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  • Writer's pictureKate Armstrong

Staying Productive in Busy Times with a One-Item To-Do List

I’m going to kick off this post with a couple of quotes and an important time management concept.

First, my favorite quote of all time, from prolific author and British civil servant, Anthony Trollope:

“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

(And when I say prolific, I mean prolific. Using a “small daily task,” Anthony Trollope wrote forty-seven books, forty-two short stories, and several works of nonfiction.)

Next, a quote I’ve seen attributed to everyone from Bill Gates, to Matthew Kelly, to various Peloton trainers:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a

month. We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish

in a decade.”

(From what I can tell, Matthew Kelly coined the first part of this quote, while Bill Gates is responsible for the second. The Peloton instructors just picked it up and ran with it.)

Finally, the time management concept:

Managing your time wisely requires realistic expectations. You need to know how long

particular tasks take you, how much time you have in a day to accomplish them, and how long

you can work on them before you start to lose focus or interest.

(Tip: If you consistently misjudge how long certain tasks will take, it’s worth timing yourself doing them to get an accurate estimate. It’s true that “time flies when you’re having fun,” and equally true that the clock can crawl when you’re not, so it’s hard to know how long a task takes without engaging the objectivity of a stopwatch. For example, maybe you estimate that writing 1,000 words will take you an hour. In reality, however, it takes you two hours by the time you get into the flow, write your 1,000 words, and take a few extra minutes to save and backup your document. You need to understand that when you’re deciding how to parse your time.)

So, what does all of this have to do with staying productive during busy times?

Every client I’ve worked with has had to find space for their writing around the margins of other important commitments, such as careers, parenting, and school. When you’re already squeezing your writing in around the margins, there are bound to be times when life gets hectic and there’s potential for your writing to be sidelined.

When you’re really swamped, and writing seems to be falling by the wayside, consider this approach: choose a single task to complete each day.

On extremely busy days you may only have twenty minutes to devote to your writing. Find a twenty-minute task: create an Instagram post for your author page, do a little research about editors for your WIP, watch twenty minutes of an old conference session recording you’ve been meaning to get to. On days with more time, pull a task that fits the time you have: write 250 words, edit the epilogue, format the citations for one chapter, etc. Chances are, you can find a task to fit any amount of time you have, but keep it simple and pick a single task.

In busy times, a to-do list may do more harm than good. If you’re ending each day disappointed in yourself for not knocking out your (at least temporarily) unrealistic to-do list, it may feel easier to throw in the towel than to keep working. Or, it may feel easier to be a “spasmodic Hercules,” doing nothing with your writing on busy days and then scrambling to get as much done as possible when a small window of writing time presents itself.

By prioritizing a single important task that can be accomplished in the amount of time you’ve designated for it, you’re being realistic about what can be accomplished in a day, while still completing the “small daily task” required to make big progress over the span of months and years.

Using a one-item to-do list helps re-frame things such that you can pat yourself on the back for taking a step forward, even if you’re not taking as many steps as you usually take or you’d like to take. That sense of satisfaction is crucial for staying motivated to keep at it day in and day out!

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