Kelly Nolan
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Attorney-turned-time management strategist

You’ve probably heard this common advice: “Focus on one to three big rocks per day. If you can get those things done each day, you’ll come out ahead.”

This sounds like good advice. One to three things a day doesn’t seem like much. It even sounds achievable—like you can blast through all three things by lunch and take the rest of the day off to enjoy yourself. 

But the truth is, this well-meaning guidance can lead you down an unhealthy rabbit hole, one that leaves you kicking yourself for not being good enough—when that’s the farthest thing from reality. 

Why advice to do “one thing” causes even more confusion and self-blame.

The reason why this piece of advice is prevalent is that it helps to calm anxiety. When your to-do list is overflowing, your mind races to figure out how to get everything done. The idea of whittling down today’s to-do list to one to three things sounds awesome and takes the pressure off—until it doesn’t.

Focusing on getting one to three things done per day doesn’t work because it doesn’t take into account how long a specific task or project takes. One project may take a whole week to complete, even when only focusing on that one thing. Similarly, “three things” could total eight hours of work when you only have six to give today. Without tying tasks to time, you’re no closer to figuring out what you can realistically get done today.

Even worse, because the advice sounds simple, when you don’t get that one to three things done, you blame yourself. 

Suddenly, this approach that’s intended to help you clarify and simplify your day actually makes you feel even worse about yourself. 

It’s not realistic. Let’s be honest, in what world do you have only one thing you need to do today?

For example, in my attorney days, editing a brief due this week was a huge priority. But so was calling back opposing counsel about a settlement offer and following up with a client on discovery responses that were due soon. And so was getting dinner on the table, doing laundry and walking my dog.

Simplifying things down to “one thing” ignores reality and only causes more confusion about how to handle the dozen other tasks that truly need to be done today.  

The good news is that there is another way to get more done with less anxiety and overwhelm—so that you can increase your clarity and peace of mind. 

Instead of focusing on today’s “one thing,” focus on creating one game plan. This game plan accounts for all the things you need to do today, how long each task takes, and how they fit together during your awake hours. 

How? Schedule it all in your calendar.

The key to using your calendar is accounting for and breaking down all of your projects, tasks and activities into bite-sized steps—so everything fits together in your schedule. This helps you see how it realistically can all fit together into a single day, whether it’s three things or 23), and recognize when you need to push tasks out to another day. Getting realistic like this helps you avoid unnecessarily (and destructively) beating yourself up for not accomplishing things that weren’t doable to begin with.

If you’re looking to be more productive and go to bed feeling accomplished, ignore the well-meaning but wildly confusing “one thing” advice, and focus on using a system that will help you create your one game plan to get it all done realistically.

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This article was written by an FGB contributor.

Kelly Nolan is an attorney-turned-time management strategist and mom. Using realistic time management strategies, she helps modern working women manage everything on their plate with less stress and more calm clarity. To get Kelly’s free guide on how to ditch your overwhelm, click here.

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