Mental health, Productivity

The Productivity Checklist: 4+1 steps to fight the overwhelm

May 22, 2022 - Reading time: minute(s) 


It seems to me that the recipe for productivity can be distilled in 4 deceptively simple steps:

  1. Figure out the most important thing you want to accomplish. Remove everything else.
  2. Break the goals into actionable steps with deadlines. Get as granular as you feel comfortable with.
  3. Set up systems: when this happens, I will do this.
  4. Actually do the work.
  5. Bonus: Get back on your feet when you fuck up (aka. Forgive, learn and improve.)

If you’re having problems with getting things done, try to quickly go through the points from the checklist. Chances are it will help you see the step you’re missing (or you’ve done poorly).

Not gonna lie: I've been struggling a lot in the last week. I've recently gone through a quick goal-setting session, in which I defined a few confused goals for the year:

  • Working part-time and travelling the world (while saving up enough to move in with my girlfriend next year). (Next stop: Kraków, in a couple weeks. Any of you there?)
  • Possibly: Stop freelancing as a developer and start as a marketer? I’d like to focus on strategy, but for that to happen I’ll also need to find talented collaborators.
  • Live Doing Anything: Find a way to bring valuable advice/share insights with the community (in a way that I enjoy) and grow it to 5k. That will require constant learning, helping people, producing content, and marketing.
  • Help my dad to grow his business and make him more independent in running it.
  • All this while keeping active doing a variety of sports, being a good partner/friend/family member and taking care of the usual admin stuff. And relax, of course. And wouldn’t be a pity if I stopped playing the piano?

Inspired by this vision for my future, I eagerly got to work. But, as you might imagine, it didn't take long for me to feel exhausted and start falling behind…

When you feel overwhelmed, it can be hard to identify what to do to catch up. To help with that, I want to propose a simplified model for successful productivity that you can refer to in times of need.

As life goes on and challenges change, I personally find myself facing these problems over and over again. I admit this checklist is for you as much as it is for me.

1. Figure out the most important thing you want to accomplish. Remove everything else.

We typically overestimate our ability to get things done. We can look at other people who seem to be doing everything, and feel that if we aren’t juggling a big enough number of things, we’re not doing enough. It’s also easy to fall into that just because of our eagerness to achieve our goals as fast as possible.

Unfortunately, when we stop and think about it, we can easily realise that isn’t helping us. By spreading too thin, we actually prevent ourselves from seeing the periodic improvements we need to keep motivated, as well as introducing often unnecessary stress in the process.

There’s a famous story about Warren Buffett’s personal aeroplane pilot who once talked to him about his career priorities.

To help him, Buffett asked him to write down a list of the top 25 things he wanted to accomplish, and then to go through it and circle the 5 most important ones.

In the pilot’s mind, the top 5 were his primary focus, but the other 20 came in as a close second, to work on intermittently as he saw fit.

And as an answer to that, came Buffett’s famous admonishment: everything he didn’t circle just became his avoid-at-all-cost list. No matter what, these things should get no attention from him until he’s succeeded with his top 5.

Warren Buffett’s admonishment was clearly about not spreading yourself too thin. Pick one goal at a time. Maximum two, if you absolutely must.

2. Break the goals into actionable steps with deadlines. Get as granular as you feel comfortable with.

Until we define actionable steps to follow, goals will remain dreams. Get each of your goals and break it into pieces (you might need to do a little bit of research to do that). Then break those pieces again if needed. Remove every task that isn’t directly helping you to reach your goal.

You might be the kind of person that needs every detail planned, or you might prefer things to be a bit looser. Adjust the size based on your taste, make sure it gets to a size that feels both crystal clear and actionable. Frankly, the more defined it is, the more likely it is you’ll make it happen.

In goal setting, people often talk about setting S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. (A quick Google search will tell you more if you’re interested.)

The time-bound part, setting deadlines, is also an important part to get things done. Once again, pick a time that suits you without feeling overwhelmed, but be mindful of Parkinson’s Law: "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

3. Set up systems: when this happens, I will do this.

This point of the checklist connects to both the previous and the next one, but I felt like it deserved a special mention: you need to define exactly when you’ll need to work on it.

First, figure out how your day needs to change to accommodate the work. Move the blocks. How are you spending your days, and where could you put this?

Then apply the “New Habit Formula” from The Coaching Habit. It’s pretty simple:

  1. Identify the trigger: “When this happens…”
  2. Identify the old habit: “Instead of…”
  3. Define the new behaviour: “I will…”

Usually is as simple as setting the time in your days: from Monday to Friday, before breakfast (at 8 am) I’ll sit down and write for an hour (till 9 am). No confusion.

And don't plan for the best scenario, because things will go wrong. Manage your expectations.

4. Actually do the work

Ever seen that meme about drawing an Owl?

This is what this point in the checklist probably sounds like.

To be fair, this point would require several articles by itself. There is so much to be said, so many tricks and techniques to share, but this is not exactly the place for it.

Basically, what we’re talking about here is procrastination. Essentially, this goes back to anxieties and an unwillingness to experience uncomfortable feelings. (Here’s an interesting article from the NY Times that goes deeper into the topic.)

I can think of four incredibly important things to tackle this problem:

  • Make the experience more pleasant — listen to some music, make yourself some tea, anything that can help.
  • Take good care of your mood and energy levels. — Plan some rest and stick to it! We’re not robots.
  • Make it easier for yourself to stick to the desired behaviour — Remove distractions, prepare things the night before,
  • Learn to be okay with unpleasant feelings, and to relax into them — Mindfulness and ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) come to mind.

I have spent a significant amount of time reasoning and experimenting on these issues, and I’d be glad to talk about it more in-depth if you’re interested.

5. Bonus: Get back on your feet when you fuck up (aka. Forgive, learn and improve)

Here’s a fact: if you’re going to try to do hard things, there’s a huge chance that you’re going to fail. (“Failure” should be pretty easy to identify if you’ve set clear enough goals. Have you accomplished what you set up to do?)

You’ve probably heard the saying “You are your own worst critic”, and it’s often pretty spot on. The first thing that does no good whatsoever is self-judgement.

I’m not talking about constructive criticism, I’m talking about that voice that tells you you’re a useless piece of a human being. That you’re not doing enough. That you’ll never make it.

Those are just thoughts, habits born out of anxieties that we developed, and they can be recognised and ignored. Don’t indulge in it. (Again, mindfulness is your friend here.)

Once that’s out of the way, we can think about actual improvement. What went wrong? How could we do better the next time? Are we spending time on activities that aren’t bringing us results and we should stop?

And this is it, my simple 4 steps checklist to help you get unstuck. I believe following it can be a pretty efficient way to figure out where the problem lies, and maybe even identify the solution.

Two of the problems I have identified have been focusing on more than one goal at a time, and not resting enough. Which ones are you struggling with? Is there any step you’d like me to expand on?

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About the author

Hey, I'm Tom. In my past, I have co-founded a video game company, worked as a freelance web designer/developer, helped my father to build a business teaching jazz guitar and recently worked closely with a group of illustrators to help them find clarity and land great clients. On this website, I share everything I know about making a living doing what you love.

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