Don’t Be Busy, Be Productive

A few months ago I fell into a routine that many busy people unknowingly fall into. My schedule was filled to the brim with things to do, but I felt like there was very little progress towards achieving my goals. Despite being constantly busy, I was barely accomplishing anything.

It became a routine to wake up early in the morning, write up a to-do list, go to work, attend classes, study, blog, manage club activities, workout, develop my personal projects…UGH! It was stressing enough trying to all of these things each day. It only added to the stress when I would finish the end of the day with only half of my To-Dos accomplished.

Instead of continuing to pull my hair out trying to manage everything I decided to take a day to sit down and think why I wasn’t getting things done. After some thought I realized my problem wasn’t due to procrastination or poor time management, rather it came down to one simple mistake I made when I changed the way I  did To-Do Lists.

To fully analyze what happened we will need to take a trip back to a year ago where I first learned of a tale about Warren Buffet.

The Warren Buffet Story

For those unfamiliar with Warren Buffet, you just need to know that he is ranked as one of the most successful businessmen in the world.  Among other things, Warren Buffet is also known for a famous tale involving him and his pilot, Mike Flint.



One day, Buffet and Flint were having a conversation about career priorities. Flint, in admiration of Buffet, asked him how he can be as successful as him. Buffet told Flint to do this simple exercise:

Step 1: Take out a sheet of paper and write down the top 25 goals in your life.

Step 2: Review the list then circle the 5 goals that matter the most to you. This was now known as List A. The other 20 goals will be known as List B.

When Flint completed this exercise he essentially had two lists. When Buffet asked Flint what he felt these lists meant Flint told him that List A was the list of things he should focus on doing immediately while List B contained the things that weren’t as important to do, but can be done intermittently.

Buffet told him, “No, you’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

Joining The Now Movement

Shortly after reading this story I learned of this movement from College Info Geek blogger, Thomas Frank.

This exercise was dubbed as the Now Movement, an idea conceptualized by David Sevirs. David is a widely successful musician who founded the company, CD Baby. David tweeted a page on his website titled What I’m Doing Right Now. Essentially, his page would inform others what his main priorities are currently and if any new opportunities that do not relate to the list come up, he ignores them.

When I first read about this on Thomas’ Franks page, I thought the idea was fascinating. Although, what really motivated me to make my own Now List was Thomas’s suggestion to make one simple modification.

“I am open to considering new opportunities, as I highly value novelty, spontaneity, and growth. However, I aspire to stick to my priorities 90% of the time. As a result, I will say no to the majority of requests that come my way now.”

The reasoning behind this made sense. David is already well into his career and has a large list of achievements to his name. Thomas feels he is still starting out in his career so to outright deny opportunities for growth may not lead him down his most ideal path.

Still being a college student, I too feel like I can’t completely remove myself from opportunities, so having a list more like Thomas’ makes a lot more sense.

Doing The Now List Wrong

Shortly after I read Thomas’ article I created my own Now List. However, when I made my Now List I ended up neglecting 4 important things that led to several months of sleepless nights and overbearing stress. When you are making your Now List I would recommend keeping these important points in mind:

Keep Your Now List Specific

A rule for almost all To-Do list making guides is to specify your goals. Making a list without a clear goal can make you take on your tasks with the wrong approach. By putting down what exactly you want to accomplish in the end you are drawing up a map of where Point A is and where Point B will take you.

When I first made my Now list I put down some really general goals like Save money. However, having a goal this general didn’t really give me a baseline I needed to reach. This would cause me to just put in the absolute minimum towards my goal.

It made no difference if I saved $1 or $100, I felt like both amounts accomplished my goal just the same. This unsurprisingly meant I was barely saving any significant amount of money at all. So instead I put down a clearer goal on there, Put 20% of my paycheck into my Savings Account each pay period. After a few months I found that I now had a steady amount of money going into my Savings.

Put a Deadline On Your To-Do’s

In addition to having clear goals you also want to have a specific deadline on when you need to reach each goal. Not having a deadline only creates the excuse to put it off because it feels like there is an eternity to do it. That finish line is never reached because it was never created.

When you are able to figure out deadlines you have a much better idea of which ones take priority over the other. This allows you to fully focus on your task so you can produce the best result. Then when that deadline passes you are able to move onto that next task with complete focus.

One example I would give is when I had two tasks to accomplish in the same month: turning in a scholarship essay and submitting a final project. After determining the deadline for each item I was able to figure out which one needed my absolute focus first. Once one deadline passed my focus was able to shift towards another task.

In the end not only was I able to complete both of these tasks before the deadline, but by prioritizing which ones needed to be done first I was able to focus 100% on each of them. This resulted in me getting in A on the project and winning the award money for the scholarship.

Do Not Make It An Everyday List

In Chis Bailey’s book, The Productivity Project he talks about an experiment where he would work 90 hours for one week then the next week work for only 20 hours. In his experiment, Bailey found that while there was a massive difference in the time he was doing the work, there was very little difference in productivity.  This is defined as Parkison’s Law, where work will expand or shrink to fill the time available for its completion.

When I initially made the Now List I went at it with the mindset that if did a little work on each item every day I will have a lot accomplished in all my tasks by the end of the month. Boy, was that dumb.

Instead of being productive I ended up spending 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, getting very little accomplished. This was because each day I would write up a list of twenty tasks then give myself little intervals on how long I was allowed to work on each one of them. Instead of it motivating me to finish the tasks faster I ended up having to stop just when I hit the point where I was at my optimal focus, otherwise known as the flow state.

As Scott Dinsmore states in 11 Steps to Insane Focus, it’s more beneficial to work on a small number of tasks instead of a large amount throughout the day. If you are constantly switching between tasks you will quickly find that it will have little long term effect towards achieving the most for your goals.

Work Towards Your Stretch Goals

If you take a gander at my Impossible List you’ll notice I have about a million things I want to get accomplished in my lifetime. If I want to cross off any of these things I need to spend some time each day working towards them.

When creating a Now List you are creating a list of what is most important to you right now. Odds are the most important things to you now are not going to be the most important to you 5 years from now.

What this comes down to is that when you create your Now List you need to be considerate of your long term goals. Take a careful look at each item on your Now List and ask yourself “How will this help me reach my stretch goals”. If you can’t think of a reason then think about whether it truly needs to be focused on.

Be Smart, Not Busy

About a few months of doing the Now List (wrongly), I found that while I was being busy I was not being productive. As Charles Duhigg discusses in Faster, Better, Smarter:  there are two kinds people who make To-Do lists. Those who are busy and those who are productive.

He argues that those who do create lists find that they are getting a lot of their To-Do’s crossed off, but they progress very little from when they first made the list.

The reason for this is because those busy people are not creating their To-Do lists intelligently. If you want to create a To-Do list you need to state the reasons for doing each tasks. When you have a better idea of why you want to do each task it becomes that much easier to realize which ones take precedence.

One way to do this is to create SMART goals. SMART goals are a very proactive way to approach your tasks as they give each item a reason, are detailed, and have a timeline for doing them. There is a lot I can write about when it comes to creating SMART goals. In fact, I had a whole section on SMART goals written up that I realized would be better suited as it’s own topic for my next post.

For now, if you want to create SMART goals remember to keep these things in mind: keep the list specific, give each item a reason, and make sure they work towards your stretch goals. Doing these simple things can make all the difference from creating a busy To-Do List to creating a productive one.


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