Productivity Hack: Give Yourself a Deadline

There are a lot of deadlines in life: job applications, insurance claims, license renewals, work projects, not to mention the fact the kids are always running dangerously low on clean underwear.

But sometimes, when I’m stuck on a task, a deadline is just what I need.

I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin’s work and have many Obliger tendencies. This means I, typically, respond to external expectations – (when my husband asks me to call the mechanic, I do it; those cookies I agreed to provide for the bake sale will be there on time) – but I tend to have a hard time responding to my own, inner expectations. 

During the initial lockdown in spring 2020, I was having a hard time completing a nebulous personal project. For over a decade I’ve been sending monthly update e-mails to family and friends. In addition, I also recorded regular summaries on my children’s development for their first 24 months. Reading about those details now – comments about their sleep patterns, transition to solid food, and first words and steps – nearly crushes me with nostalgia (tempered by my relief they are now old enough to wipe their own noses, bathe themselves, and sleep through the night). 

I don’t journal regularly and these updates were a treasure trove of family memories. There were dozens of files, not to mention pages and pages of archived emails. It was a daunting task to collate information from various sources (I’d switched primary e-mail accounts during this time), pull together old files, and then organize and format hundreds of pages. I wanted to do it because I valued the end result, but each step felt daunting.

I knew to aim for progress, not completion, but somehow I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to get this across the finish line. On a whim, I texted a friend. I described the task ahead of me and promised her a crisp $20 bill if I failed to complete the project in less than a month. The stakes were pretty low, but now I had someone holding me accountable and maybe, just maybe, silently rooting for my failure. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks.

My book was complete and ordered within three days of sending that text and on my doorstep in under a week.

Deadlines can be anxiety-producing and sometimes we need to take a step back and cut ourselves some slack (or quit)? But other times, an arbitrary deadline might be just the motivation needed to complete that nagging task.

Here’s A Thought: Give Yourself the Gift of Time

Ask people what they want more of and you’re likely to get one of two answers: time or money. These two resources, often inextricably linked, are among what we value most in life. Time, in particular, always seems in short supply.

  • “I’d love to join my friends on that weekend getaway, but I haven’t got enough time.”
  • “I sure wish I’d had the time to keep up with guitar lessons. “
  • “I want to start exercising regularly…but I don’t have space in my schedule.”
  • “Taking that night class would expedite my promotion, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.”

True enough, time is finite. From the minute our feet hit the floor in the morning, it seems we’re in a desperate race with the clock hands. We eat in our cars during the morning commute to save time. We order groceries online to avoid inefficient lines. We make a week’s worth of lunchboxes on Sunday afternoon to expedite our mornings. There is no shortage of hacks, tweaks, and tricks to squeeze “more” into less time.

Last week I wrote about buffer: too often I try to cram too many things into too narrow a timeframe which leaves me feeling rushed and anxious.

But what about when I do have a buffer.

In reality, there are many days when my timeline is flexible. What about when, with the help of time management strategies, or by simply eliminating unnecessary tasks, I’ve managed to carve out that elusive white space? This flex-time is only an asset – and worth the time expenditure to secure it – if I end up using it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m so used to that undercurrent of time-related anxiety that I end up checking the clock (and trying to maximize every second), even when there’s no need.

It seems I’d do well to ask: Is there a reason I’m rushing?

And, if not: Can I give myself the gift of time?

Summer marks the start of sandal season which means one thing: nail polish. Last year’s options were looking pretty stale, and I was on the hunt for a perfect (well, good enough) pale pink. Crouched in the pharmacy aisle I was overwhelmed by options, oddly reminiscent of my experience in the toothpaste aisle. With dozens of pinks to choose from, many of them pale, I could feel the anxiety building. I could also sense myself heeding the chiding voice of my inner clock: “You’re spending too much time on this, Elisabeth.” Eventually, I walked away feeling I’d wasted more than enough time debating the merits of Rose Petal vs Pink Cloud (did I want peach undertones or white?).

But I had nowhere I needed to go. I had more than enough time, so I circled back around the aisle and looked at more options. While I didn’t end up buying anything,* it ended up being a fun – unrushed – 15 minutes.

Maybe you can read that second bedtime story after all. Perhaps there is enough time to linger in that phone conversation with your Grandma. Or, just maybe, you’ll spend your extra time considering every hue of pink nail polish in the pharmacy display. If you can – and do – you’ve just given yourself the gift of time.

*I went back the next day and came home with Pink Pursuit; one family member, who shall remain nameless, take one look and told me it looked like I painted my nails with WhiteOut. Hmmm. A bit too pale, perhaps?

Resetting (and Setting) the Room

While reading Atomic Habits by James Clear – a manifesto of sorts on how to make actionable progress on self-improvement goals – I was struck by his description of someone’s habit of “resetting the room.”

For example, when this friend finished watching television, he would place the remote back on the TV stand, arrange the pillows on the couch, and fold the blanket.

Clear expands on this idea:

“The purpose of resetting each room is not simply to clean up after the last action, but to prepare for the next action” [emphasis mine].

I love this description. Resetting goes beyond tidying and describes a deliberate set of decisions that set up future success.

My husband and I like to reset our living room at the end of the day. After the kids are settled in the bed we’ll fluff the pillows, move footstools back in place, push in the chairs around the dining room table. It’s a calming habit and one that brings much-needed serenity in the busy mornings (…until my 6-year-old sets up for online school at the table and the space becomes a jumble of glue sticks and worksheets).

When I’ve finished prepping for bed at the night, an extra minute spent in the bathroom means I can leave it in a state of readiness for the morning – my toothbrush in its place, the garbage can stowed neatly, a towel hung by the sink.

Perhaps the most famous reset is making your bed in the morning, but opportunities abound:

  • Before you leave the office: clear off your desk (or at least straighten existing piles of paper), push in your chair, remove coffee mugs and other food remnants
  • You arrive home from work: clear out any garbage that accumulated from the day, put your travel mug in the dishwasher, hang up your coat and laptop bag, and put your keys in their designated spot
  • You leave your hotel room for a day of sightseeing: put valuables in the safe, close suitcase lids, put dirty laundry in a designated travel cube
  • Your kids finish outside play for the day: stow bikes and scooters, bring in helmets, and straighten shoes in the entry way

I realize, in retrospect, that I grew up with this mentality. In particular I remember a daily “reset” performed by my mother every evening of my childhood. After we had cleared the table of supper dishes, she would immediately arrange clean placements, utensils, cups, and dishes on the table for the upcoming breakfast. The room was reset and ready for the next activity. In essence, my mom took the concept of resetting a space one step further – going from resetting (clearing the table and leaving a blank slate) to setting (preparing in advance).

And the bonus, intuitive bit. The less clutter and mess we have in our living spaces, the easier it is to reset a room. If chaos causes chaos, order tends toward…lesser chaos.

Go ahead. Try it.

Here’s a Thought: Aim for Progress, Not Completion

I’ve already professed my love for lists. Sometimes, I even relish the assignment of new tasks simply because it allows me the satisfaction that comes from recording new items on my to-do list. Another one added…another one to cross off.

In fact, I’ve been known to add items to a list that are already completed. (Friends have confessed to the same behaviour, so I know I’m not alone).

Why? A sense of purpose. A sense of pride. A sense of achievement. “Look what I’ve accomplished” – gold star to me (and I sure do love gold stars).

Sometimes, though, I can get so wrapped up in focussing on the end goal, I lose sight of – or neglect entirely – the process to get there.

That’s why I’m trying to embrace the concept of progress, not completion.

Let’s take laundry. Oh laundry. The never-ending source of work for any parent. Sometimes I look at that jumble of blended cotton and want to cry. Getting it all put away before another load joins the teetering pile feels impossible. But here’s what I’ve found: making progress can be satisfying.

In one particularly tough season of a precarious work/life balance, I told myself I only had to put away three items of laundry each day. My kids create three pieces of laundry before they’re out of bed in the morning, so the math didn’t really add up. Some days, I’d manage a pair of socks (I counted that as a single item), a dishtowel and a T-shirt. But, most days, I felt up to more. I’d stick to three at a time, but 3 + 3+ 3 + 3 adds up to a full load of laundry…eventually.

Remember Desmond Tutu’s sage advice: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Sometimes the first bite is the most discouraging and daunting. The elephant – be it laundry, an adoption process, the move to a new city, saving for a college education, or quitting a lifelong addiction to smoking – can seem too big to tackle, even in bite-sized pieces. But, in reality, that is exactly how we have to handle each problem. One dollar at a time, we fund that education. Skipping a single cigarette is the only way to quit smoking.

Step by step we make more and more progress. . .which, ultimately, leads to completion.

Go ahead. Try it.

A To-Buy Hack: Have a Running List

I’m a list person. Phone, paper, whiteboard, calendar, back-of-an-envelope; you name it, I’ve put a list on it.

While most lists have a designated timeline – from a list for today’s tasks, to appointments and meetings that might be scheduled weeks in advance, to the groceries I need for Friday’s supper – there are items that I recognize simply need to be addressed/purchased at the next convenient time.

These lists can involve to-do’s, but I tend to capture “tasks” in one of my other list hubs (calendar/daytimer/GoogleTasks/paper). More likely, I’m recording things that I need to buy at some unspecified time – either when they’re on sale or I’m at the store that carries said item.

And for this, I’m partial to using a phone app called AnyList. It allows me to easily create and add items to appropriate lists. I did not research this decision too intensely – the app was highly rated and one of the first that showed up in the App Store. For a maximizer, I satisficed early and haven’t felt the need to look further.

My categories include:

  • Gift ideas, largely for Christmas. Not kidding: this year, at 1:00 PM on Christmas Day, I was already adding to this list for the FOLLOWING Christmas. I may have a problem. When I think of a gift idea, I record the gift and the recipient as a single line item.
  • DollarStore
  • Costco (I only visit a few times a year)
  • Specific grocery-store chains
  • General grocery

I only visit the DollarStore every few months. There aren’t too many items I source from here, but it is a go-to for gift bags, stocking stuffers, and miscellany I can’t necessarily find elsewhere. Buying travel-sized Kleenex probably doesn’t warrant a special trip, but if I go to add it to the list and notice I’m running low on my favourite Vildea dish scrapers, gender neutral gift bags for an upcoming birthday, and sidewalk chalk, I can confidently head out knowing I’ve kept track of what I need.

For years I would trek to the store, buy a handful of things, and leave – operating under the sinking suspicion I was forgetting something. Inevitably, the moment I walked in the door, I’d remember the tissue paper shortage plaguing our family…

Now, if I’m wrapping a gift and notice I only have a few sheets of tissue paper left, I simply add it to the running list*. Then, if something critical comes up and I’m heading to the store anyway, I have all those incidental items recorded.

I do this for groceries as well; in addition to having categories for specific stores (I quickly skim the front page of sales flyers each week to identify what deals might be relevant), I also have a “General Grocery” list. When I finish the bag of Italian seasoning, realize my non-stick cooking spray is almost empty, or my daughter points out our peanut butter stockpile has gotten dangerously low (anything below 3 jars; we love our PB), I add it to the list. These are items I can get at any grocery or box store.

While this running list concept isn’t life-changing, it does make everything function just a little bit smoother and the time investment is negligible (download an app, set up categories and you’re done). You can get all fancy and link accounts with other household members, tie it to your smart-speaker so you can add items via voice command…but I haven’t yet felt the need.

Go ahead. Try it!

*If I know I can’t add it to the list immediately (i.e. my phone isn’t on/near me), I will temporarily add it to some other list, most likely the whiteboard in the kitchen. Once I transfer the item to my AnyList app, I remove the hard-copy form and move on with life!

Decide Once: The Benefits of Having a “Go-To”

According to Barry Schwartz, I’m a maximizer. This means I tend to over-deliberate on decisions – large and small – and, if that wasn’t bad enough, then spend excessive time regretting decisions once they’ve been made, all in an effort to make sure I have in fact made the absolute best decision possible. Yep, gotta raise my hand on this one.

While some of these tendencies are hard-wired, one way to combat a maximizing mindset (which can be both exhausting and paralyzing) is to reduce the number of decisions that have to be made. 

Research suggests adult willpower – needed to resist negative behaviours, like overindulging in food or alcohol, or to persist in positive behaviors, like getting enough sleep or exercising regularly – declines over the day. Similarly, our ability to quickly and effectively make decisions can be heavily influenced by the sheer volume of decisions we have faced. 

But how to reduce decision fatigue? For some regular decisions, how about deciding only once. 

Content with your shampoo? Buy the same brand every time. Does the whole family love waffles? Make them a Friday night staple. Does a particular style of jeans always fit better than all the rest? Pay the premium and get the pair that look and feel great (and that you’ll actually wear).

I overheard someone bemoaning the stressors of hosting a dinner party: the biggest pain point – what to serve. Find a menu that has a reasonable chance of satisfying a range of pallets and isn’t too much work to prepare. Then, simply prepare this over and over (maybe not to same guests, though they’re unlikely to remember or care). Based on years of feedback I now make either homemade Chicken Noodle Soup (for families with kids) or Chicken Mango Curry (adults only, something about the word curry seems to send shivers down children’s spines), crispy cornbread or biscuits in a cast iron pan, and fresh caramelized cinnamon coffee cake with ice cream. Delicious and done.

Last Christmas, instead of agonizing over the perfect gift for female teachers and friends, I bought them all the same thing – a boutique candle that had an intriguing wooden wick (that crackled as it burned) and smelled like a cinnamon pancake slathered in brown butter and maple syrup. Yes please! One decision, much reward. Could I have deliberated, Leslie Knope style, to ensure each person got the “perfect” gift? Sure, but a “perfect” gift is elusive and impossible to quantify. Instead, I decided once, saved hours of time spent considering, shopping, comparing prices…and found a great option that was more than good enough and moved on with life.

Go ahead. Try it. 

A To-Do List Hack: E-mail Yourself

As a busy mother and small-business owner, I sometimes feel like I should add “professional juggler” as a line item on my CV.

Amidst the work deadlines, Friday grocery order and choir/baseball/tennis/ukulele club pickups, there are dental appointments to book, baby shower gifts to purchase (then wrap and deliver), and any number of other competing interests, errands, and tasks. While the best way to ease the burden of a to-do list is to remove items from it, sometimes responsibilities simply can’t be culled. Children still need to eat, bills still need to be paid on time (though auto-billing is a huge step in the right direction here). There are some people, lucky ducks, who can keep the spiderweb of tasks organized without much administrative effort on the back-end. Not me.

I always have a list on the go. Multiple lists. I have lists on my phone (a shout-out to the free AnyList app), lists on my calendar, lists in my daytimer (including annual, monthly, and weekly to-dos), and a daily to-do list on a good old-fashioned pad of paper that moves constantly between the kitchen counter and dining room table. If I’m not organized, it’s not for lack of trying.

But when unexpected to-dos pop up, or I feel the crunch of a time-sensitive task that I want to get done in the near future, but that doesn’t necessarily have a firm deadline, I like to send myself an e-mail reminder. The email can sit there until I’m ready to complete the task.

  • Send Leah a graduation card + money.
  • Call the plumber about the shower leak in the guest bathroom.
  • Don’t forget to include the numbers from the latest grant in the business plan update.
  • Text Mom.
  • Happier podcast quote: “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” Write this down!!!
  • Track down Hannah’s jacket at the playground.

A caveat: this really only works effectively if you check your email regularly and if you keep your inbox relatively clear. When I send myself an e-mailed action item, sometimes I will immediately move it to hard copy (a digital calendar or list, or my favourite paper pad) but, usually, I will simply leave it in my inbox until I’ve completed the task. If I’m out for the walk and remember I promised to loan someone a book, I’ll quickly email myself while on the go. If you have hundreds of emails in your inbox, this strategy is likely to fall flat. But if you see it routinely, checking off items is as simple as swiping left, and deleting the email.

Go ahead. Try it.