“I have so much to do and I just can’t make myself do anything.” This is what I heard from my teenage daughter last week when I walked into her bedroom. Emma is a junior in high school and was trying to juggle three college placement tests, preparation for two choir auditions, and homework for four classes, all on her own and online due to Covid-19. I immediately put on my “productivity consultant hat” and asked her, “Have you made a list? Did you schedule everything into your bullet journal? Are you focusing on what has to be done this week?” She continued, “I’ve done all the things, mom, but nothing is working.”
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by a lengthy to-do list, and all of it feels of equal importance? Sometimes we can feel so much anxiety by looking at our many to-do’s that we don’t know where to start, and the methods and habits that have worked in the past just aren’t working now. Below I share a couple of quick tips to help you get through the most overwhelming of times.
Choose One Thing to Focus on Right Now
Continuing with the example of my daughter’s stressful situation, I asked her, “Why don’t you choose three things to focus on and forget about the rest? Just work to check those off your list one by one to feel a sense of accomplishment.” I knew that once she got those first three things done, she would feel a little better about moving to the next on her list. After hearing that she had also tried this “trick” and it still didn’t kick-start her motivation, I left her with, “Okay, turn on your relaxing music, chose one thing to do right now, and then we will talk again.”
During the most stressful times, you may need to pare back to the most basic productivity strategy – choose just one thing to focus on right now. Ask yourself, “What is the next action I need to take to move a project or task forward?” Do that and then find the next thing to focus on. Soon you should start to feel a sense of control over your to-do’s, your stress levels will decrease, and you can work to get a better handle on the rest of your list.
Choose Three Things to Focus On Today
Later that morning, Emma explained that she had been thinking about the “choose three things” method and wondered if it hadn’t worked in the past because she didn’t write her goals down – instead, she had just determined in her head what three tasks she would do. I told her I would check in with her via text for the next few days to remind her to write down her three goals and check on her progress. Here was the first day’s response:
Success! At least for that day. This extra act of writing down her goals added to the intentionality of the actions and was just enough to get her over her productivity hurdle. The next day’s text was answered with a list of her three goals for that day. Emma may not continue this habit every day moving forward. Instead, she will likely go back to her normal method of weekly planning in her bullet journal. But it was what she needed to get through the high stress levels she was encountering at that time.
When to Use This Simple Process for Increased Productivity
As discussed, using the process of choosing three goals each day is a great tool during times of high stress or feelings of extreme overwhelm. This is also a great process to use if you haven’t yet developed a weekly and/or daily planning habit. Begin with a brain dump of all of your to do’s. Get them off your mind and on paper, or in digital form. Prioritize them if you can. Then, each morning choose three goals to focus on that day.
- Each morning, choose three things you will accomplish today.
- Write them down. Consider sharing them with someone.
- Get to work!
Once you complete your three goals for the day, celebrate, and then choose the next 1-3 actions. Soon you will have more control and a better perspective of your to-do’s. When you are ready to move to the next level of weekly and daily planning, take a look at “What Should I Do Right Now?” for additional planning tips.
If you struggle with goal setting, prioritization, planning, or are just feeling overwhelmed with work and life, please reach out to me or schedule your free 30-minute Productivity Assessment. I would love to help you gain control and develop the habits that save you time, energy, and stress.
One of the most controversial topics I’ve posted on social media has been whether or not it is important to make your bed every morning. I admit to not being a daily bed-maker (sorry Mom) and was excited to share this article by Tim Denning backing up my decision, albeit written more aggressively than I would have (e.g.“This is stupid advice. Don’t follow it.”) But I do appreciate the author’s point of view to focus on larger tasks first thing in the morning before you are worn out by the day’s events. Mr. Denning argues that making your bed won’t change the world, but other tasks can. My post was met with support by fellow “non-bedmakers” including successful leaders I think highly of. But I also heard from “daily bedmakers” I respect and admire, including my mother, who are passionate about their decision and reasons for making their beds daily.
During a 2014 commencement speech given at the University of Texas by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, Admiral McRaven explained the importance of a perfectly made bed during basic SEAL training. He ended this section of his speech with, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” Honestly, who am I to argue with the former commander of the U.S. Special Operations?
How then, can these completely opposing views about the importance of this simple task in our daily lives both be right? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Why You Might Make Your Bed Every Day
An unofficial poll on one of my social media accounts gathered several comments as to why the “bed-makers” take the time each day:
- “Starting out the day with a simple completed task sets me up to do better during the day. If I don’t do that first task then pretty soon everything just feels overwhelming so why do anything.”
- “I think [not making your bed] sets up for a too relaxed way of living.”
- “I love the feeling of coming into my bedroom and having everything clean and nice looking. I feel like it helps my mind relax at night and feel less cluttered.”
- “It’s a simple thing I can do while my brain is still fuzzy (and not yet ready to tackle big things) and it sure feels good later in the day.”
- “The best part of making the bed is climbing into a nice crisp bed at night. I don’t want YESTERDAY covers!”
But what if this isn’t true for all of us? Let’s take a look at the other side of the story.
Why I Don’t Make My Bed
I was brought up to feel that making my bed was just part of the daily routine – you shower, get dressed, brush your teeth, and make your bed. So as a young adult, I continued to make my bed every day. But then I got married and my husband didn’t make the bed. When I asked if he would chip in every once in a while, he told me, “I don’t make the bed. My grandma taught me it needs to air out.” What? At the time, this sounded like an interesting made-up reason to not take responsibility, but I’ll get back to that. Without my spouse taking on his share of the task, I started to wonder how important it really was and soon began to periodically skip this daily activity.
Then I had children, started my business, and began working at home. I found that I could spend half of my day picking up and cleaning the house before I even “got to work.” I had to discipline myself to let some of it go, and bedmaking became one task I was okay giving up. Today, I make the bed fully only when someone is coming over, on cleaning days, and on rare days when “I just feel like it.” Most days, I just throw the comforter up over the pillows and call it good.
What I found over time is that it really didn’t matter. I could walk out of the bedroom and into my office and feel just as productive whether I made my bed or not. But recently, during the COVID-19 quarantine, I learned I have a different “productivity trigger” when working from home. I need to wear makeup. I learned this when my daughter walked into the bathroom while I was getting ready for the day and said, “Why are you putting makeup on?” I responded, “For you guys, I guess.” As I thought more about it, I realized my family doesn’t care if I wear makeup (they’ve seen me at my worst), but I do. Putting on just a minimal amount helps me to feel more awake and energized which leads to more productivity.
Obviously wearing makeup isn’t going to be the trick for everyone – we are all motivated and energized by different things. If you can’t jump immediately into a “change the world task” first thing in the morning, as Tim Denning suggests in his article, what small action can you take each day to increase your energy, motivation and productivity? Perhaps it is making your bed or putting a little makeup on. Or it may be something completely different such as a morning jog, journaling, or meditation.
Read The Following At Your Own Risk
A few years ago, I decided to look into my husband’s claim regarding beds needing to “air out” each day and guess what? There is actually some truth to it. You may regret reading what follows, so continue at your own risk. The article The Reason Scientists Say You Shouldn’t Make Your Bed cites research from a 2015 Kingston University study when it states “making your bed in the morning traps in dust mites that have accumulated overnight and provides a breeding ground for allergens that can exacerbate asthma and allergies.” I’ll spare you the more gruesome details (check out the article for this), but according to the Simplemost.com article, making your bed first thing in the morning traps in moisture, allowing your bed to be a home for up to 1.5 million dust mites. If you leave your bed messy, however, the mites are exposed to air and sunlight, which causes them to become dehydrated and die out. So for those that are not daily bed-makers, you may actually be healthier because of it.
What Works For You?
I’d love to hear what is or is not included in your morning routine that helps you have a more productive day. Has your time at home during COVID-19 changed your morning routines or habits? Share a comment below or reach out via email.