Sure, making to-do lists can help organize your day, week and month. However, beware of a little something called “completion bias.” Basically, our brains crave the pleasure that comes from completing a task — literally checking off something from your list. If we’re not careful, this biological preference can make us focus on tackling small (and low-value) items on our to-do items — just so we can get the satisfaction of checking them off the list — rather than working toward more important, long-term goals.
Don’t allow busy work to run the show. Here are a few tricks that can help you turn completion bias into your secret weapon of productivity:
First, identify three to five things you absolutely must accomplish this week no matter what else happens. Write them down and keep the list somewhere visible. Every evening before bed, set tomorrow’s two or three top tasks based on your weekly goals. Doing so will keep your eye on the prize despite “urgent” (aka easily check-off-able) matters that always seem to crop up.
Break down large projects into smaller chunks
Since completion bias favors the instant gratification that goes along with checking a box, make more boxes. Tease out the smaller tasks that add up to your bigger goal, and give yourself due credit for finishing each.
Make low-priority tasks your hourly reward
Keep a list of items that distract you to reference while working toward your daily goals. Every 60 to 90 minutes, spend 10 to 15 minutes knocking out as many emails, quick errands and household chores as you can. Then get back to work on bigger tasks!
Know your productivity prime time
Stop wasting your most creative moments on trivial tasks. Figure out what time(s) of day you feel most alert and energized, and invest that precious time directly into your top priority. Leave the no-brainer to-dos for times when you tend to feel lethargic or unmotivated — like during the dreaded post-lunch coma.
Remove obvious barriers to progress
If you find yourself procrastinating, you could be subconsciously avoiding a daunting task, such as tidying your workspace, scheduling a doctor’s appointment or doing your taxes. Think about what’s holding you back, then give yourself a special deadline for this item so you can move forward with a clean slate and a clear head.