Apr 06, 2016
3 Tasks a day, or how I’m trying to be more productive
Being more productive this year is a top goal of mine. Looking back at the last three years since leaving my corporate job, I can say that I have kept myself busy, but not always productive.
As a corporate employee, being busy was synonymous with being productive. If I had a day filled with back to back meetings, it was assumed that I must have been getting stuff done.
As any corporate employee knows though having six or more hours of meetings in a single day means that very little gets done between meetings. I got work done either during meetings or worse after 5PM, which was difficult to do in a 24 hour, global company.
In retrospect, I think the corporate culture valued busy more than it valued productive. At the end of the day, I was paid whether I was on unproductive conference calls all day or I actually produced something.
As a freelancer, I can’t afford to be busy and not productive in my business. But it’s difficult to be productive when you have a multitasking habit and too little structure to your day.
This realization led me to a new routine: 3 tasks a day. It’s nothing original. There are probably thousands of articles about this method or something very similar. But let me tell you how I make this routine work to keep me focused on making progress toward bigger goals.
Choosing 3 tasks each day
What makes this routine work for me are three factors: the combination of tasks that I choose each day, the timeframe that I use for this tasks, and dividing large tasks into smaller ones.
Treat personal and work-related tasks equally
As a freelancer, work-life balance is important to me, which means that personal tasks are just as important to me as work-related ones.
When I worked a corporate job, many of my personal tasks were relegated to non-work hours or non-work days, of which there were few. It didn’t matter if the task concerned my health or my family. If it was personal, then it was secondary.
Now, I don’t distinguish between work tasks and personal tasks—they are all tasks, and they need to be done for one reason or another. Sure, some are more important than others and some have deadlines. But I don’t put a higher priority on my work tasks just because they are work-related.
When I create a to do list, I consider other factors, such as a deadlines and the time I estimate a task requires. This Monday’s three tasks, for example, were:
- Draft a blog post for this week
- Renew my car registration, which expires this month
- Make CSS edits to a recent client site
Obviously, of the three tasks, only one is a personal task, but no less important to me than the other two because I want to avoid a ticket. There are other tasks that I could have chosen to complete today, but I chose these three for an important reason: time.
How much can you get done in the time that you want to work?
Each day, I choose tasks based on the amount of time they may require to complete in my ideal work day.
Back in my corporate job, a typical work day could span 9 to 12 hours. My tasks determined the amount of time I spent working. Rather than fitting tasks into an eight hour day, my time had to accommodate the tasks, which I couldn’t always choose.
Now that I freelance, however, that’s no longer the case. My ideal work day is just six hours. While some days are longer than my ideal, I plan for a six hour work day. I choose tasks that I can complete in that timeframe.
I know from experience that writing a blog post takes as much as four hours. Renewing my registration takes less than 10 minutes. Making the CSS changes, however, can vary. But I limited myself to one hour. If all goes well, then I will spend less than six hours on my three tasks.
If you had an ideal work day, how much time would you choose to work? If this time frame is important to you, then which tasks would you choose that day and which would you schedule for another day?
Break down larger tasks into smaller ones
Blogging is big task each week, but I can break it down into smaller tasks over several days:
- Draft a post on Monday
- Edit the draft on Tuesday
- Prep and publish the post on Wednesday
Any time I have a large task that is really a compilation of smaller tasks, I break it down into individual activities. On my to do list, I limit myself to only one or two of the small tasks each day to keep from feeling overwhelmed. The large task, however, has to be something that can take more than one day to complete.
For instance, I could divide making the CSS changes into three smaller tasks:
- Implementing the changes in the CSS
- Testing the changes
- Fixing any new issues that arise as a result of my changes
In this case, it wouldn’t make sense for me to turn this one task into three smaller ones because I am working on a production website. Therefore, the changes that I implement are immediately noticeable by the client’s audience. The task would be incomplete if I didn’t finish all three steps at once.
Decide what to leave off your to do list
Most days are filled with things to do, but some tasks never make my to do list. Generally, these tasks are activities that I will get done without my inner taskmaster telling me to do them, including exercising, reading, cooking, and checking email.
A task that is a habit—good or bad—or a pleasure to do is not one I put on my to do list. It’s easy to get caught up doing what we enjoy or are conditioned to do. But those tasks can distract us from what needs to be done.
Another type of task that I don’t put on my to do list is one that is done regularly whether it’s daily or weekly, such as taking out the garbage. It’s just personal preference, but checking a regular task off my to do list doesn’t bring as much satisfaction—or relief in some cases—as those irregular tasks.
A to do list or a done list?
Sometimes I write a to do list, and sometimes I write a done list. If I write a to do list, I do so as a reminder of what I need to get done the following day. If I have a lot on my mind, then a to do list may alleviate some stress—three fewer things that my brain needs to recall.
When I write a done list, I usually write it at the end of the day to remind myself of what I accomplished that day.
Seeing my progress written down provides motivation to continue plowing ahead especially if I have a bigger goal. A to do list can be daunting, especially when you have a dreaded task ahead. But a done list is like a pat on the back for a job well done.