An organized to-do list will get you started when you lack motivation

Photo by Svitlana on Unsplash


Let’s talk about to-do lists and the motivation to get things done.

As long as I can remember, I always wanted to get a lot done every day. I would wake up fully motivated to start on my long list of tasks. But then I would open my computer, and there it was – the first email or message that threw me off.

So I changed my method and did not start my day with responding to emails.

I would take my long list, or stack of papers that needed to get sorted, and made progress. Working hard and diligent for what felt like hours, only to discover I had spent 40 minutes.

At that point I still had a “normal” office job, and had to stay for the full hours.

So my motivation to get things done quickly went out the window.

Then, as a freelancer and later with the pandemic, I worked from home and accomplishing things has been hard. It’s tempting to work with Netflix running in the background. But you don’t work efficiently while lounging on the sofa at the same time.

In the end I spend all day looking at my computer.

Not because I had so much to do, but because I was trying to live the cool life while crossing off tasks on my list in a relaxed way.

It doesn’t work.

Treating work as work (even if it’s your passion) is the best way to keep the quality up and the time spent down. Sitting at a desk in a room with no distractions is the best starting point.

What follows is my method to get the most done any given day in the shortest amount of time.

Brain dump your to-do list

In the morning I sit down and make a list of everything on my mind of things to do.

This compilation will be all over the place, include client work, writing prompts, and things I want to watch or research. I don’t judge it, I just get it out of my head.

I write my list in Notion, on a new page every day. This page also holds my to-do-database where I add tasks that have specific deadlines down the road, so they automatically appear on the day they need to be handled.

With the brain dump done I quickly scan my emails and messages to see if there are more tasks I need to add.

When I have everything written down I

Structure the to-do list

I sort by priority.

Everything that needs to be done today goes on top. I also group similar tasks, or tasks for one specific client. Often I re-write the task so it becomes more actionable, or divide the task in several action steps.

Example: Winter tires → Call garage for appointment to change tires

Now the list makes more sense and looks like I could get started. But it’s not.

Hold your horses for just one minute.

I scrutinize the tasks to determine how much energy they require from me. Or if there is something I dread doing. I also add appointments to the list to see how it all can fit into my day, instead of dumping all tasks into my calendar.

Agenda for the day

Now I’m ready to appoint it to different times.

Over the years I have learned my peak times and when I am low on energy during the day. Tasks are organized so they fit into that pattern. I roughly estimate how long a task will take and add some actual appointment to it.

Most days I end up with a list that is too long to fit into a day.

This is were I came up short in earlier years.

I would stress to get it all done. Now I look at it and move things over to the next day. I also know that if something new and urgent shows up, there is a task that needs to be moved to a different day.

Mind you – this is not procrastinating, this is me being deliberate with my energy and time available.

Now I’m ready to start working

It might seem like a lot of work to get work done.

But I have wasted a lot of time by not organizing the list. I did the brain dump and then would go “shopping” for the task I felt like doing.

That approach does not move the needle, unless you are the type that always feels like doing the hard things.

I am a lazy person, so I would pick the cherries and leave the poo that would have been necessary to deal with. Now with the organized list I don’t have to guess.

I start at the top and work my way down.

Whenever I come to a task I don’t want to do and sense the urge to push it further down the list or to the next day I can’t.

I’m not allowed to do that. I just have to grind my teeth and get to the task, no matter how much I hate or fear it.

Don’t wait for motivation

Motivation is a fickle mistress. She is never around when I need her the most.

Recently I have learned that motivation comes from action, not the other way around. The reason for this is Dopamine, which gets released when we reach a milestone or reward.

So we have to start on that first task of the day, and the joy we receive from ticking off that item releases dopamine which then motivates us to keep going to the next task.

There are a few ways you can trick yourself into taking action:

5 second rule

Mel Robbins struggled with depression after her child was born and got nothing done as a result.

She too was looking for motivation, and found none. She knew she had to take action to start the dopamine, and came up with the simplest solution: A countdown. When you know what you need to do, and you lack the motivation to get started, just count down from 5 and then you have to start.

It’s easy and it works.

The 5 minute rule

Set a timer for 5 minutes.

That is all the time you have to work on the dreaded task. When the time is up, you are allowed to walk away from it. Very often you will want to continue.

And if you don’t?

5 minutes every day on any particular project will get it done eventually.

Pro tip: Estimate how long the project will take you to finish. Do the 5 minute approach to see how long it actually takes. I’m sure it will be quicker than you thought.

Reward yourself

Find something fun to do when you are done with the task.

A fancy coffee, or a walk. A few rounds on your new knitting project, or 30 minutes with your new video game.

Choose something you really look forward doing.

With this strategy I get a lot done.

And I know what needs to be done is captured in a specific place, and I don’t have to use my brain as storage.

This eliminates a huge deal of stress.

xo, Yvonne

PS: Hit reply and let me know how you deal with procrastination and accomplishing things. I would love to hear from you.

🖊️ This week’s publications

Introvert 101: How to survive on vacation with other people

📖 Currently reading

“You too can have a body like mine” by Alexandra Kleeman

This book has been highly praised, so I’m curious to see what the hype is about. So far the writing style is intriguing, and drives the story forward, although nothing much is happening. I’m also already disturbed by the unhealthy eating habits of one of the characters. This might be an emotional ride.

“No rules rules” by Reed Hastings & Erin Meyer

A book about the work culture at Netflix. The company has managed to become as successful as they are due to their rules and lack of rules. It started out great, and I’m sure it will hold a lot of lessons to implement in work and personal life.

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