counter. This motivates me to keep going, completing the next smallest step and then the next, like a positive feedback loop.
— Jodi Graham, productivity coach; Toronto, Ontario
Put money on the line…
Some people use strategies like having someone send them a Venmo payment request for $50 that gets canceled only if they do what they’re supposed to do. Others do well prepaying for things, like personal training sessions or an exercise class, where they’ll lose their money if they don’t go.
— Elizabeth Grace Saunders, time management coach, author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Management
…Or toward a cause you hate
Set up an anti-charity arrangement. Think of the political or charity cause you’d most hate to give money to, then give some money to your friend or colleague and tell them to donate the funds to that cause if you don’t complete your task.
— Graham Allcott, author, host of the Beyond Busy podcast; Brighton, U.K.
Make your deadline relevant to someone else
For me, it’s always about putting a deadline in someone else’s world. I hate letting other people down, so if I know someone else is expecting me to deliver, it’s far more powerful than just holding myself accountable. With my first book, my deadline initially came down from my publisher, but I also announced my manuscript deadline to my subscribers and social media community, which created multiple layers of accountability.
— Grace Marshall, author of How to Be Really Productive; Stafford, U.K.
Anticipate all possible obstacles
Be proactive and minimize distractions by taking a few minutes to consider all the things — or people — that could emerge as obstacles to your productivity. If you have a colleague who reliably shows up in your office for a chat at the same time every afternoon, you might consider dropping them a note when you need be working intensely or paying them a visit instead when you have a moment to break. If social media is a persistent distraction for you when you have an important task, remove the most tempting apps from your phone. When you take charge of the things that may tempt you away from getting things done, you minimize your own potential to make excuses and make yourself more accountable in the process.
— Julie Morgenstern, organizing and productivity consultant; New York, New York