Multi-tasking is a myth. It sounds like a great idea, but it doesn’t work. Single tasking (or “solotasking”) is the “it” kid right now for good reason: your productivity explodes when you narrow your focus to one thing at a time. And while you may not realize it, chances are good that your to-do list is secretly eating away at your sanity.
Every time you take a look at that list, your mind starts working on every item simultaneously. So while you’re hard at work trying to focus on the first item, your brain is processing, “wow, how am I going to do X, Y & Z all by five today?”
The following is a simple, pen-and-paper solution for actually getting important work done now. I call it StackTask:
Step One: Make some cards
You can use anything you can write on, but I recommend using something substantial like 3×5 cards (cut into smaller pieces). I happen to have a ton of leftover cardstock I’m re-purposing and it works perfectly. I cut the sheets into 1″ x 2″ cards.
Step Two: Write each of your top-priority tasks on one card
Try to keep the total between five and ten. If you blow through all of these tasks early, just start this process again with the next tasks. Make sure the tasks are specific, measurable and short enough to complete in less than one day. If you are working on a big project, just break down some small portion of it. As a last resort, you can always write, “work on project for one hour.”
Step Three: Write the amount of time you think the task will take
This part serves two useful functions: it will prevent you from trying to complete thirty hours of work in eight hours and it will also help you to focus when it comes time to work on the task. Check out e.ggtimer.com for a super-simple countdown timer. Just set the timer for the time you think it will take (make it challenging but reasonable) and race the clock.
Step Four: Sort them by priority
This is possibly the most important part. Spread all of your tasks so you can see them at once. Ask yourself, “If I only accomplished one thing today, out of these tasks, which one would it have to be?” Grab that card and begin to make a row of tasks in order of importance. I like to make a little grid going left to right and top to bottom. Play around with how you set them up, just remember the order.
Step Five: Stack ‘Em!
This is the second-most enjoyable part. Make one stack of all the cards, with the most important task on top and the least important task on bottom. I like to use a binder clip to keep them together (but a paper clip or a rock should do the trick). Put the stack in a spot where you can see it on your desk. Take a moment to enjoy the fact that you are setting yourself up to knock out the most important tasks today without having to stare down a list of all of them at once.
Step Six: Have at it
Instead of having to do everything at once, just do whatever is on the top card. Set the timer and begin. Once you complete the task, rip up the card (I find this action particularly gratifying) and recycle it. Then begin on the next task.
Tips & Ideas
- Try flipping the stack over so you can’t see any tasks when you are working on something else (e.g. checking email, etc.). This will help you to set the intention of only working on that task and it will help prevent you from being distracted.
- Use rewards! It’s really important to reward yourself, especially after ugly tasks or ones you’ve been putting off for a while. Simply write the reward on a card and put it after the undesirable task in the stack.
- If you don’t finish all of the tasks in one day, un-stack the cards and include them with the new tasks. Don’t simply add tasks to the top or bottom of the stack without re-evaluating their priority.
Why I Think It Works
- It ensures that the most important tasks get done everyday.
- It helps me avoid getting overwhelmed since I can only see one task at a time.
- It keeps me on track so I don’t jump to another task without finishing the first one.
- It feels great to be able to physically manipulate all of my tasks. I love being able to move them around while prioritizing them and there’s nothing better than ripping up a task after you complete it.
- It’s kinesthetic: this is a very different approach from online to-do lists. If that’s what you’re used to, StackTask can be a refreshing change of pace.
I’d love to hear your ideas on how to make the StackTask technique even better. Please share in the comments.