Tara Hall

design. write.

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Apr 13, 2016

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4 Tips for getting things done

Do you have trouble motivating yourself to get stuff done? I experience this more often than not even with tasks that I enjoy doing like writing.

My procrastination has led me to evaluate how I spend my time and to come up with more effective tactics. Here are four techniques that help me get things done.

Keep a time journal

To understand why I wasn’t getting done what I wanted to get done, I needed to account for my time, so I started a time journal. Much like a food journal, a time journal lets you keep a record of how you spend your time each day. In it, you record activities throughout your day so you can see where you allocate your time.

Using Google Calendar, a planner, or a piece of paper, for one or more days, keep track hour by hour of everything that you do. For example, if you sleep seven hours in a night, then note in the journal that between 11PM and 6AM that you slept through those hours.

Track all activities from the time that you roll out of bed until you go back to it. And be honest about how you spend your time.

I hate to admit how much time I spend watching TV each night, but on most week days, I watch TV from 7PM to 10PM. That’s three hours that I could spend doing something else.

When tracking your time, don’t forget to include “distraction time”—those few minutes that you take away from an important task for a less productive activity, such as checking Facebook.

Those few minutes may seem short, but they add up. I probably spend up to two hours each day on non-work related tasks, such as catching up on a blog, looking up a book on Amazon.com, or watching a recipe video on MarthaStewart.com.

Keeping a time journal not only showed me how I spent my time, but it also helped me identify opportunities to better manage my time. For instance, I found that some tasks, such as writing a blog post, took less time than I thought once I separated actual writing time from distraction time.

Plan an ideal day

After you record a typical day for yourself, use the time journal to plan your ideal day hour by hour.

What would you do if you could cut out the distractions and focus on what’s important to you?

Maybe you’d get eight hours of sleep instead of six or seven, if you even get that much. Maybe you’d spend an hour on exercise and one hour less watching TV.

This technique asks you to reallocate your time to the tasks and activities that are most important to you. When you know what you want to get done in an ideal day, you can say yes to what matters and no to what distracts.

In my ideal day, I work in 50 minute sprints between 10AM and 5PM. For 10 minutes each hour, I check email or the web. Dividing my time like this works well for me because I spend more time working and less time on non-productive activities.

I liken it to dieting: A diet that requires me to give up sugar completely won’t work for me. I like sugar too much. Likewise, if I try to eliminate all the activities that distract me, I’ll never succeed.

Instead, I moderate the time that I spend on those activities. I’m productive, but I don’t give up those mindless activities that I like.

Set a timer for tasks

There are tasks that I can only complete if I tell myself that I have a set amount of time to work on them, say 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. These are usually tasks that I need to complete, but put off because I don’t enjoy them. A prime example for me is taxes.

Using a timer—whether it’s an actual kitchen timer or an app (Google has a timer that is simple to use)—set a specific amount of time to focus on just one task.

This tactic is based on the Pomodoro Technique, which has you set a timer to work in 25 minute intervals with five minute breaks in between.

Remember that it doesn’t matter if you complete the task in the time allotted—unless it’s your goal to do so. What’s important is that you set time aside to make progress on a task.

If you can’t keep yourself from being distracted, then try an app that eliminates distractions. SelfControl by Steve Lambert is a free app for Mac OSX that will keep you from checking email or the web for however long you like.

Last week, I lost my internet connection for several hours. While waiting for the service technician, I used the time to work on something that I had been putting off for days.

Sometimes we need to disconnect to get things done. Last week’s incident has me convinced that I need to disconnect from the internet more often. There are still plenty of offline tasks that need my attention.

Use momentum to get things done

Common productivity wisdom tells you to do the hardest task first, but I prefer to start with the easiest or shortest task. It may seem backwards to some, but I like to use momentum to complete my tasks.

I set out three tasks for myself most days. I determine these tasks based on the amount of time I estimate them to take within my ideal work day.

Most days are a mix of short and long or easy and difficult tasks. By completing even one small task, I feel more productive and have some momentum to carry over into the next task.

However, if I start with the longest or most arduous task, one of two things may happen:

Either way, if my goal is to complete three tasks, then I know I can check off the easiest ones by simply doing them first. The sense of satisfaction that comes with getting things done increases when I tackle a bigger task.