Bullish: How to Make Yourself Do Your To-Do List

focus on yourself

Jennifer Dziura writes career and life advice weekly on TheGloss. Here is an archive, and here is an archive of Bullish columns from our sister site TheGrindstone.

Here’s a question that could’ve been written by almost any of us.

Do you have any tips on how to trust yourself to get things done? I make all these work plans in my schedule but don’t follow through. So, when I make them I get stressed, scared that I won’t do them or wonder how to manipulate myself into surely doing them.

I feel like this is The Human Condition in a Post-Industrial Society. But we can do better! (See Bullish: How to Be a Productivity Unicorn.)

I assure you I am not made of magic, and — just like all mortal humans — I constantly write stuff on my to-do list that doesn’t get done. But the most important things usually do, and that’s what counts.

Here are some ideas.

What really needs to get done?

First, before putting something on your to-do list, does it really need to go there? The first time I hired an assistant, I had a to-do list ten miles long. I gave the assistant 25 tasks to do, and at the end of the first day she had done 5 or 6 tasks and I had just paid her for a day’s work. I was a little horrified that some of those dumb tasks had just cost me, say, $50 to get done.

And then I realized that, presumably, the reason I have an assistant is because my time is sellable for more than I pay her, so if I had done the task myself, it would have “cost” even more than $50. And the task just wasn’t worth $50. So, try to strike some things off the list. Are there things that, if you don’t do them, someone else will, even if a bit later or not exactly the way you want? Great! If tasks can be done by other people, live with the fact that those people will do the tasks in their own way.

Of course, if you’re a college student, live alone, etc., there may not be anybody else. No problem. Let’s consider the reasons you might not be getting things done.

Why we feel motivated to get things done

Have you overbooked yourself? In exchange for making a solid effort, your brain wants to be rewarded with a flood of pleasure hormones. But if your calendar says you’re supposed to do way more than is even possible to do, the cavewoman part of your brain knows that no matter how much energy you expend, you won’t get the pleasurable reward feeling. So the cavewoman part of your brain sabotages you. Why would your brain want to work with no reward? So, set yourself up for success by setting daily goals you can actually achieve.

How do you do that?

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