I’ve tried pretty much every productivity method out there — the Pomodoro Technique, David Allen’s ever-popular Getting Things Done, the Eat That Frog approach, to name a few. My bookshelf overflows with productivity books: Organize Tomorrow Today, The Power of Habit, and It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys.
(The last title no doubt gives me away: I wasn’t exactly born color-coding my wardrobe.)
But I find trying out new productivity methods to be a lot like dating before I met my husband. The methods sparkle at first. I’m getting things done, eating my frogs, and feeling like a happy, productive, totally capable human being. The strategy du jour works, at least temporarily. But after a month or two, things start to fizzle.
Some people are naturally organized, productive, and efficient; they can see the big picture and not drop any of the thirteen balls they have up in the air. But not me.
I become so enamored with ball number three — like this article I'm writing, I'm all in on productivity methods right now — that I forget to pick my head up. Days go by before I realize I'm behind on areas of my writing business, like sending invoices, marketing outreach, or editing the third draft of my novel.
I’m not alone in my struggle to keep up with it all. A global study by Ernst and Young revealed that our modern working lives are increasingly complex — we work longer hours, and we typically have more varied responsibilities. Not to mention, of course, we've added a slew of options to our distraction arsenal: a buzzing smartphone, cat videos begging for clicks on social media, and the internet offering a 24-hour news cycle. It's no wonder many of us feel distracted, overwhelmed, and unable to focus.
Mark Forster, a British author best known for his books on productivity, is like me. He tried endless productivity methods. But eventually, they all fell short. And as he points out, it's not time that we should focus on — there are 24 hours in every single day, no matter how we slice and dice them. Instead, we need to learn to manage our attention. Life presents us with an infinite number of possibilities to pursue, but we can't choose them all. It's far better to select fewer things and do them well. This advice sounds familiar and straightforward enough, but few of us actually manage to practice this precise level of prioritization and focus in our lives.
I picked up Forster’s book, Get Everything Done — and Still Have Time to Play, from my local bookstore in Marin County. After reading it, I decided to give his productivity method a try. As I describe Forster’s technique, you’ll see that it contains elements that are similar to other productivity methods, but what I found is that this technique not only covers how to get the work done but also gave me a systematic approach to deciding what should be on my to-do list in the first place.
It’s a system that forced me to (finally) grapple with the time and energy constraints I’m working with and ensures that I’m giving each important area of my life the attention it needs. If you’re like me and have dozens of projects going at once but don’t feel like you’re making progress on any of them, this may be the system you’ve been missing, too.
Try Forster's Commitment Inventory if you:
Are stretched too thin to make meaningful progress on anything
Don't feel like your daily to-do list lines up with your bigger priorities
Have a hard time saying no to new projects and commitments
Want to be more focused and intentional in what you take on
Step #1: List out all of your commitments
Forster’s initial advice sounded familiar: prune your list of commitments and ruthlessly say no to projects that aren't a top priority. It was an exercise I hadn't done in a while, and I found Forster’s approach invaluable. The key to his system is ensuring that none of the commitments listed will fall off your radar.
First, make a long list of all of the areas of commitment and activity you have in your life, work, and personal responsibilities. Your list should include all the things you have to complete and all the things you do for fun. It’s important here to note that our daily errands and basic needs must also be accounted for: housework, meals, commuting time, etc., all take up a portion of our day.
Here is my initial list:
Step #2: Add up the percentages, trim your list, and repeat
My initial list looked long, but I didn’t think it was too long. In the spirit of simplification and focus, I decided to combine some categories and eliminate others.
Writing a blog and teaching a weekly yoga class went first. I also cut out volunteering at my kids' school (for just this year) to focus on volunteering with Family House, a cancer organization I care deeply about. Then, I combined some of the categories that overlap (like marketing and pitching for new business).
Here’s my new list:
Have a list you're happy with? Great! Now it's time to get real about how much time you actually have for each area of your life. Mark each category with a percentage: what percent of your day/week/month do you devote to that category? Remember, unless you've figured out how to clone yourself, your total must be 100%. In my first version, I scheduled 110% of myself 🙃 It can be helpful to visualize your breakdown as a pie chart to drive home the point that every category you add takes away from another.
Here is my initial percentage breakdown:
Step #3: Make sure each category has enough time to do it well
Forster points out that you need to apply enough time to any one category to do it well. It’s not worth dedicating yourself to a project if you can only spend a teeny amount of time on it. I decided that I wanted to give each category at least 10% of my time. Volunteering is important to me, but it's not something I can do in a meaningful way in the same year I'm trying to finish my novel, in addition to the freelance writing work I already do, all on top of raising children. I trimmed my list again to narrow down what I wanted to focus on with my limited time and attention.
Now, I have a focused list of priorities. "Our circumstances reflect what we have been paying attention to," Forster says. If I pay focused, regular, and sufficient attention to the seven categories I've selected above, then I will see meaningful progress in each of those areas.
Step #4: Set up categories and projects
Many people get to this point and think their work is done. Not so! This is where the hard work of translating your priorities into your day-to-day actions starts.
To help keep my commitment categories top of mind, I used Todoist projects. Each of my seven categories is a top-level project — Novel, Articles, Pitches, Paperwork, Kids, Personal, Fun — with relevant sub-projects nestled underneath each one. For example, the category of “Writing/researching articles” would include a sub-project for this guide, as well as for the other pieces I’m working on.
Now, every time I open my to-do list, I have a visual reminder of the categories I’ve committed myself to, and I can only add sub-projects that fit under each of them. Whenever I add a new task, I'm forced to decide which project to put it in. If it doesn't fit into my current categories, I have to ask myself if it's worth doing right now.
Step #5: Think in checklists rather than to-do lists
Forster recommends using checklists instead of creating to-do lists. It may sound like mere semantics, but there’s a key difference: A to-do list usually includes a set of unrelated tasks that must be completed within a certain time frame, usually in one day. The problem with to-do lists is that often, you look at them and think, ugh. (Resistance!)
Checklists, on the other hand, break a project down into smaller, sequential tasks, which reduces resistance. Vague, open-ended to-do's become concrete, manageable action steps that you can check off your list
Let’s say that for this article, I've come to the task of “revise draft.” If I didn’t get enough sleep last night, I might look at that task and again think, ugh. But, if I’ve created a checklist for that task of “revise draft,” the task becomes more bounded, concrete, and doable. The resistance melts away.
Now, when I look at what I have to do, what I immediately focus on is the first item on my checklist: “read comments from editor.” Easy! (Resistance: 0 Jackie: 10 points!) I win.
Step #6: Work in "bursts" aligned with your categories
Inner resistance isn't the only problem you'll face when trying to get things done. Sometimes, you'll lag behind simply because you don't have a particular time constraint (other than the deadline) for a task like "research relevant studies." As soon as I get frustrated or bored, Facebook or Twitter would love to entertain me — for free. On the flip side (which tends to happen more often for me), I can sometimes get so engrossed in the research I'm doing that I lose track of my larger goal to revise the article.
Having a time limit, especially a tight one, forces concentration. Forster suggests working on your checklists in timed "bursts." When your flight is about to take off, and you only have five minutes left on wifi, you can crank out more emails in those five minutes than you've written all day. Forster calls this the "end effect" and says that the most effective work is usually done at the very end of the cutoff. And once you start moving, sometimes even after only a few minutes, the resistance weakens and often disappears entirely.
Timed bursts are used in the pomodoro technique and time blocking too, but Forster's commitment inventory method ensures that you rotate among the different categories you've made a priority. Without that big-picture perspective, you could (and I did) spend your whole week (or month) on writing and editing bursts, forgetting to circle back to ones that include invoicing, marketing, and networking tasks.
There are several different ways of setting up your bursts — which you can read more about in the book — but I will show you what worked best for me. The nice part about the burst system is that you can change the sizes of the bursts to suit your needs.
My writing work pretty much falls into two distinct areas: there is focused, deep work (researching, writing, editing, planning) and quick, busy work (emails, calls, paperwork, etc.). I've found that I work most efficiently when I do my "deep work" in the morning and my "busy work" in the afternoon. For my "deep work" that requires sustained focus, I use a longer burst — usually 50 minutes. I don't want to be interrupted every 5 minutes while writing. I follow each burst with a 5 or 10-minute break and then, if I need to keep going, another 50-minute deep burst. For busywork (like doing paperwork, sending pitches, etc.) I use a shorter burst.
Important: When the timer goes off, start the next item immediately, even if you haven’t finished. Otherwise, you'll get distracted, and your attention will lag. And never stop at a clear stopping point. Instead, go ahead and move on to the next thing. If you leave something unfinished, your brain wants to return to complete it. It’s like an opened car door; your brain wants to come back to shut it. [Note: My timer just went off, and I had to stop here.] But, since I work through a systematic set of categories throughout the day, I will come back to this article when I come back to the “articles” category, and I will pick up this task where I left off.
Each morning, I write out my bursts on a Post-it note and place it by my keyboard. The bursts keep me on track for working systematically in between each category, and the tasks and sub-tasks keep me on track to meet my overall objectives. So here's what my work day of bursts looks like. All I have to do is open up my category project to view my tasks and sub-tasks, set the timer, and go.
I'm now working within a 50-minute “burst,” and I have 9:56 left before I have to move on to a different checklist within Pitches, so I am cranking out this draft much faster and with more focus than I otherwise would.
If your resistance is high, start with a short burst, then add five as you go up. Forster recommends keeping it under 40, but when I’m writing, I use 50-minute bursts. Adapt to fit your needs. When you lose momentum, go back to 5 minutes. You can use bursts for your breaks, too. In 8 minutes, when I finish this burst, I will get a cup of coffee, stretch my legs, pet my dog Duke, and maybe read a quick news article. Forster recommends being strict with the timer, or your attention will drift.
That’s it! It’s a deceptively simple system. Yet where other systems left me feeling overwhelmed and guilty after a few weeks, Forster’s system leaves me feeling confident that I’m making measurable progress on everything I’ve decided is important to me right now. There’s no nagging guilt over areas of my life that I’m neglecting.
Of course, your priorities will change over time — your system needs to be flexible enough to reflect. Set time aside on a yearly, quarterly, or even monthly basis to reassess your commitment inventory and keep it relevant. Review your progress in each category as part of a weekly review. Over time, your commitment list will become a heuristic that lightens the cognitive load of deciding which tasks and projects you'll say yes to and keeps you focused on what's important to you.
After a few months of working with this system, I found that my productivity improved tremendously. I felt lighter and more in control as I'd let go of several projects and categories — teaching yoga and volunteering — that I just couldn't accomplish meaningfully. I hope to come back to these items down the road when I have more time. But doesn't it make sense to tackle finishing my novel first — making it the best it can be? And then, when that time slot frees up, I can take on another project. The constant variety, cycling through the categories regularly, keeps my mind fresh and keeps me from getting bogged down in my email or finding myself on Twitter when I'm supposed to be working.
And speaking of that, my burst is coming to an end. Time to get started on the next thing!