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

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?

Define tasks, break them down, and set yourself up for easy task completion

Are there items on your to-do list that are nebulous, shadowy, and ill-defined? Like “Plan 2013 goals,” “Ask for raise,” or “Write proposal and send out to agents.”

Imagine that you did have an assistant. How would you tell your assistant to do these things? What are the steps? How does one get the information needed to proceed? Most such tasks are not really tasks; they are goals. They need to be broken into tasks. Usually MANY tasks. Then, put a reasonable number of those tasks on your list for one day. Go about getting the information and supplies and permissions and contacts you’ll need for the other tasks that lead towards your goal.

If you have an ambitious day ahead, try to end the previous day by setting up all the materials you’ll need to get started. For instance, if I have a Bullish column to write in the morning, before I go to bed, I can set up a document with the title of the piece and the little header and footer that say “Jennifer Dziura writes career and life advice…” and “Send in your questions…” It’s a brainless thing, but I’d rather do the brainless set-up at night while I’m drinking a glass of wine and otherwise not getting much done than in the morning, which to me is more valuable time.

Know where you’re going before you try to go there

Finally, if you’re still having trouble getting things done, are the things on your list not really things you want to do anyway? For instance, “Do chapter 1 of LSAT book” is a reasonable one-day task, and you could certainly put out the book the night before and plan exactly when during the next day you will do the task, but if you actually aren’t really sure you want to go to law school, naturally, you will lack motivation to complete even the simplest of tasks related to getting into law school. Do you hate doing a task because you don’t actually want to go where that task is leading you?

So: DEFINE YOUR VALUES. Here are two articles on that score:
Bullish: 5 Ways to Improve Your Life in 5 Minutes
Bullish: Maybe You’re Not Actually a Lazy Procrastintor

Once you decide what you really value and what kind of life you really want to live, and then set up a realistic plan and schedule small, reasonable tasks for each workday, you may feel like you are actually being somehow unambitious and that you should be doing more, all the time, really fast! This feeling will be mistaken. Even ambitious people often let weeks go by without moving forward at all because they don’t do the above; by saying they’re going to do everything all at once, they end up doing nothing and feeling bad. If you accomplish 1-3 things per day, 5 days a week, you’ll be moving forward at a much faster pace than the vast majority of humans.

Getting things done doesn’t have to suck!

The idea that work and pleasure cannot be mixed is left over from the factory system. You do not work in a factory. You’re allowed to enjoy getting things done! (More on this in Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.)

Workstation at South Street Seaport. Ultimately abandoned due to glare. Good while it lasted.

I remember the day I had some student papers to grade and I realized I was allowed to do that at the sushi bar! What a great day.

Most productive things can be done in bed with a cup of tea, or in a bikini by the side of the pool, or in a hotel bar, or on an exercise bike, or while sitting in a park that has WiFi, or with a kitten on your lap, or with candles burning everywhere and chamber music playing like your house is some kind of baroque cocktail party waiting to happen. (A lot of those things are pretty cheap or free, too.) Even errands that must be attended to physically are made much better when you plan extra time for a leisurely trip for a takeout iced mocha, so you can enjoy the rest of the trip with the right beverage in hand. Or buy a new album and wait until you’re in the car, on the way to your errand, to listen to it. I’d be very surprised if most of your tasks couldn’t be coupled with at least one way to make them more pleasurable.

I’d say it happens maybe once a month that I sidle up to an uncrowded bar, spread out some papers, order a drink or a salad, and start plotting and thinking and doing things, happy as ever — and then some guy says, “Hey, no working at happy hour!” And I say, “Well, I love my work. I’m pretty happy.” And if that guy was planning on buying me a drink, he no longer wants to, which is good for both of us. Win!

Good luck!

First published on The Gloss