From Pooped to Pumped: Tackle Your To-Do List

UPDATED: December 23, 2013
PUBLISHED: December 23, 2013

Oh, to be a movie star. Not for the money and adulation—though I wouldn’t turn those down—but for the freedom to announce, as movie stars often do, that they are “taking a little time off between projects.” Six or eight months, say, to bake bread on a ranch in Montana.

This is how I was thinking, not long ago, after putting out the first issue of an online journal I co-edit. Getting to that point took over a year of planning, consulting, collaborating and reading hundreds of submissions. Much of this was a joy, but man, was I pooped on launch day. And the day after that. And, truth be told, for weeks more.

But not being a movie star, I couldn’t just sit on my big fat laurels. I had tons of other work to do—including (yikes!) getting the next issue of the journal underway. If only I weren’t too bushed to really start cranking…

“You’re telling yourself that, but you weren’t too exhausted two minutes before you finished your project!” Bill Knaus chided me. Knaus is a clinical psychologist, a former psychology professor and the author of books such as End Procrastination Now!—in other words, a pro at yanking people out of slumps like mine. I called him shortly after the journal’s debut, when I had started to limp toward my next deadlines. “If you define yourself as too tired to go on, then you’re going to act as if you were, and you’re going to find evidence of fatigue everywhere,” Knaus went on. “That’s how we mentally get ourselves into tailspins. Instead, say, ‘Yeah, I’m pooped out, but let’s see what we’ve got next. Tonight I’ll put a few things on my to-do list so I’ll have some direction tomorrow.’ It’s easier to transition to something you’ve created a structure for.”

Ideally, Knaus said, you make yourself a to-do list before you finish that monster project (although it’s never too late). Go ahead and put some “Yay, I finished!” celebrating on the list, if you like, just not so much that it derails you for days.

What else belongs on your list? Important, “top-drawer” tasks that help you meet imminent deadlines or long-term goals for your career, health and family, Knaus said. The list should be short, so it isn’t overwhelming, and the tasks needn’t be taxing when you’ve just finished something big. “Often after achieving something, you have a natural letdown and you have to allow yourself time for that,” he said. Then you can ramp back up. By way of analogy, he mentioned how, after a major game, football players may analyze team videotapes rather than lumbering right back onto the field.

Not sure which of your tasks count as top-drawer? “Ask yourself, ‘If I do this, what’s the likely outcome?’ ” Knaus suggested. The more major the results (getting closer to, say, your dream job/entrepreneurial success), the higher the drawer. Such forethought is always good, since there’s a human tendency—documented by researchers at Duke University, the University of California and elsewhere—to slack off even after we complete minor “bottom-drawer” tasks. And that tendency’s bound to be even greater when we can tell ourselves things like, “Look at me! Yesterday I finished that huge proposal, and today I got right back in the saddle and organized all my bobbleheads!” If we’re not careful, Knaus warned, we can easily wind up “living life in the bottom drawer.”

Of course, what’s bottom-drawer to me (playing video games) may be top-drawer to you (especially if you’re the president of Sega), and vice versa. The main thing, Knaus said, is to be honest with yourself about whether an item on your list is just a diversion. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t make time for diversions—just try to use them as rewards for finishing top-drawer stuff. A morning spent on that marketing plan, for instance, might earn you a stroll through the farmers market.

All of which sounds great, as long as you can make your tired self actually tackle your to-do list. One of Knaus’s favorite tricks is a twist on a classic. If you’ve been avoiding a task, he said, “Agree with yourself that you’ll put five minutes into starting. At the end of five minutes, decide if you’ll put in five more minutes. You’re taking a bits-and-pieces approach, because the way the human brain works is we tend to be short-term hedonists.” Before you know it, you may well forget about those brief increments and just keep going. “Once you create momentum, it’s easier to continue.”

I’ll vouch for that. With a nudge from the five-minute approach, I’ve managed to shake off my post-project laziness all day. And now—as soon as I finish this sentence—I can check off the item at the top of my to-do list.

Make your life more productive with a to-do list of practices for a lifetime of positive results.