This is a guest post by Agota Bialobzeskyte
Why your infinite to-do list is killing your productivity and what to do about it
Do you find yourself thinking about work even when you are out with your friends?
Many freelancers admit that they feel guilty when they are not working even when they got
a reasonable amount of work done that day.
How can you establish clear boundaries between your work and your life?
How working from home turns into living at work
The most common trap of working from home is that nagging feeling that you have to be
working all the time. When we have regular jobs, we usually have rather clear work/life boundaries:
you know that you come to the office at 9AM and that you leave at 5PM. No one expects you to be
However, once we start working from home, these boundaries can disappear if we don’t
consciously reinforce them. You start wondering whether you are justified in watching “Dexter” or
going out with your friends when you could be working instead. After all, you could use some extra
money, so why not push a little bit harder?
This doesn’t seem like a destructive line of thought at first, but when you blur life/work
boundaries, you eventually end up paying the price: your dream of working at home turns into a
nightmare of living at work.
Why you SHOULDN’T be working all the time
It’s very easy to give in to that urge to work as much as possible, but this only makes it
harder to get things done. Why?
Here are two main reasons:
- You won’t be able to relax when you are supposed to relax if you feel guilty that you are not working instead.
- You won’t be able to be at your best when you are working, because your inability to relax will lead to being stressed out all the time, which impairs your ability to stay sharp and focused.
Don’t be fooled when you hear about people who work insane amounts of hours. More often
than not, these people have fallen in the vicious cycle of not really focusing when they are supposed
focus and not really relaxing when they are supposed to relax. Yes, sure, they might look very busy,
but are they really getting that much done? Probably not.
Productivity on steroids: daily/weekly/monthly to-do list
I think that one of the best ways to increase your productivity while decreasing the amount
of stress and guilt is to limit your to – do list.
Scott Young, from whom I’ve learned this strategy, sometimes uses the metaphor of physical
exercise when he talks about this:
“Imagine you were a track athlete and you were training for a 200 meter sprint. You
exhausted yourself on the first run. Except, after crossing the finish line, the coach told you to run
another 400m. The first few times this might work, but after awhile, you’d start preparing for it.
Instead of burning all of your energy on the first 200m, you’d save some of it for the 400m you
knew was coming afterwards.”
This applies to our productivity as well. When you cross everything off your to-do list, then
add new items and keep working, you are teaching yourself to procrastinate. How can you stay
motivated when the amount of work that you have to do is infinite? You can’t.
That’s why it’s a good idea to have three separate to-do list: daily, weekly, and monthly:
- At the end of each month, make a to-do list for the next month, that includes all the things that need to be done that month.
- At the end of each week, take a look at your to-do list for that month, and transfer some items to a to-do list for the next week.
- At the end of each day, take a look at your to-do list for that week, and transfer some items to a to-do list for the next day.
Here’s the most important rule: once you have crossed off all items from your daily, weekly,
or monthly to-do list, you can’t add any new items to it.
I know that this might sound scary, but if you really give this system a try , it’s very likely
that you will be able to drastically increase your productivity.
Frequently asked questions
“I have too much to do, I have to get as much as possible done everyday, I can’t afford to lose any time!”
There are two answers for this depending on your circumstances:
- Temporary situation. You might find yourself in a situation when you have to do a lot of work in a short period of time (prepare for upcoming exam, meet a deadline, organize a product launch, etc.). When that’s the case, although I’d still highly suggest you to use this system, you might be justified in pushing as hard as possible and therefore not limiting your to-do list. Don’t burn out, though.
- Permanent situation. Believe me, you don’t want to stick with an infinite to-do list in the long run, because if you do, you will only end up stressed out and unhappy. I’d suggest you to try this system for a week or two and see whether you get more done this way. You might be surprised how much you can accomplish once you ditch the infinite to-do list.
Take an honest look at what you accomplish on your average workday: are you getting
things done or are you drowning in busy-work such as answering e-mails?
More often than not, people who “can’t afford to lose time” are being busy, not productive.
“What should I do if I end up crossing off all items from my weekly to-do list by Wednesday?”
Well, congratulations, you just got four days off!
On a more serious note, though, constantly crossing off everything from your to-do lists very
fast is a sign that you need to take on a heavier load next time. In case you finish everything on your
list ridiculously early, don’t add more tasks to it, because by doing that you would be punishing
yourself for success. Simply take this into account when you are compiling your next to-do list.
“What should I do if I can’t possibly cross off everything on my to-do list in time?”
That’s a sign that your expectations for yourself are not realistic. It’s better to make a very
humble to-do list and complete everything on it than to make a very ambitious to-do list and
complete only half of it. You don’t want to be conditioning yourself to think that you can’t cross off
everything from a to-do list that you have made. Start small and build up.
“I can’t reasonably predict everything that I will have to do in a given month due to the nature of my work.”
No problem, use a daily/weekly system instead, it will still help you a lot.
In fact, Scott’s original idea was daily/weekly system, I added a monthly list to it myself,
since that gives me even more peace of mind.
Conclusion: What you accomplish matters way more than how much you work!
Don’t get involved in the pissing contest of who works the largest amount of hours. It’s
quality, not the quantity that really matters: you will often get more done in 6 focused hours than in
12 distracted ones. Keep in mind that productive people evaluate themselves based on how much
work they got done, meanwhile busy people evaluate themselves based on how many hours they put
Which one do you want to be?
Agota Bialobzeskyte is a location independent writer. She’s currently building an audio course “Relaxed Productivity” that will help self-employed people get more done in less time with less stress. Working from home? Get a FREE excerpt + an early bird discount!