Scott H Young

How to Finish Your Work, One Bite at a Time


Elephant.png

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

  1. “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”.

    Thanks for clarifying that. I would definitely have been tempted to “do more”. It can actually be quite nice to finish the day’s tasks and then jusr REST.

  2. Rosemarie says:

    Scott,

    First of all, well done for all your articles! I’ve been a big fan of this site for the past few months and reading your articles keep giving me a boost of energy and motivation :)

    At present im preparing for important exams which i’ll be sitting for in a months time. I’m already using the WD system you’ve just described but i’m wondering whether its more efficient to devote a whole day to studying/revising just one subject so as to focus on it and achieve a state of flow, or whether it is better to keep switching subjects to prevent your mind from getting tired. Which option do you think will help me get more work done?

    Thanks

    keep up the good work!

  3. Scott Young says:

    Rosemarie,

    I’ve been challenged with that question myself. My answer is that it depends. Sometimes batching an entire subject into one day will make sense. Other times you’ll get more done splitting up your work throughout the week.

    My only solution has been to experiment with both and see the results.

    -Scott

  4. Mel says:

    I was skeptical but desperate — and tried this system today. It worked like a dream. I have gone through my list, and it’s 11:25 a.m.! Am going to put down my list for Monday, but thanks. It really helps to focus your energy.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Mel,

    Great to see you’ve come on board!

    -Scott

  6. Scott,

    This is so inspiring!

    I’ve been doing a similar system for a while – without meaning to really. I completely recognise what you say about feeling in control and much more effective.

    This has really focused my thoughts on how I’m going to work – so thank you!

    Casper

  7. [...] The best way to switch to soft deadlines, in my opinion, is the WD To-Do method, which I wrote about here. [...]

  8. [...] my case, this meant putting more faith in my weekly/daily goals system as a way to handle all of the tasks associated with the project. Although I have been using the [...]

  9. [...] day off per week without any work. I also don’t allow myself to keep working on a project once my daily to-do list is finished. These prohibitions create greater productivity because they allow me to rest and they [...]

  10. [...] In addition to creating locations for my interests, I also intend to make a daily schedule.  Scott H. Young wrote a very useful article on being productive:  How to Finish Your Work, One Bite at a Time. [...]

  11. christy says:

    This is awesome! This addresses something that I don’t see a lot of in productivity/time management material. Being overally productive and efficient after years of studying the topic, I now suffer from serious burnout regularly. When I get my to do list completed for the day (which is usually 50 + items spaning various objectives), I feel like I am not being ambitious enough if there are still hours left in the day and I am not utlitizing them in a ‘productive’ fashion. Perhaps in a future post you can explain the psychology behind that how to overcome the need to acheive at the cost of burning out. I like your spin on your various topics. Can’t wait to share with everyone I know.

  12. [...] drug of choice is keeping Weekly and Daily Goals. Each day, write a to-do list for tomorrow. Your day ends when you finish that list. Once the list [...]

  13. Ok Scott, this is simple and straightforward. It reminds me of a cross between a technique used by Earl Nightingale and the Quadrant II one from Steven Covey. I think I’ll give it a whirl for about a month. Wish me luck!

  14. Giang Nguyen says:

    This is great!!!
    I’m gonna try it!

  15. [...] How to finish your work, one bite at a time – Scott H Young [...]

  16. Tamara says:

    Scott – how do you figure out how many things to put on your daily task list? I find that I always have way too many tasks and never get them done. So then, they get piled onto the next day’s task list. It’s neverending!!

  17. Scott Young says:

    Tamara,

    You should only put on what you can finish. When I put on too much, I reorganize my list so it has fewer items on the following day.

    -Scott

  18. [...] Also Check out Scott H. Young’s How To Finish Your Work One Bite At A Time [...]

  19. Mali says:

    Just curious. What if you divide up your work into daily chunks but then discover that different portions of the initial chunk take longer than you expected? For example, I am studying Mathematics. This is not one of my strongsuits. I know for chapter one I must complete/solve certain problems within a week. So I set myself up to complete 1.1 on day one. 1.2 on day 2. etc. There are 6 sections so one per day. The trouble starts when it takes me an entire day to work through the concepts and assignments and I am still not done by a reasonable hour. I still have Science to tackle. & not to mention my two toddlers to take care of throughout the day. & time with my husband. I found your articles very useful & I plan on implementing my lifestyle with your ideas as well as changing a few productivity habits I have. I would really appreciate your input on this dilemma. Thanks.

  20. [...] more from life. Whether that involves doubling your reading rate, learning more with less studying, beating procrastination or just understanding other people—and [...]

  21. a says:

    Finally, a technique that work!

  22. [...] more from life. Whether that involves doubling your reading rate, learning more with less studying, beating procrastination or just understanding other people—and [...]

  23. [...] the system I’ve used for the last few years of relatively guilt-free [...]

  24. leon says:

    Similar thinking to Mark Forster’s book ‘Do It Tomorrow’ which advocates the use of closed daily lists.

  25. Colorthewind says:

    Really helpful article, but why not use a calendar instead of a to-do list?? Like plan tomorrow from 9 to 11 work on project a and from 11.30 to 13.30 work on project b. Thanks.

  26. Scott Young says:

    Colorthewind,

    Cal Newport advocates a scheduling system like you mention. I don’t because I feel it overcomplicates and reduces the flexibility. But some people prefer the added structure.

    -Scott

  27. Anelly says:

    it’s important to have everything scheduled each day for a week because in this way you can have a whole look at the projects/tasks but also a detailed analyze. It’s also important to do daily checks and see how productive you were and if there are unfinished activities http://blog.cyclope-series.com/2009/06/start-doing-daily-productivity-checks-in-the-office/

  28. Robin says:

    I stumbled across your website a few weeks ago, and I just wanted to say thank you so much. I tried GTD for a few months, and burned out fast – I was working all hours and still stressed about my giant to-do lists. In the end, I had to take some time off work on my doctor’s advice.

    Your tips are a lot healthier; I’m much happier now. “The Art of the Finish” in particular showed me exactly what I was doing wrong. It’s a crime you’re not as well known as David Allen; GTD has become like a cult.

  29. Moin Ahmed says:

    Just curious where you write your W/D list. Is it a good idea to use portable notebooks? What about writing on day planners? Or should I leave the main W/D list at home or office and carry the daily tasks by rewriting them on a piece of paper. Specially when I am moving around frequently. Thanks for the great article.

  30. Scott Young says:

    I use my computer and Tadalist. However with cellphone applications, that may be a better alternative since you’ll be with your phone throughout the day.

  31. If you are so busy and you don’t have time to organize your schedule, you can rely in your organizer notebook. As one of the working women in the corporate world, I do have lost of meetings and conferences to attend to every week. So, with the organizer notebook I can trace my future appointments and meetings that call for a preparation. This is one of the best things to finish your job on-time. Make sure you can remember your daily task for this day using your organizer. This is Simple yet effective!

  32. Imran says:

    Ah Scott, I wish I knew what I’ll be doing next week. My managers give me work and demands it to be done in x hours, some time it’s impossible to fit all my tasks in 8 hours wotkday. I don’t even know what I’ll be doing tomorrow. Next week….

    I wish I could say my job situation is very uncommon. Contrary is true, unfortunately.

  33. Gabriela says:

    I’m trying the ´´Pomodoro Technique´´ now, I’ll assume you know about it. Well, I think the only thing that it’s not working for me using this technique is that you can add to your To-do Today list some ´´urgent and unplanned´´ activities, and since I almost always feel a little tempted to add some ´´not so urgent and unplanned but I feel I have to do it now´´ activities, I end up not to finish all the tasks I have to do in one day.

  34. [...] hand, is endlessly fascinating.)  750words.com turns the goal of writing persistently into a bite sized daily task.  I can do that.  It’s important to set yourself tasks that you believe you can do before [...]

  35. Highly Recommended says:

    I could feel half of my existing anxiety melting away as soon as I started implementing this system. It makes my work manageable while still maintaining flexibility. I still have yet to try this out for a longer period of time, but so far, its been superb. Thanks Scott.

  36. [...] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished [...]

  37. [...] How to Finish Your Work, One Bite at a Time: a detailed account of how he manages is tasks. It is composed of a weekly and a daily list, very simple but effective. [...]

  38. [...] by their initials. Scott Young, our College Prep 360 Study Skills Coach, wrote a great post for his blog about the best way to approach the almighty to-do list. Check out his advice [...]

  39. [...] means I am going to have to be super-organized and productive.  I am looking forward to the [...]

  40. Laurel says:

    Hi, Scott: recently read your article on zen habits. Great concept, but not clear on one thing: do you keep a master list of everything that needs to be done, then choose from THAT on a weekly basis?
    My master list gets so long and overwhelming I tend to ignore it, but then I’m always feeling like I’m forgetting something important.
    Not everything can or should be done THIS week, but the idea of working off a huge master list is depressing. Demotivating. Suggestions?

  41. Scott Young says:

    Laurel,

    No–I don’t keep a master list. However, I sometimes keep a project to-do list for larger projects I need to keep organized beyond the one-week period and I use a calendar to remind myself of tasks outside of the one-week period.

    -Scott

  42. Laurel says:

    So Scott: when you are planning your week, do you plan things off the top of your head, or do you refer to your to-do list?
    I’m playing around with the idea of not referring to a list but planning the projects/tasks that are “calling” me that week; those are the things I’m truly motivated to do and I think I’d be more productive and enjoy what I do more.
    However, there’s all those unexciting things that need to be addressed…and won’t get done with this system.
    But that darn to-do list is SO long and discouraging.

  43. IyabunmiM says:

    I have been using this system since I started working. This entry helped me improve my WD system. Thank you and Kudos to you.

  44. Scott Young says:

    Laurel,

    It depends–normally I write my weekly list after a brief review and consulting my calendar. However, as I get more flexible time, I may create a larger list of project ideas to consider adding to the normal system.

    -Scott

  45. I agree with your point about overloading a to-do list. It’s always a set-up for perceived ‘failure.’ And while it is not true failure, trying to do too much is like skimming a good book and never enjoying the content. Breaking major tasks into pieces and mapping out the big picture over several days or weeks is more practical; it allows for true absorption and real progress! Fantastic blog! I’ll be back for more! Thanks!

  46. Kristin says:

    Hi Scott,
    Great article. I have recently started writing daily and weekly lists and that it has really helped with my productivity and stress levels at work. (We have lots of interruptions and work on many projects simultaneously.) But I have a long ways to go. One problem is that I have never yet completed a task list. And I mean – never. Things come up during the day at work that I can never expect and take more time that I anticipate. My weekend task lists are the same – never finished. Another problem is that I don’t really have any positive motivations for completing the lists. If you finish one task, you just get more tasks. Why bother?

  47. Malharhak says:

    Hey, I’m here to say thank you.
    I have a big problem with work. Procrastination is always keeping me from doing what I want, and I often end up doing nothing, or almost.

    I will try to adopt your way of organizing things, hopefully it will make me able to do all these thing I want to do…

    I found your website because of your book on holistic memory. Actually reading what you wrote here. All of this seems to be great job, and will be really usefull to me, thanks :).

    Oh and for the comment of Kristin “Another problem is that I don’t really have any positive motivations for completing the lists. If you finish one task, you just get more tasks. Why bother?” why not just planning to have some reward after ending a task?

    -one task done, one reward.
    -Daily list done, big reward
    -Weekly list done, bigger reward.

    Like when we give candies to kid if they finish their homeworks…

  48. Hey Scott,

    What if I’m working from 8 am to 5 pm and want to use Daily/Weekly To Do List after work? Should I put much less tasks or this wouldn’t be working? In a few days I will be living in Vancouver (gapyear) and job is unavoidable, but I don’t want to stop developing myself.

    Greetings from Poland ;)

  49. Scott Young says:

    Damian,

    Yes–just make shorter lists. That’s what I do when I have hourly commitments I’m not using w/d goals for.

    Enjoy Vancouver, it’s my home too ;)

    -Scott

  50. ida says:

    Haloo Scott..

    Nice article..
    I’ve read that you’re a fast reading..

    I suggest you to read this :

    http://quran.com/1

    Hopefully that you can get benefit from this… :)

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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