Use Science to Get Insane Amounts of Work Finished
5 Techniques to Knock Out Task Lists in Record Time
The never-ending battle to cross tasks off the list. The sheer number of ways to manage tasks is staggering, and yet nearly every freelancer I work with says they struggle with crossing off enough tasks with regularity. We’re hard-wired to strive for completion. It’s why many experts tell us to make our bed first thing in the morning so we have a quick win early in the day. That small act gives us momentum and forward progress, setting up the day for success.
You’re On This Quest Alone
In my own quest to manage projects and their associated tasks effectively, I’ve studied many methods and read dozens of books. My takeaway is, like with nearly everything else on the planet, there is no single path to perfection. There’s no one-size-fits-all.
My quest for better managing my time illustrates this. Where one expert recommends rigid time blocking another one advocates for just doing whatever feels right until you get into a flow state. Some experts suggest hiring as a way to buy back your time. Some suggest rigid time-blocking. It can be frustrating and confusing.
Still, there are some techniques rooted in scientific principles that successful people turn to time and again. And once you understand them then you can lifehack a system for yourself and award yourself employee of the month for your productivity.
Let’s look at each of them in a little more detail.
Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule)
This principle says that 80% of the result comes from 20% of the effort.
As a freelancer, I use one metric for what my 20% effort will include: what’s going to make me money. That's my 20% and I’m ruthless. Before understanding this, I took on too many passion projects and clients that were a total time and energy suck, and they led to a period of burnout and near-bankruptcy. Now I look at my clients and projects with a more critical eye and make adjustments as needed to stay aligned with this principle.
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
Do you find yourself coming to the end of an ass-kicking busy day feeling like you got next to nothing done? This principle can help you reassess if you’re spending time on the right things.
Ideally, you want to spend most of your time in the upper right box of this matrix, working on what’s not urgent and on fire, but remains important. I keep my 20% work from the Pareto Principle in the urgent box so it remains my top priority.
Urgent/Not Important tasks are time management land mines. Delegation is key. I have a great virtual assistant that manages much of the busywork associated with social media and I also use technology as an outlet for delegation. For example, my articles on Medium are picked up by my social media accounts and are dropped into my newsletter automatically.
The last box, not urgent and not important, is where I’ve spent a good amount of time filtering my Gmail so I never see most of the noise that can quickly derail an entire day.
How is it that when we’re trying to get out the door for vacation we can finally knock out that TPS Report that we were sure would take another 11 days? Or when we allow 11 days for a report it takes every second of those 11 days?
It’s Parkinson’s Principle which says, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
I use this to timebox my writing. If I know I need to knock out an article then I’ll give myself two hours to write it, and magically, it gets done. But if I say I need to do this by Thursday then it may or may get done. It’s the specificity of time that works. After regularly using this principle I’ve gotten better at estimating how long tasks take which has a trickle-down benefit. I’m now better at estimating client projects which leads to more accurate pricing and less scope creep.
We’re all given to some form of procrastination. Unpleasant tasks or tasks that seem monstrous get pushed to some nebulous future date when we’ll have the bandwidth to deal with them. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It breaks down tasks into intervals, basically tricking your brain telling it, “I can do this thing for 25 minutes. It’s not that long.”
Writers use this technique for sprinting. I keep a “tomato timer” on my phone and on my Chrome Browser that counts down 25 minutes, gives me a 5-minute break, and then starts again. For some, it’s the gamification that makes it work, and for others, it’s simply just breaking it down into some manageable increments.
In chronobiology, or the science of time as it relates to our bodies, you often hear the term circadian rhythm, usually, as it relates to sleep. Circadian rhythms happen once per day, whereas Ultradian Rhythms are periods of time or cycles that are more than an hour but less than 24 and happen multiple times per day. Think of them as waves where your energy is measured in peaks and valleys. Studies tell us that these waves have a burst of energy and then a period of exhaustion, and they usually last 90–120 minutes. This helped me realize that I shouldn’t schedule blocks of time more than 2 hours for any period of focused work. Forcing a prolonged effort against the natural rhythm often leaves me feeling frustrated and burned out. There’s science behind, “go with the flow!”
Understanding How They All Fit Together
How I use these methods and techniques is just one example of how they can be implemented. I’ve been able to successfully use them to knock out massive numbers of tasks and finish projects in record time. It takes a bit of practice to implement, but once you understand you’re working with your natural tendencies and not against them it becomes easier.