Let me tell you something about to-do lists: I love them. I love that satisfying release that comes after crossing off a task. I love that tangible feeling of accomplishment. I love the sound the pen makes as you strike it through a task. 

And because I enjoy working hard, I used to think my to-do list had to have the most on it to be considered productive. 

But as I got caught in this hamster wheel of doing more and more in the name of productivity, I actually started getting less done. I started handing out Yes’s to everyone that wanted my time and attention. My creativity plummeted and I hardly felt inspired. I had the most on my list but was not showing up for those tasks as my best self. 

A recent study showed that many workers are only productive 3 hours a day–3 hours! Sit with that for a minute. That means that, in a typical 8-hour work day, most people are only spending 3 hours of that time completing quality work. And yet we can’t seem to see that constantly trying to do more puts us in a state of constant stress. No wonder those who work the most tend to be always on the brink of burn out.

I was one of those on a fast-track to burnout. It all came to a head with Covid when I was forced to take a long hard look at how my packed to-do list was unsustainable. 

I had to ask myself, what would it look like if I cut out most of what I was doing and went down to only the absolute essentials? What would it look like to do less so that I can show up more fully to the things I’ve said yes to?

I’m not going to lie, this goal to do less and deliberately put margin back into my schedule felt incredibly counterintuitive. But it’s been a beautiful thing to slow down and give dreams and new ideas the room they need to breathe. 

The following are some examples of what I do – and what you can try – to keep productivity specific to only the essential to-do items. 

Do a complete dump of your email inbox.

I do this in my personal inbox by creating a folder titled dump with the date (i.e. “DUMP_[date]”) and move everything over. I don’t want to permanently delete in case I need to dig around for an old receipt, but this way I give myself the gift of a clean slate, therefore a clean mindset (cue chorus of angels!).

Dump your calendar, too, if you’re able.

Give yourself permission to ruthlessly guard your time. This keeps people from creeping into those slots in your calendar. We’ve got to hold space for the things that are important to us and protect that space. 

With your work day, try blocking 2 hours in the day when you’re at your most productive and don’t schedule work meetings during this time. Use the 2 hours to focus on just ONE thing, like one project rather than jumping between many. Now that I run my own company, I block off whole days where I don’t take appointments! 

These time blocks are great for outside of work, too. They require you to set boundaries for yourself so you can show up for what you need. If you live with roommates or family, you’ll have to practice expressing your needs/boundaries. They need to know not to disturb you during those blocked off times.

Overshoot when giving time to a task.

If you think something will take you 3 hours, block off 4 to get it done. There’s a saying that a task will expand to fit the time you’ve allotted for it. This leads us to give tasks the least amount of time possible so we can add more items on our checklists. It’s both an unrealistic pace to set for ourselves and a surefire way to kill creativity; the creative muscle tends to die when you put pressure on it. 

Look for ways to limit time sinks.

Our phones and social media are designed to be addicting (Oh, the mindless scroll, it comes for us all). Even those with infallible self-control are susceptible to losing time to their devices. I know I’m guilty of spending way too much time on social media. It’s such a large part of the work we do here at OBHL. But if I don’t set a time limit, I’ll set out to post something and 20 minutes later I find myself scrolling [insert favorite person to insta stalk, or popular page, or something you get easily distracted by that’s relevant here], forgetting why I opened the app to begin with. The best way I’ve found to resist the mindless scroll is to have some controls in place, like the ones I talk about here [link to the YT video]

I still love to-do lists, they’re just no longer overflowing with items. Now I get to cross them off in confidence rather than trying to prove my productivity to someone, even if that “someone” was just myself. 

The satisfaction of showing up fully to fewer tasks will always beat the feeling of having the most items to cross off. 

How do you measure productivity for yourself?