It's 7 pm. I'm getting ready to leave the office, look down at my to-do list, and realize ... YIKES ... I still haven't finished what I intended to.
The same task that has been on my list for three days continues to linger. At moments like these, I want nothing more than to rip my hair out. How could I let this happen after 9+ hours of work?!?
Because I was procrastinating what is mentally exhausting.
And naturally, what is mentally exhausting, is that one task we really need to finish, but are hesitant to start. Finally, I realized how to stop torturing myself through this simple strategy:
I do my most exhausting task first, for 2-3 hours, before anything else.
Not responding to email, reading the news, or catching up on social media. Nope. The first task I'll do is my most exhausting task, for two to three hours. Abiding by this new rule, I leverage the time when I'm most energized — the morning.
Now I don't leave work at 7pm, regretting that I didn't start on my most exhausting task earlier in the day. Here's the three-step-process how I do it:
First, I prioritize the three things I MUST get done today.
After referencing my master to-do list, I write down the three most important tasks that must be done before leaving the office. I do this first thing in the morning, which takes usually 10 to 15 minutes.
By proactively planning my day, I don't float along, doing random things that come up. Instead of falling victim to "present bias," I understand exactly what I need to do and in what order.
Below is one of my favorite tools to stay focused on my current task.
Second, I do my most exhausting task immediately after.
After prioritizing my day, I immediately begin my most exhausting task for two to three hours. I work on this before responding to email, answering chat messages, attending meetings … before ANYTHING. Why?
Because I have the most mental energy in the morning. And the most exhausting work (usually the most important) requires the most mental energy.
I used to work on easier tasks first (ex. checking my email) instead of harder ones (ex. writing this article), simply because they were easier. Then when I finally got around to the harder task, halfway through the day, I only had a few hours left. This left me pissed off at myself, because at 7pm I still had more work to do.
It's a paradox. We will hate ourselves later if the task isn't finished, but we procrastinate on getting started with the task. It's self-inflicted mental torture attributed to chronic procrastination.
This problem is easily solved by working on the most exhausting task, first thing in the morning.
Third, I work in a series of sprints and rests.
Unless you’re the Terminator (or drink 13 cups of coffee), you have highs and lows of energy throughout the day. You are human, not a robot.
And that’s ok. That’s how our body’s are biologically designed. We have natural "ultradian rhythms," which fluctuate every 90 minutes. If we can take advantage of them, we can get more done throughout the day.
Here's a preview of what it looks like:
Also, it's a great idea to start tracking your energy throughout the day (using an energy tracking template) to understand when you’re most energized.
If you follow these three steps, you will NEVER AGAIN leave work at 7pm realizing you haven't finished your most important task.
Always do your most exhausting (which probably means your most important as well) first thing in the morning. You leverage your mind and body's energy fluctuations throughout the day.
We often think of productivity as getting more done each day. WRONG. Successful people focus on getting important things done consistently.
Being productive is about maintaining an average speed of important tasks; not rapidly doing 20 random tasks as fast as possible. That will eventually lead to burnout.
Success is a mental commitment. Not a time commitment.
And it all starts with doing your most exhausting task ... first thing in the morning.