At work, how do you decide what to do first so that your day will be productive rather than procrastinatory? Some people tackle a small to-do list first so that they feel motivated by a quick win. Others rely on “eating the frog,” or getting something tough and unpleasant over with quickly before you think too much about it. Neither of these strategies is bad or wrong, but there’s something that I contend you have to do first if you really want to have a productive workday.
Write Down What You Need to Do
No matter what you think you’re going to do first, I argue that the real best first is to write down what you intend to get done today.
When I say “write down” I mean that literally. Don’t just think about it in your head. Put words to it. You can write it down on a piece of paper, in a to-do list app, or in a team chat app to share it with your colleagues.
If you write down what you plan to get done, you’ll learn after a few days how much you actually can get done in a day. Let’s say on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday you write five tasks. Come Thursday you see that every day you had to roll over one or two tasks from the day before. So maybe you scale back what you write down to just three tasks. After a few days, you’ll have a realistic sense of how much you can get done. And yes, not every task is equal in size, but as I’ll explain in a minute, most of your tasks will average out to a similar amount of time.
Why Write It Down?
Why should your first action of the day be to write down what you need to do?
For starters, this forces you to think beyond one task. Instead, you end up asking yourself, “What’s the best way to get all these things done today?” You’re considering the whole day, which opens you up to thinking more strategically.
Another reason to write down what you intend to do is so that you can stick to your plan. I often find that after finishing a task or getting distracted—because we all get distracted or spend time working on something we shouldn’t—I go back to that list I made in the morning and ask, “What did I say I was going to do today?” It’s a very simple act of reorienting yourself.
Be More Strategic
Which task requires the most energy and effort? Which one takes the least? Which tasks could be put off until tomorrow and which ones really need to get done today?
Asking those questions puts you in a much better position to make an informed choice about which task to do first from your list. You might save the easiest task for the end of the day when you anticipate your energy will be low. Or maybe you had a bad night’s sleep and so today it’s best to do some easy tasks first in the hopes that you’ll feel more alert and capable of tackling a harder task later. The answer won’t be the same every day.
If you lock yourself into always doing the easiest or hardest task first, it doesn’t give you any flexibility to think strategically. Writing down your tasks and assessing them does.
Description and Size Matters
When you write down what you plan to get done, description matters. It’s the same as making an effective to-do list. If your task is vague or too big, you can’t easily do it.
For projects that may take months or years to complete, like writing a book, you have to be specific. “Work on the book for two hours” is way too vague. Will you write, research, edit? Which chapter will you work on? Which section?
It also helps to define for yourself a block of time, depending on the work you do. For my work, a block of time is between 45 minutes and three hours. A simple editing job for an article-length work takes me around 45 minutes. Writing a first draft of an article might take as long as three hours.
We all get distracted or spend time working on something we shouldn’t
I would never write down a task that would take more than three hours, because it’s too big and needs to be broken down into smaller tasks. For tasks that take less than 45 minutes, I only write them down if it’s something I need to be reminded to do. For example, I would write “Follow up with so-and-so about X,” but I wouldn’t bother with “archive my work from October 2022.” Some small tasks I know I won’t forget, or they’re just not that important. Others require a reminder.
Add an Element of Accountability
At PCMag, everyone on my team posts a Slack message first thing in the morning outlining what they intend to work on. We use shorthand and don’t add much description, but there is an added value in sharing what we intend to do: accountability.
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It’s funny how accountability works. The act of telling someone else what you will do makes you slightly more accountable than if you hadn’t, even if the person you tell will never call you out on it.
Another benefit is that if you don’t accomplish one of your tasks for too many consecutive days, you will notice. It’s embarrassing to write down the same task day after day, knowing other people are reading it, and yet you’re not making any progress. In this case, accountability turns into self-accountability, and it can light a little fire under you to get cracking.
Start the Day Strong, Make It Last All Day Long
Ultimately, writing down what you intend to do as a way to choose which task to work on first helps you focus on the right things. If you’re familiar with focus sprints or the Pomodoro Technique(Opens in a new window), the principle is not dissimilar. In both of those techniques, the idea is that you cannot focus if you haven’t decided what to focus on.
By writing down a few things and giving yourself a choice about what to focus on first, you can pick the task that’s right based on various factors like how rested you feel, whether any tasks have a tight deadline or are more urgent than others, the type of distractions in your environment at the moment, and so forth. Plus, you can return to your list to stay productive throughout the day long after that first task is done.
So, it’s not a question of what kind of task to tackle first to have a productive day. It’s a matter of strategizing and writing down the results.
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