I spent the majority of my 20s running late. On paper, I was working my way up the career ladder as a writer, but I felt constant pressure to perform. I worked 12-hour days, weekends and late nights. I also used a fair amount of sick days to recover from the inevitable burnout.
I was smart and dedicated, but I could never conquer my to-do list.
Time management isn’t intuitive, according to Melissa Gratias, a productivity specialist and workplace consultant in Savannah, Georgia. “Something I believe strongly is that productivity is not a personality trait, it’s a skill set,” she says. “People aren’t taught in school how to manage multiple competing tasks, and yet, it’s just assumed, ‘Oh, you’re a smart person — you must know how to do this.’”
For those who would like to sharpen their skills, there are a few ways to make your to-do list more functional and motivating.
Stop aiming for the unattainable
The long-held goal of to-do lists has been to check off every item, but Gratias says the finish line shouldn’t be an empty list. “We have to overcome the belief that everything [on the list] is going to be done at week’s end, that we’re going to cross everything off,” she says. “That’s not the reality of work.”
Research backs her up. A study conducted by VitalSmarts, a leadership training company, found that 60% of those surveyed had more on their to-do lists than they could reasonably finish. The crushing feeling of overcommitment, Gratias says, is likely to affect your mood and overall productivity.
Rather than setting hard deadlines of completion, a more realistic approach involves creating progress dates for each task. This strategy allows you detach from an overwhelming list while still moving toward a finished goal. “You’re striving for steady progress rather than ending up with nothing to do,” she says.
Create space for each task
As great as a progress list sounds, we don’t like unfinished work. In 1928, psychologist and researcher Maria Ovsiankina identified lingering tasks as a significant stressor for employees. Known today as the “Ovsiankina Effect,” further studies have shown that people carrying half-finished to-do lists have trouble disconnecting from the office, which makes it difficult to recover during evenings and weekends.
The urge for closure often leads to multitasking and the hope of accomplishing more in less time. While done with good intentions, the results are often disappointing, says Darren Good, assistant professor of Applied Behavioral Science at Pepperdine University. “When we try to read our email in the middle of a meeting, odds are good that we are not fully present with either the meeting or our email,” he says. “In this case, we have lost touch with the present, are not really conscious of our mind and body, and therefore are not mindful. And every time we bounce from task to task, there is a significant cognitive cost.”
Compartmentalizing the workday — rather than what Gratias calls “rapid-fire distraction” — is a more efficient approach to tackling a long list. She suggests trying the Pomodoro Technique, which involves dedicated time blocks of work with short breaks in between.
A University of Illinois study found that working in productivity intervals allows your brain to maintain its focus without sacrificing quality.
Define your work hours
The culture of “always on” isn’t doing us any favors. While both Gratias and Good agree that a heavy workload does not necessarily lead to burnout as long as you enjoy your job, blurred boundaries between work and home present other challenges. “We have limited cognitive resources and attention to manage our work and behavior more generally,” Good says. “The longer your to-do list, the more depleted and scattered one’s attention will likely be, which reduces the attention available for developing and sustaining new habits.”
Those healthy boundaries you’ve established by creating a progress list and assigning periods of productivity aren’t likely to last if you’re still checking email at 10 p.m. In fact, the mere expectation of checking email after work hours causes anxiety, according to a study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business.
Gratias says the simple act of defining start-and-end times can lend calm and a sense of control to the workday — all while helping you feel motivated to accomplish more during business hours. For the best results, she recommends sticking to your boundaries 80% of the time, while leaving some room for fluctuation. “Like the to-do list, we’re not striving for perfection,” she says, “we’re striving for progress.”
Progress is the keyword. I’m still no organizational guru, but a decade of experience has helped me learn how to define expectations at work and at home. The list I keep never seems to get any smaller, but the weight of it no longer consumes me. And I can deal with meeting rather than exceeding every expectation if it means creating space for a more balanced life.