Productivity tips

Do Your Most Dreaded Task First

Everyone of us has one or more tasks on our to-do list that we dread doing. Maybe it’s that unpleasant phone call you don’t want to make, or that blog post you’ve been putting off writing because you don’t know how to start, or that project that just overwhelms you because it’s so massive. Whatever it is, it hangs over your head, distracting you with guilt because it keeps getting pushed to the next day and the next. It’s time to end that cycle. Do it first thing. Writer Michael Hyatt talks about slaying your dragons before breakfast—there’s nothing more motivating for the rest of your day than crossing that monster off your list first thing in the morning.[1] But many people instead of doing the tough tasks first, they do the easy ones. If you really want to be productive, there’re some tasks you shouldn’t do first in the morning: To Be More Productive, Never Do This To Start Your Morning So make that call. Pull out a piece of paper and brainstorm ideas for that blog post. Do something about that overwhelming task—maybe you can’t finish it in one day, but you can at least get started. Whatever it is, just do it. Then, let the satisfaction of crossing it off your list carry you into the rest of your busy day.

Get a Head Start

The best way to hit the ground running is to start the night before. Before leaving your workspace, or before going to bed, take 10 minutes to look over the next day’s commitments. What appointments can’t be missed? What do you need to have with you for those appointments? (Make sure you’ve gathered those materials and have them ready to go.) What three to five tasks must get done? Decide what you’ll do first. Look at that to-do list and decide whether any tasks on it can be delegated to someone else (see number 9 below) or, even better, crossed off the list altogether (see number 10 below). The busier your day, the more important it is to do this quick survey the day or evening before. It means you waste no time in the morning deciding where to start, or gathering materials (and maybe discovering a crucial item isn’t available when you need it).

Write It Down

Every task, every commitment should be written down. This frees your mind from the energy- and attention-sucking job of trying to remember. In his seminal book on productivity, Getting Things Done, David Allen points out how uncompleted commitments take up psychic energy, each one making you just the tiniest bit more tired, more distracted, and therefore less productive. He emphasizes that the first step to managing your life and time is getting every commitment, large and small, out of your head and into a trusted system. I use OmniFocus to capture these commitments, but you can start with a simple pen and paper.

Batch Process

If the demands of your day include routine tasks, try to group similar tasks and schedule certain times during the day to knock them out. Answering emails? Returning phone calls? Entering expenses into a spreadsheet? Instead of interrupting your other tasks to do these things piecemeal, batch them. Set two or three or five times a day to check and respond to emails. Return phone calls at 11:45 am and 4:45 pm (or, if you want to avoid getting sucked into long phone conversations, return them at 12:15 pm while folks are at lunch, and 5:15 pm after they’ve left for the day, and just leave a message!) By batching similar tasks, you save the time lost to ramping up multiple times a day and reap the benefits of momentum.

Eat a Healthy Breakfast

Do I need to explain this? There are countless studies confirming the importance of breakfast for maintaining our health. Healthy people are more productive. No matter how busy you are, eat a decent breakfast. It’ll fuel you for a terrific start to your day. For more breakfast ideas, check out this: 31 Healthy Breakfast Recipes That Will Super Boost Your Energy


I’ll confess: I stink at this. I hate to ask for help, and often it seems more trouble to explain a task to someone else than to just do it myself. But not everything that needs to be done in your life must be done by you. Evaluate that to-do list carefully. What tasks could someone else do, thereby freeing you up to focus on the things only you can do? Look around you: who is available to do some of those tasks? A secretary? A colleague? A family member? A paid helper? An important key to productivity is doing only those things that only you can do, and giving somebody else the opportunity to contribute by doing those other tasks. Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to delegate work effectively, take a look at his guide: How to Delegate Work (the Definitive Guide for Successful Leaders)

Use shortcuts

Second rule of Office Management: Type less (and use shortcuts.) Here are some easy-to-remember options:

  • Reply to an email:  Ctrl + R
  • To create a new email:  Ctrl + Shift + M
  • To open your email:  Ctrl + 1
  • To open your calendar:  Ctrl + 2
  • To open your contacts:  Ctrl + 3
  • To open your tasks:  Ctrl + 4
  • Or use “Quick Steps” to pre-format and pre-address an email to multiple people. Want more Microsoft Office shortcuts? Check out our shortcuts for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

Use “Flags” and “Categories” to keep track of important emails in your Inbox

I once taught at a company that had color-coded their internal departments but didn’t apply the same system to their emails.  The Categories inside your inbox can serve that purpose.  Here is a quick video on how to Flag emails so they don’t get lost and how to add color categories using the Categories column.

Use “Favorites” to keep active folders at the top of your Navigation Pane (aka folder pane)

In the days of “paper offices”, (pre-computer age), we had 3 filing systems. These still apply to today’s world but have been lost in the flurry of digital organizing.

Automatically file an email

To apply the “Work Less” theory, have Outlook automatically file an email.  Then you can read them all at one time without distraction.

  • Create a Folder: Ctrl + Shift + E

  • Automate Filing into the folder

      Right-click the Email, click “Rules”,
      Choose “Always move messages from”
  • And select your new folder