To-do lists can be a good way to record tasks that need to be completed, so you don’t forget to do them. For many of us, though, they can also become a distraction. It’s easy to create a never-ending inventory of chores and projects that keep you so busy that you avoid doing big-picture projects that give you traction with your career. Sound familiar?
“If all you live by is a daily to-do list, you will simply be managing crises and won’t be necessarily accomplishing what matters most,” says Sean Covey, who added new insights to the forthcoming 30th anniversary edition of the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by his late father Stephen Covey.
If you want to move forward instead of simply check things off, consider these six techniques that can help:
1. A personal mission statement
A better approach to managing your time and getting things done is to start with developing a personal mission statement, which serves as a personal constitution, says Covey. “It doesn’t have to be long or profound, but simply a statement, which captures what you’re all about,” he says. “This is how to begin with the end in mind.”
Covey suggests planning your time on a weekly basis, instead of doing it daily, identifying your highest priorities for the week. When you combine your personal mission and your highest priorities, the things you do each day will be aligned to what matters most to you.
2. An energy and attention audit
The problem with to-do lists is that they throw all types of tasks into a bucket, thinking you can move from one to another with no problem. But our attention and focus don’t work that way, says Maura Nevel Thomas, author of Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity Every Day. She suggests splitting tasks into two categories: “low attention” and “high attention.” Then spend your day doing things that match your energy.
For example, low attention tasks could include clearing out communication notifications, like texts, emails and IMs, and high attention tasks could include writing an article or doing budget projections. By being mindful and matching the tasks that need to get done with your attention level can help you do more in less time.
“If there is another adult in your house, mind the kids in shifts, and do the low attention tasks when you’re in charge of the kids, and the high attention tasks when your partner is in charge of the kids,” says Nevel Thomas. “If you’re a single caregiver in your house, work in the high attention tasks when the kids are outside, occupied with a video, or taking a nap.”
3. An accountability buddy (or app)
Another powerful productivity tool is an accountability buddy who can set a good example of focused work, says Hillary Rettig, author of several productivity books including the forthcoming Productivity is Power: Five Liberating Practices for Undergraduates. Accountability buddies serve as motivation for accomplishing what you plan to do for the day by holding your feet to the fire.
If you don’t have someone to rely on, Rettig recommends Focusmate, an app that pairs you with an accountability partner for a live, virtual coworking session so you stay on task.
“Focusmate helps solve one of the central problems and paradoxes of productivity work,” says Rettig. “Many tasks require solitude for thinking and concentration, but at the same time we’re intensely social creatures who tend not to deal well with solitude.” Focusmate automates the process of finding one, and provides access to a global community of hardworking buddies.
4. Daily questions
“I love the work of [renowned business coach] Marshall Goldsmith around the idea of daily questions,” he says. “You come up with a number of questions you want to ask yourself at the end of each day to ensure you were focused on the right things. And you rate yourself on how well you did.”
For example, one of the questions Loflin asks himself is, “Did I do my best to invest at least 15 minutes in cultivating a stronger relationship with someone?”
“I have questions created for the three key areas of my life: work, self, and relationships,” he says. “I change the questions as needed. Because I’m competitive, I want to get the highest score possible each day so the questions are front of mind for me throughout the day.”
5. A power hour
Another way to get traction is to set aside at least one “power hour” each day that’s scheduled in your calendar in advance, suggests Lisa Zaslow, founder of Gotham Organizers. During that time, you focus on doing what’s most important.
“No interruptions, no kidding,” she says. “Set an alarm so you know when the hour is up.”
One focused hour is often enough time to get a lot done, usually more than you think, adds Zaslow.” These days where people are working from home, homeschooling their kids, and adjusting to a rapidly changing environment, it can feel more manageable to squeeze in one super productive hour than to have the possibility-unrealistic goal of working at peak performance all day long,” she says.
6. Well-defined goals
Being productive is about spending most of your time doing what is aligned with your most important goals, says business strategy and management consultant Hamish Mackenzie, founder of Hamish Mackenzie Consulting.
“Have no more than three well-defined strategic annual goals at any one time,” he says. Mackenzie suggests breaking them down into three quarterly and three monthly subgoals, breaking them down further into action steps that take no more than two hours to complete.
“At the beginning of each week, assign these tasks to specific days and times in order of priority—a maximum of three per day,” he says. “Each evening, open all the materials you need to attack your most important task the next day. And each morning, complete your most important task before you do anything else.”
Die-hard to-do list fans don’t need to ditch the list altogether, but know that it shouldn’t be the only tool in your productivity toolbox. Productivity is getting the right things done at the right time.