Scott H Young

Work Less to Get More Done


For several years now I’ve used a productivity trick called weekly/daily goals. I’ve written about it many times before, but the gist is simple:

  1. You keep two to-do lists, one for the day and one for the week.
  2. As the week goes by, move items from your weekly to daily list.
  3. When working, only focus on the daily list. When it’s done, you’re finished for the day.

The power of this method is that it forces you to not work on certain things. You avoid the infinite to-do list syndrome of constantly procrastinating because it feels too hard to get started.

Despite its simplicity, I get a lot of emails with a common implementation problem. A typical email exchange goes like this:

“Hey Scott, I really like the weekly/daily goals, but I have a problem. No matter how hard I try, I can never get everything done on my daily list! I can only get about half of it done before I give up. What should I do to finish my daily goals?”

To me the answer is obvious—if you aren’t ever finishing your daily goals, it probably means you’re putting too much on your plate. Set fewer goals and actually finish them. Easy, right?

Unfortunately, almost nobody takes my advice! They claim that they have to get that work done, so they can’t possibly set a smaller to-do list. Instead, of setting smaller goals, they continue creating to-do lists they can’t possibly finish.

You Work Less Than You Think (or Why These Emails Drive Me Crazy)

The template rebuttal to my “work less” argument is insane. If they can’t possibly set a smaller to-do list, but only end up accomplishing half of it, then it doesn’t really matter how big the list is. Nobody cares how much work you intended to accomplish, only how much you actually finished.

This tendency to grossly overestimate your ability to get work done in the short-term is a common one. Even productivity authors aren’t immune. Cal Newport posted his dismay at his meager total of hours devoted to his most important research tasks.

I’m not immune to this either. I think a difference between people like Cal and myself and most isn’t that we have a magical ability to get more done, but that we actually take the time to measure our input. I’ve done enough timelogs to know how much time I waste.

The average person, who has never meticulously tracked work for several days, more often reacts to failing at a particular to-do list, not by scaling down their ambitions, but, ironically, by adding more work to next day’s list.

Why You Should Plan to Work Less

Goals only work if they motivate achievable action. Zig Ziglar used to say goals should be out of reach, not out of sight. If you’re not succeeding your daily goals lists at least half the time, you’re not stretching yourself, you’re just wasting time.

In the spirit of this, I offer two propositions:

  1. We should endeavor to know, honestly, how much time we spend working and how much we actually accomplish. Doing a timelog is easier than ever now that there are services which track it for you.
  2. Once we know how we actually spend our working time, we should try to incrementally improve it and not pretend that we’ll be superheroes tomorrow.

If you do a timelog and discover you’re only working 4 hours a day (which is very common) the appropriate reaction isn’t to immediately convince yourself you’ll start working 8 hours, but to make incremental shifts. Try 5 or 6 hours and log yourself again in a couple weeks to see if you’ve made improvements.

Why Take Small Steps?

When your self-image, especially the idealized self-image that plans your work out, doesn’t match who you actually are, you become less efficient. I can say, after having done a mix of both for years, that the days I set a small, but achievable list are my most productive.

Unfortunately if you’re under the impression you’re capable of working 8 hours straight, but your timelog reveals you’re only working 2, then planning becomes meaningless.

Of course, we also remember the one day we set a large to-do list and actually did finish it. This is misleading because you can always accomplish more by temporarily kicking yourself into overdrive. But this drains you, so it’s rarely sustainable for more than a week or two. The goal should be to raise your baseline level of productivity.

How to Implement this Advice and Start Getting More Done

First, do a timelog. I’ve always used pencil and paper, but if you’re more tech-savvy than myself, there’s plenty of apps for recording your time spent. Doing a timelog is a pain in the ass, but it’s essential if you want to know what’s a reasonable benchmark for how you should spend your time.

An alternative to a timelog is to record the tasks you actually accomplish on any given day. This is a less reliable metric because task-completion is more variable than time spent, but if you do it for a longer period of time, you can get a good idea of how much you can accomplish on a typical day.

Second, set your productivity standard to be only somewhat above your current average. If you’re getting done 4 hours, try 5 or 6. If you’re completing 8 tasks, try 10 or 12.

Third, keep this standard for a full month, before going back and seeing if your productivity improved during the time period. A month is a good amount of time because anything less tends to get distorted because of the motivation burst when setting a goal.

Finally, if you’re still not meeting your goals, ratchet it up another 25-50%. By doing this incrementally you can eventually reach higher levels of productivity. Eventually this tapers off and it gets harder and harder to work more without sacrificing energy or efficiency, but a lot of the early gains come from simply reorganizing your time and wasting it less, not by working longer.

If you’re serious about getting more done, here’s a summary:

  1. Do a timelog for a few days, or a detailed record-keeping of your daily goals over a few weeks.
  2. Set a goal to increase your work accomplished by 25%.
  3. Come back in a month and measure yourself, if you’ve improved, you can try again or simply aim to maintain your productivity levels.

Hopefully this approach can stop the nonsense of planning for a 10-hour day when you’re only actually completing 3 hours. Getting things done doesn’t require working more, but working smarter. How can you work smarter, if you don’t even know how you’re working right now?


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33 Responses to “Work Less to Get More Done”

  1. Daniel says:

    Nice post Scott! I’ve had trouble with setting to big to-do lists all along to the point that I admired the complexity of all the work I had to do instead of getting anything effectively done. It’s both shocking and also good to see that this seems to be a common problem.

    I just started a time log for today and am planning on doing it for this week. I’m excited to see the results.

  2. Lukas says:

    As a student and full-time software entrepreneur, I have observed that my productivity is much higher if I have only a small portion of the day available for work.

    For example, if I work from 8 till 12 and spend the rest of the day with friends, I feel very motivated to work, and I get a lot done.

    If I spend a day by myself, I don’t achieve any more than on busy days! The reason is 1. energy runs out after a few hours of concentrated work and 2. I waste time just because I feel like I can “afford” to do that.

    The best solution for me was to schedule something with friends every single day of the week. This led to constant high productivity, motivation and happiness. On the days on which no one has time, I try to take lots of time for something fulfilling myself; like mountainbiking or juggling or hiking.

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  4. Sandeep says:

    Hey scott,

    Nice post.. “simply reorganizing your time and wasting it less, not by working longer.” this one bring good thought about working.

  5. George Millo says:

    This has always been a big problem of mine and it’s something I’ve been working on lately. I’ll always write myself a big, overambitious to-do list then feel bad at the end of the day when I haven’t accomplished half the things on it. Now, I try to be more realistic and pick just three or four big, important tasks I want to get done each day (and maybe a handful of minor tasks and errands).

    I’ve found that, not only does this make me more likely to actually get stuff done, but I feel better at the end of the day for the same amount of work, because I feel good about the things I have achieved rather than bad about the things I haven’t.

    Timelogging is a great tool, although it’s pretty painful. I’ve tried it a few times recently and was dismayed at how little time at my desk I’d actually spent working!

  6. Hey Scott

    “Easy reorganizing your present time and wasting it less, not by working longer.” this one bring good thought about working ours life and computer working……

  7. Christopher Stuart says:

    Check out https://trello.com/, it’s a free app that can be used with the two list method, drag and drop items between the lists. I have no relation to the app, just like it.

  8. journo says:

    I’m a journalist and my work schedule can be hard to predict. I’m often subject to whatever breaking news comes across my desk and priorities can shift even within the hour. Other days are more unstructured, when I’m working on longer-term stories.

    How to deal with this in creating a weekly or even daily list? Should I just be focusing the lists on non-work tasks like exercising, errands, etc? I do enjoy the productivity boost that comes with checking something off a list. But it seems like I’d have to be rewriting my lists constantly some days to accurately capture what needs to get done.

  9. I’ve started doing this myself after finding that I partially accomplished a lot of things but never finished much. Now I set 3 important tasks to do each day and aim for these to be the most important things to get done, once I do them all then I can add in smaller tasks, anything that is not done gets put at the top of tomorrows list.

  10. […] Work Less to Get More Done [Scott H. Young] […]

  11. Earl says:

    Nice post. It has inspired me to start my own time log.

    I successfully ingrained the habit of recording my daily activities in a spreadsheet right before bed. I’ve been doing it since the beginning of this year. Adding time periods to each activity should help streamline and optimize my day and increase productivity.

  12. June says:

    Hi Scott,

    this is really a good post. i really enjoyed it and am determined to starting a time log right now to really start keep track of my time.

    The problem with me is not with writing a time log, but the perseverance to continue. I’ve tried many a times to keep a time log but failed miserably after just a day or two.

    Any advice?

    Thank you :)

  13. Chris L says:

    If David Allen got around to making a cult for his Getting Things Done…I wouldn’t just join, I would become ordained. I say that in the interest of transparency.

    How do you handle things that are more than a week out?

  14. Khoi says:

    Hey Scott, maybe I’m nitpicking a bit but why am I asked to subscribe even though I visit this post through my email?

    Aside from that, I feel that the daily/weekly to-do list is a working idea, but not always. There are tasks that you simply can’t predict how long it will take, like programming for example.

    If you’re pushing boundary and learning new things, you have to do lots of research. And I constantly find myself removing tasks that I thought I will do but become obsolete as soon as I have new information. So I end up with days when there’s no tasks to begin with, time to add some more right?

  15. Tom says:

    Hey Scott!

    I think you’re spot on here. I work as an engineer and project manager at a manufacturing firm in the auto industry, and have to manage between 8-15 projects simultaneously.

    When I first started, right out of college, it was pretty hectic and I fought hard to try to “get everything done.” In reality I was just shuffling around a lot of tasks and running from one thing to the other.

    So in attempts to try to relieve my exhaustion and fight back against the workload, I started doing time logs, diving into productivity literature, and developing my own individual task management system.

    Two years later, I feel that I’m much more on-top of things. Some of that comes from experience. But a lot I think comes from doing something similar to the daily/weekly goals system you discuss. I ended up with an excel spreadsheet with about 7 different columns for sorting (project tag, task, deadline, priority, etc.).

    The key is the two columns I keep to the left. The first called “today?” the second called “this week?”. I use a Y/N to sort these. So at the beginning of the week, I have this massive to-do list, but whittle it down on Monday morning to what I think is manageable for the week and will not revisit what I decide not to do until the following week. Then, each morning I’ll decided what to do “today” and sort my list to display only “today.”

    Only seeing the few things that you need to get done in one day does two things for me: (1) I don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of the weekly workload, and (2) I knock of tasks more quickly because they are the only ones I have to focus on at the time.

    So that’s my perspective. But yes, it’s extremely helpful to get good data on yourself with time logs for no other reason than to be realistic in deciding what you can do that day.

    P.S. – @Chris L I’d suggest breaking down any goal or task more than a week out into weekly chunks. Tag those chunks with your long-term task/goal, but have the task itself achievable within a week. That way it will “fit” into your system.

  16. Meg says:

    Thanks Scott. Great thoughts. I like the idea of writing down how you spend your time. Early in my career I had time management/organization issues. Once I wrote down for a week how I was spending my time I learned to be more “selfish” with my time, limited interruptions, and learned to delegate more. I’ve used those skills in my job search for a General Management job. It’s great when I set realistic goals and accomplish them.
    Lastly, everyone needs to remember not to beat themselves up if they don’t accomplish your goals. Treat it as a learning experience and implement what Scott suggested. Reality is that some of your time is wasted and some tasks just take longer than expected.

  17. Otto says:

    I use a tool called RescueTime. It logs everything I do and shows what my most productive time of the day is. It also displays when I was most distracted.

    I count this post as part of my productivity quest because I’m constantly looking to improve. :-)

    I keep my list limited to five items. I also use a visual dashboard with post it notes that shows what are those top five projects.

    Just trying to keep sane!

  18. Scott Young says:

    Khoi,

    If you’re subscribed to the newsletter, there wouldn’t have been a link to this post. You must be subscribed to the RSS-to-email feature. That’s a different subscription (I know it’s confusing…) than the one popping up.

    Chris,

    Perhaps it’s just been for me, but longer than a week I usually only have one or two big projects, so I don’t forget about them. Otherwise I just add it to my calendar.

    journo,

    WDGoals isn’t for everyone, particularly if you’re job forces you to be reacting most of the time. I found it also to be lousy when I was doing a lot of sales calls a few years ago. For that kind of work, GTD may offer better solutions (at the price of added complexity).

    That said, the timelog analogy is still valid!

    Lukas,

    I’ve noticed that myself as well. It’s a phenomenon Cal Newport call’s fixed-schedule productivity (where your productivity increases if you disable the option of working past a certain hour).

    -Scott

  19. cj renzi says:

    A masterful post Scott! The beauty of this, for me, is that after giving a method like this a fair attaempt (30 days or months in my case), lists are no longer needed. I wake and I know what needs to be done because I have made growth and learning such a habit. If I am learning something particularly challenging, then I may make a list of items to address, but the norm is no lists – get to work.

    cj renzi

  20. Fadzlan says:

    @Khoi for task that are longer than one day, I think its a good idea to have a work breakdown. For me, a common one is 2 days. If its more than two days, then I’ll break it down to have better idea on the items needed to achieve the task.

    Two days for me is something that is not too long and not too short for something like programming. Too short, and it will become too detailed (and things don’t always go as a plan do they?), too long, and it seems that you do not have a base plan(having a plan helps, even though it will change, since you have a base to compare).

    Of course, if the task is too vague or it is something new, anything will be off base (ie. you can throw your estimations almost everytime).

  21. Andrew says:

    Scott,

    I’ve decided to try your daily/weekly todo list, and it’s been working great for me so far. I’ve made one small enhancement that has really helped me to make progress: if I cannot complete a task I have set for myself, I break it up into smaller chunks, and get as many of those done as is possible, and move the rest back to the weekly list. That’s been working great for me.

    Andrew

  22. […] will meine produktive Zeit erhöhen. Ich gehe mit Scott einig, dass wir uns Illusionen über unsere tatsächliche produktive Zeit machen. Wenn ich manche […]

  23. Giuliano says:

    Excellent post!

    As a project manager, I definitely know the importance on having a time log. Having these for project has been beneficial but tracking your own personal log has been something I have been trying the last few weeks.

    I must admit, it is not the most pleasurable thing in the world to do but keeping a time log does serve its purpose. So far, I have been surprised to discover where my time has been going and also uncovering what my most productive times are.

  24. Nikolaus says:

    Very nice, simple and understandable post. That’s the Scott I love to read – good content brought straight forward.

    Greetings from Germany ;)

  25. […] -Keep a to-do list (I use Scott H Young’s system) […]

  26. […] H Young is dedicated to the idea of ‘how to get more from life?’ and increasing your productivity. Uses holistic learning to break down complex concepts; making them more memorable and increasing […]

  27. Time Billing says:

    I would like to talk in favor of the employees and free lancers. Its not all about what you do, how much you work but its all about how you portray your work. If you can give the complete report on what you did for a particular period, wouldn’t it be perfect? I would say its better to track your time and generate the detailed report on what you did and then have it as a proof.

    Hope it makes sense…

  28. […] 11. Work Less to Get More Done (Scott H Young) […]

  29. […] on his own (from home), says that for several years now he has used a productivity trick called weekly/daily goals. The gist is simple: 1) You keep two to-do lists, one for the day and one for the week. 2) As the […]

  30. […] ซึ่งตรงกับคำภาษาฝรั่งที่ว่า  Work Less to Get More Done  ทำน้อยแต่ได้มาก ซึ่งเป็น Concept […]

  31. […] This method of getting things done is extremely broad in the sense that it’s so straight-forward, you kind of feel awkward about it. Well that’s how I felt, but if your looking for something extremely flexible and easy to manage. This may be the one. It’s a system which Scott-Young has developed, a productivity blogger. He goes into much more detail with it, in this article here and here. […]

  32. chaitali says:

    I find that a good time management tool can help in getting more work done and increase in productivity as well.

    So, that makes me use Replicon’s cloud based time management software which has been really a hassle free & simple web app. It helped me to increase overall workforce efficiency & productivity for my business.

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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