Cut back your to-do list to 3 things
On days when I’m feeling overwhelmed or derailed by unexpected events, I feel this incredible urge to vegetate. As in: chuck my to do lists out the window and just binge-watch Netflix and eat fruit snacks. Instead, I’ve learned to quiet the all-or-nothing voices in my head, and settle for a little less.
To bring my focus back, I use this framework for a 3-part list.
Do one essential, routine practice related to my main pursuit.
Do one urgent task.
Do one bonus task - important for long term goals, or something that will become urgent for tomorrow.
This 3 part recipe is meant to help me prioritize what's truly important, while still helping me juggle and keep all the balls in the air. I’ll detail each element below:
# 1) Do one essential, routine practice for your main pursuit.
I’m defining main pursuit here as the daily practice of your craft. (What does it mean to have a craft, and to continue to improve your craftsmanship? Well, what do you want to get really good at doing?) For creatives, this might mean writing for an hour, working on one illustration, practicing your instrument, or attending a dance rehearsal. This task could also be something supplementally essential; something that feeds your work and builds your creative muscles, like reading, going to the gym, meditating, browsing design blogs, and collecting inspiration.
Some great advice I heard from the writer Lia Purpura: “It doesn’t really matter what you do exactly, or even for how long; it just matters that you touch the work everyday.”
What this doesn’t entail
Note that this category does NOT include tasks like responding to emails, scheduling assignments, pitching editors, corresponding with clients, or otherwise administering your work life. I could do those things all day. But those things, while related to my work, are not the substance of it.
Make a promise to yourself that it’s non-negotiable.
Make your routine task the substantive creative work that you crave, or something that directly feeds it. Whatever you make into a practice, you do it because it's important to your long term goals. Thus you’ve made it urgent and non-negotiable. I don’t drop this unless I simply have too many deadlines and feel like a hot mess.
# 2) Do one most urgent task.
Urgent tasks are things we naturally prioritize - fires to put out, emails to respond to, deadlines to meet, clients to pitch. Sometimes a task (like finishing and submitting an essay to a magazine you love) is both important for your main pursuit and urgent. Other times, it might be related administering to your side gigs, day job, or domestic life. Urgent tasks might feel administrative or involve commitments to other people; they're the tasks that make you feel most stressed out.
The exercise here is sitting down, looking at all of my urgent tasks, and deciding which 1-2 items are the MOST urgent for today. Yes, everything feels urgent. But the question is: what can I do to reduce the most stress, or give me the most leg up in my day?
# 3 - Do a bonus task.
If you complete your daily creative practice and your urgent task, you should feel pretty good. (And that’s something I’m really bad at; feeling like it’s okay to do less in one day, giving myself a break, taking it easy). But if you have leftover energy and time, see if you can start on a bonus task.
Usually, this is an important task you put off because it's not urgent, or a task that will become urgent shortly (something due this week or tomorrow).
The key here is to frame it as “bonus” task, not something you have to get done. It’s not required, and you should feel pleased with yourself for even doing it for 10 minutes.
An example: the list in action
My list for today might look like this:
1) Routine task: Work on X design project
2) Urgent task: Respond to client emails
3) Bonus task: Write blog post
Sometimes, whether or not you do all you meant to accomplish in one day is a function of how you frame your task list. This system is a simple checklist meant to help you alleviate the stress of feeling unbalanced, and soothe that prickly feeling that you're missing something. Part of it is just a psychological challenge - combating the feeling that you're never doing enough.
Enough is always going to be an elusive threshold just barely out of grasp. Instead, I practice giving myself permission to do less better. Just 3 things for today.