To do lists actually decrease EA productivity, says Dr. Isaiah Hankel, an expert on mental focus, behavioural psychology and career development – here’s what to do instead.
Many EAs will probably say they live and die by their list – or collection of lists. Not only do they serve as a brain dump to give you a visual of all the balls you’re juggling; they serve as validation and proof of work, justifying your workload and making you feel more in control. However, do you sometimes find the lists multiply and carry over, particularly if you work for more than one person; all with the looming threat that you might miss something or make a critical error?
Well, the truth is that the to-do lists that make you feel more organised and productive are actually killing your productivity.
But I like my to-do list….
Of course, the idea of a to-do list isn’t completely unsound. In making the list, you have to write your tasks down, which is an important part of goal attainment. Writing down your goals dramatically increases your chances of achieving them and, once you’ve crossed something off your list, you just feel positive – your brain actually releases some feel-good chemicals as a reward.
But the problem with this system is that to-do lists are task-oriented, not detailed plans for goal achievement… and many people add volumes of minutia that are insignificant in overall productivity, just for the sake of crossing it off.
There’s a lack of differentiation from one task to the next and unfinished tasks (or “open loops”) compete for focus in your brain. With a multi- level, multi-varied list, the tension created in the brain by unfinished tasks never gets satiated and compromises long term productivity and your efficiency.
Researchers refer to this as the Zeigarnik effect, where unfinished tasks and open loops suck more of your cognition and stick in your memory more than completed ones. So, no matter how many items you cross off your list, your brain will always circle back to its open loops – and these can create intrusive thoughts and fragmented focus that stunts your overall productivity. As a result, researchers finds that to-do lists, especially those related to delegation and task execution, decrease task effectiveness, while increasing errors and diminishing the overall quality of work in the process.
How to organise your day to maximise productivity
You need more than to-do lists to be productive – you need to move beyond tactical task management and start thinking strategically. This means, instead of organising a list and increasing the impact of the next 20 minutes, you have to organise your professional life and increase the impact of each day.
Eat the frog each morning
Start by putting important things first. Mark Twain said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Here, the frog is the most important or challenging task, or the biggest priority in your day. So deal with the frogs first; early in the day when your mental energy is at its highest.
This sets your entire day up for success because you’ve closed the most important loop in the day – everything else feels easier and gets accomplished faster, and your mental energies are freed up to deal with everything else more efficiently.
Then realise you’re limited to five hours a day. No matter how long your actual work day is, the science of your daily concentration and mental performance is actually limited to just five hours. It’s how elite athletes and musicians master their talents: intense and deliberate practice with breaks.
And research proves it – Florida State University studied ‘elite performers’ and found that uninterrupted focus for 90 minutes or less, with breaks in between, contributed to maximum productivity. By harnessing efficiency and focus, instead of checking through a monster to-do list, these people accomplished twice as much high-level work in half the time.
Track your mental energy and get strategic
Not everything on your current to-do list needs to be listed, or be there in the order you have it. It doesn’t matter if it’s colour coded, tiered or exists in a clever electronic format – not every item on that list holds equal weight or requires equal effort.
You have to know how to assign your tasks to your own personal energy patterns. So, start by taking three days this week and checking in with yourself hourly. Look at your energy levels and note down when you’re distracted and why; when you’re tired, and when you feel sharp and in an effortless flow of productivity. Take a look at the end of three days to your patterns.
Next, look at the tasks that you typically do during those times. If you feel most focused at the beginning of the day, are you chewing through the two hours by responding to emails, answering calls and shuffling through other admin-type tasks? If so, higher priority tasks or those that need more creativity, more time or just dedicated focus are being left to non-peak mental energy times… which means you’re taking longer to do them and making more errors.
Once you know your peak mental zones, start to schedule your tasks accordingly. Break up your current routine and start getting strategic with slotting in the kind of work you need to do at best times for your brain to do it.
Remember, create or connect – don’t try and do both at the same time. Multitasking (an EA’s middle name) actually crushes productivity and robs mental focus. Do one thing at a time, in the right way for your personal patterns to maximise the limited resource that is your focus.
Protect your peak flow from distractions
Part of getting into this flow state with your most important tasks requires you to start valuing your mental energy as your most important asset, and begin protecting it from distractions. As an EA, the influx of electronic messages is a chronic issue and the expectation is that you respond almost immediately to everything. And yet, a study commissioned by Hewlett Packard showed people who try to juggle incoming messages while working showed IQ dips that were equal to missing an entire night’s sleep or smoking marijuana.
Remember, the most productive people work best when they’re focused and relaxed at the same time. This is called The Law of Relaxed Productivity and it says that the more effective your process, the more productive you will be. So, the key to being productive and relaxed at the same time is to be as effective and efficient as possible at the same time.
Most EAs are workhorses of productivity, but bear the burden of the stress that comes with that. Others might be relaxed but their productivity suffers. It’s a talent to be both – but being truly successful means you need to learn how to master both.
Research from the University of California shows distractions at work increase stress. Every distraction robs valuable time from task completion, along with the extra time it takes to regain focus and get back to it. To compensate, employees in the Californian study (like many EAs) switched to multitasking to try and mitigate the lost productivity, along with increasing the speed at which they tried to complete the task. But this increased their stress levels and created more mistakes in their work, which created more stress.
So, once you know when you’re most effective and efficient, you need to protect that time – from distractions in your work and distractions from other people. From electronic clutter to a negative environment, your focus and productivity will always be open to sabotage if you aren’t protecting your emotional, mental, and physical work space by creating boundaries, limits, and the mindset for flow states of success.
Don’t forget the Zeigarnik effect – open loops create stress and use up important cognitive energy. They become the distraction; holding your mind hostage from fully engaging in other tasks. But protecting your focus from distractions allows you to move through the priorities in your day with greater ease, efficiency, and satisfaction.
These science-based strategies for maximising your productivity will give you the reward hits of dopamine from closing open loops and completing your tasks without draining your efficiency and driving stress levels through the roof. Creating a prioritised day with protected peak mental energy zones and minimising costly distractions will increase your success and your satisfaction in your work.
And, best of all, you’ll end up doing better work in less time and achieving more than your traditional to-do list protocol was set up for before.