The perks of working a creative job (or hey, working for yourself) are often also exactly the things that prove stressful. Creative freedom inevitably means irregular workflows and timelines, which means maintaining a complex schedule that ebbs and flows.
Very few of us want to spend our days working in customer support, but there’s definitely something nice about knowing what your responsibilities are, day in and out. Accomplishing cyclical work is a simple as: answer call, solve problem, hang up, repeat.
Once you’ve pushed forward a little in your career, though, job descriptions tend to get more complicated than that–and with them, your ongoing project list. Ever felt increasingly panicked as you scanned your remaining to-dos toward the end of a crazed week? Even when you’ve got things organized, the actual fact of writing them down might make them feel more daunting than ever.
Related: These 10 CEO’s To Do List Hacks
Here’s the thing about to-do lists: when it comes to simple tasks like “Answer Abby’s email,” “Call Granny,” or even, “Book flight to NYC,” just dropping them into a handwritten list or a note on your iPhone is enough. But when the projects start to get hairier, writing down “Design marketing plan for Career Contessa” doesn’t fly.
Why? You probably already know the answer to that question. You’ll sit there at your desk, staring at the list, and rack your brain for where you should start and how you should finish. Ten minutes later, you’ll probably still be there.
The Next-Step Method
That brings us (as promised) to the one thing you should do to dramatically shift the way your to-do list works. In fact, it’s the difference between working on your to-dos and making them work for you. And we have this rad guy, Todd Henry, author and creator of the Accidental Creative podcast to thank. Henry’s answer is simple:
For every to-do list item, write down a next step. Every time.
When we’re talking about productivity and getting projects done, the biggest time suck is trying to figure out how to start. Instead of making yourself do the work later (when you’d rather maintain some workday momentum and just get started), write down a next step (i.e., an “action item”) for every project on your to-do list in advance. Your brain won’t have to spend as much time shifting gears between line items, and you’ll be able to save that energy for the creative thinking you need to keep moving a project forward. Believe us, your brain will thank you for that.