Your daily to-do list should fit on a Post-it note, and other practical productivity tips

Keep it brief.
Keep it brief.
Image: AP Photo / Matt Rourke
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Have years gone by while you put off writing that novel?

Or would you like, for once, to begin a paper on time?

Maybe you’d rather paint? Or make a documentary?

Or finally get around to starting your own business?

Who doesn’t want to get more done in less time? Who doesn’t want put a stop to endless procrastination?

There’s a good chance that, like me, you have been waiting for the “ideal circumstances.” Before you know it, you’ve spent years believing that, first, you need a good work space where you can type. Or first you have to quit your job so you devote yourself to your project full-time. Or maybe you really need to read a self-help book first, to learn the right way to go about it. (Guilty as charged: I read Getting Things Done by David Allen and a dozen other books on productivity.)

Listen: There’s no such thing as a perfect studio, and there’s no such thing as “ideal circumstances.”

Then what are we waiting for?

Canadian professor Tim Pychyl has spent the past nineteen years researching that question. He Read the whole interview on Vox.told journalism site Vox that we procrastinate in order to avoid work that makes us feel bad. Because, for example, we don’t really believe that we can do it (I could start writing that novel, but I know it won’t be any good).

In order to avoid that unpleasant feeling, we do something else, something that boosts our mood temporarily (okay, now I’ve loaded the dishwasher!). But then procrastination itself causes more shame and guilt (I never get anything done!), and that leads to another, vicious cycle of procrastination.

What remedy does the professor suggest?

Just get started.

Definitely not “just do it” – Pychyl finds that too intimidating and too vague – but rather: just get started.

That sounds really stupid. Of course you have to get started. Thanks for nothing!

But Pychyl explains why it’s the only solution: “Somehow adults believe that their motivational state has to match the task at hand.” But because this is rarely the case, we say, “I’m not in the mood.”

Year in, year out, you can make yourself believe that, if you don’t feel like doing something, it’s better not even to try. Actually, though, not feeling like it means that you’re afraid of what’s at stake, that you’re experiencing self-doubt. If you truly want to get something done, the only thing you can do is confront that fear. Pychyl says to be strict with yourself: “Okay, I can tell that I don’t feel like it right now, but I’m just going to get started anyway.”

It’s comforting thought, really, that you only have to get started and then keep at it. So that’s what I do now. I keep at it, no matter how frustrating it gets. The first ten sentences I typed for this story were a disaster, but they got me going.

Now that I knew what’s at the heart of the problem, I could give the solution my full attention. What are some ways to help yourself over that hurdle of getting going? What do you have to do to “just get started?” I now knew what I was looking for, so I went back to Getting Things Done and those countless other self-help books I had read.

Using them, I put together a three-course breakfast, my recipe – one I’ve been successfully testing for months – for a productive day.

1. Begin the day with a Post-it

It’s incredibly tempting to start your day with email. But remember, email is a to-do list that other people can add to. Before you know it you’ve spent the whole morning responding to things that other people think are important, instead of working on what is important to you.

Remember: Email is a to-do list that other people can add to.

In order to avoid that, I use a trick from The Four Hour Work Week, a self-help book by Tim Ferriss. Grab a Post-it note or small piece of paper, and write down a maximum of three things that you want to accomplish that day. Try to imagine whether you would go home satisfied at the end of the day if you’d crossed off those items. If so, you’re on the right track.

Tip: Make sure your action items always start with a verb. That forces you to be as concrete as possible and keeps things off your list that are too vague or too big.

Then what about email? You simply wait and check it later in the day. Accept, says Ferriss, that there will be small glitches. Maybe you’ll be late replying to a mail. That’s no big deal. Apologize and move on. “The point is that you accomplish a few big things that can have a fundamental impact on your work or your life,” Ferriss explains.

2. Next, eat a live frog

“Eat a live frog every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

This quote, attributed to Though actually spoken by the French author Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794). Mark Twain, is a kind of holy grail in the productivity industry, and rightly so. Self-help author Brian Tracy dedicated Eat that Frog! an entire book to this quote, and defines the frog as follows (because yes, it is a metaphor):

“Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.”

Take a look at that post-it. Which task is the most stressful for you? Which one has the biggest consequences? Do that one right away. For one thing, at the start of your day you have the most energy for tackling that difficult task. For another, it will save you a bunch of stress the rest of the day, because the hardest thing is already done! In the resulting high you can wrap up the rest of your tasks much more quickly.

3. The kitchen timer is your best friend

Just getting started on your most difficult tasks takes enormous effort. For me, it’s a daily battle just getting through the first few minutes. But as soon as I have conquered them, I quickly get into a flow. The rotten part is, that flow is awfully fragile. One little text message and my concentration is gone. Then I can begin the battle all over again.

Minimize your chances of being distracted

That means it’s important to minimize the chance that you’ll be distracted. Turn off all notifications on your laptop, put your phone in do-not-disturb mode. Maximize the screen you’re working in. Find a quiet place in the office. Use earplugs. Guard your concentration with your life. Technology philosopher Evgeny Morozov Morozov shared this tip in an interview with The Daily Beast.once said that he puts his Internet cable and iPhone in a time lock safe.

And then there is also a technique from Francesco Cirillo that helps to stay concentrated while working. It’s called “Pomodoro,” named after his tomato-shaped kitchen timer. Sometimes I set a kitchen timer – actually, its virtual equivalent – for 25 minutes. Then I promise myself that, until the timer goes off, I will focus all my concentration on a task. After that I walk around for a few minutes, relax a little, and then I set the timer again. This technique prevents me from checking out Facebook, because I am working with a clear-cut deadline. When I want to finish something on the weekend, I use a variation of this technique: I alternate, for example, between working for an hour and watching an episode of a series.

During the day, I spend two or three pomodori dealing with email and returning phone calls. I take care of emails that take less than two minutes right away; messages requiring more time go on my action list, and I process them during a new pomodoro.

And then there are those off-days

Begin the day by writing down your most important tasks on a post-it, start with the most difficult one, and make sure you won’t be distracted. Those are the three tips that help me to just get started on an important task.

And I nearly forgot the most important tip: Accept that some days are simply off-days. Anything you get done on days like that is a bonus. I often use those days for whittling down my reading list. Or I surrender to what I would normally do when procrastinating, like unnecessary surfing. That often brings me interesting new ideas and perspectives.

Good luck!

Translated from Dutch by Diane Schaap and Erica Moore. This article originated on the ad-free journalism platform The Correspondent, your antidote to the daily news grind. Like this piece? Sign up to receive a story a week from The Correspondent at For the latest from Ernst-Jan, you can like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.