When it comes to productivity and procrastination, one of the most common questions people ask me is this: “How are you able to be productive while working for yourself?”
It’s not easy — and no matter how polished someone looks on the outside, I have yet to meet anyone who has it completely figured out. I’ve tried a lot of different things: I’ve read books on stress-free performance, checked out the Pomodoro Technique, worked with various productivity apps — the list goes on. Yet, when I look at my most productive days over the last couple years, there’s one very simple thing that they have in common.
On any given day, there are going to be tasks you simply don’t want to do. It doesn’t matter how great your work is or how much you love your life, there’s going to be stuff that needs to get done that you just don’t want to deal with.
So, what usually happens?
If you’re like me you put those things off until all your creative energy is gone for the day, and it inevitably gets pushed to the next day. (And the next, and so on.) I’ve been working hard to minimize this phenomena as much as possible, but no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to eradicate this cycle completely.
Tackling a Grueling To-Do List
So, how do you make sure you get these untouchable things (and others) done on a daily basis? It’s actually pretty simple. I call it the “Top 5 Method.” Every night before I go to bed, I write a list of the top five things that absolutely have to get done the next day. It’s not a novel approach; however, it’s not writing this list that makes my method effective. The order in which you do them matters too.
For example, I prioritize the five tasks like this:
Something easy or fun. By crossing something fun off early, I build momentum that makes me want to cross off more things on my list.
The hardest and least fun thing. If you do this first, it can be tough to gain momentum. If you put it off too long, you’ll have no energy or motivation to do it. So, do it second.
The second-hardest thing. Build off momentum and knock the more difficult or less fun things off early in the day.
Something else that has to get done. By now you’ve already knocked off something creative and fun as well as the two things you did not want to do, so it gets a lot easier from here.
Something fun. For me this is often something that isn’t work related. I try to have fun every day and there’s a huge psychological benefit to this approach. As my friend, and fellow entrepreneur, Peter Shallard explains: “You need to prove to your unconscious mind that your future, business success included, will be more hedonistically pleasurable than a life of half-assing everything and fluffing about on the internet. You need to condition yourself so that every burst of motivation you can conjure up is immediately followed by something emotionally rewarding. Something pleasurable.” So, maybe it’s going golfing, to the gym or something else that is fun, but still has positive benefit.
The reason we get hung up with procrastination is because we don’t know what to do next. Decision making can be very difficult, so you have to remove that aspect of your schedule beforehand.
By waking up and knowing exactly what you have to do, and in exactly what order, you can make your coffee and get right down to business. By ending with something fun, you’re also adding extra motivation to get your work done early.
Whenever I’m able to follow my own personal “no work after noon” rule, it’s always because I had this list setup the night before. That night before part is crucial: You can’t trust yourself to make these decisions in the morning. You’ll inevitably put off the things you don’t want to do and not get them done.
So, tonight before you go to bed, give it a shot. Create your top five list. I bet you’ll find that tomorrow is one of the more productive days you’ve ever had.
Sean Ogle is currently doing the things that most people just talk about doing — traveling the world, building businesses and helping others doing the same thing via Location 180. A version of this post appeared on the author’s blog. Connect with @seanogle on Twitter.