Scott H Young

How to Finish Your Work, One Bite at a Time


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“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

If you’ve ever ran more than a few miles, you probably understand why you need to pace yourself. Runners that sprint at the start of a race will be exhausted far before they cross the finish line. The same principle applies when trying to get work done. One solution for pacing my work that I’ve found incredibly effective is maintaining weekly/daily to-do lists.

Weekly/Daily To-Do Lists

The principle behind the WD To-Do List method is simple:

  • At the end of the week, write a list containing everything you want to get accomplished.
  • At the end of the day, write a list containing what parts of that weekly list you want to be finished tomorrow.

After you finish your daily list, you stop. Don’t work on more projects or tasks. You have the rest of the day to relax. And after you finish the weekly list, you’re done for the week. This means if you finish by Friday afternoon, you don’t start work again until Monday morning.

Although this technique might sound obvious (and it is), there are some key advantages using a WD system has over the typical, Getting Things Done approach of keeping Next Action or project lists.

Why the Weekly/Daily To-Do List System Rocks:

After using this method for several months, I’ve found it beats the other systems in a few key places:

1) A WD system manages your energy.

The problem isn’t running out of time, it’s running out of energy. You may have 24 hours in the day, but many of those are taken away eating, sleeping and relaxing after a few hours of exhausting work. Any productivity system that doesn’t take this into account is broken.

A Weekly/Daily system, instead, blocks out your work into manageable chunks. Instead of trying to complete everything each day, I just complete my daily list. The same is true for the entire week. With a WD system you get a maximum amount of work done, while leaving yourself time to relax and enjoy selective unproductivity.

2) A WD system stops procrastination

Procrastination can happen when you see the mountain of work in front of you, and can’t visualize an easy finish. By splitting up your to-do list into daily lists, your elephant-sized projects can become bite-sized tasks.

3) A WD system makes you proactive

My system for a few years prior to implementing this method was to use a daily to-do list. Unfortunately, I found that this method made me lose sight of bigger tasks that weren’t urgent. When you already have ten items on your to-do list, adding an eleventh for the day doesn’t seem appealing.

But when you’re writing the weekly list, you’re in a different frame of mind. With six days to finish everything (assuming you take a day off), it is easier to put in those important, but non-urgent tasks.

4) A WD system keeps you from burning out

Earlier I wrote about how I accidentally overloaded my schedule last week. Using the Weekly/Daily system kept me from burning out or feeling stressed, even though I was dealing with 2-3x the workload. By automatically dividing up my work into a weekly total and daily increments, I could focus on the next bite, instead of the entire elephant.

How to Use a Weekly/Daily To-Do List

The heading for this section might seem pretty self-explanatory. Write out your weekly list and your daily lists, finish them, repeat. But after using this approach for a few months, there are a few nuances you might want to consider.

Focus on the Daily List

The point of the weekly list is to serve as the starting point for writing daily lists. After you’ve broken off the chunk you want to handle tomorrow, the other tasks in the week shouldn’t be on your mind. You can pretend they don’t exist, as if the only tasks in the world were the ones tomorrow.

This approach is an incredible stress-reliever. It’s easy to worry about how you’re going to finish everything. But when “everything” becomes seven or eight tasks tomorrow, it becomes easier to manage.

Don’t Expand the Lists

If you finish your daily or weekly list earlier than you expected, you might be tempted to expand. Why not add a few extra activities, you have the time, right?

This is a bad idea because it stops you from focusing on the daily list. As soon as you create the possibility for expansion, your “everything” goes from being the tasks to finish tomorrow, back to your infinite to-do list. Stress and procrastination soon follow.

Obviously, there will be times when you have to make adjustments. Last-minute tasks that need to be appended to your lists. But try to avoid expanding your lists just because you have free time.

Take on a Monthly Review

One area the WD system ignores is a monthly list. There are some projects and activities that may be too large/non-urgent that they might be skipped under the weekly list. Unfortunately, maintaining a monthly list is more effort than it is worth. It’s hard to predict all the small tasks you’ll need to accomplish a month ahead of time, so it stops becoming relevant to your weekly lists.

Instead I like to do a regular monthly review. In that review, I’ll pick out a few larger projects I want to finish that month. I can keep these in mind when I write my weekly lists.

A Weekly/Daily To-Do List isn’t complicated. Life doesn’t have to be complicated to work. Try using a WD system for a month. You can setup your lists with pencil and paper or go with my favorite tool, Ta-Da List. What do you have to lose?


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75 Responses to “How to Finish Your Work, One Bite at a Time”

  1. Des says:

    Scott,

    Brilliant system. I’ve been looking for something simple yet incredibly effective. I used a GTD-like system for the longest but cut it loose because I had task that were part of projects that I planned to do that were just sitting. The tasks kept piling up and that lead to A LOT of procrastination. But hopefully those days are over. I’m going to give it a 30-day trial run and see how it works out. My intuition tells me that it’ll become something that use frequently. Smart, yet simple. Keep up the good work!

    - Des

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  5. Andika says:

    It’s been 2 weeks I experiment with daily to do list. One I found difficult is often a task takes more time than I planned, not exactly expands my list but is time-wasting and exhausting. Any idea to deal with it–estimating appropriate time for each task? Thanks :)

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  11. Wonderful article. This one is very useful. All of us create a daily to-do list. But as it is said in this post, if you concentrate on creating a weekly to-do list and then divide it to daily, it will be more effective.

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  20. Karin says:

    This idea seems great – except for the new inputs of important/urgent and non-important/urgent things that are constantly thrown at me throughout the day through emails and phone calls. If I were to only do what’s on my daily list for the day – and my weekly list for the week – I would never fulfill the ever-changing needs/requests of my clients. Where do these things fit in your plan? How about new clients that appear in the week? Can you not get started on their work til the next week?

  21. Vivian says:

    还有一年就高考了,可是每次放假在家都不能集中精力做作业复习,真难受。我必须要学会如何专注了。

  22. nafisa says:

    专注做一件事很难,经常被其它事情打断,可能还是目的或者目标不够明确。

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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