How to Accomplish the Most Important Item on Your List

As Mark Twain famously quipped:

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Unless you’re some kind of circus performer, your job probably doesn’t involve eating actual frogs.

But we all have big projects we need to tackle that make us feel like it’s our job to eat a frog.

Our businesses stagnate because we fill our days with tasks that don’t really move it forward.

You probably already know what that project is, don’t you? It’s been nagging at you for days, if not weeks. It requires your very best thinking and creativity. And if you can get it done, you know it’s going to create a lot of revenue or value. But even if it’s work you enjoy, the sheer scope of it can make you feel overwhelmed and paralyzed.

And as a result, the most important items on our to-do lists remain undone. Worse, our businesses stagnate because we fill our days with tasks that don’t really move it forward.

Lessons from a Procrastinator

I struggled with this for years. I’d become a horrible procrastinator. I went from writing a book in six months, to writing a book in a year and then it began to take two years then three years and so on. Writing became a chore rather than a positive work habit. I knew something had to change.

So to be more productive, I created a one-page schedule to fill out each morning. Unlike a normal day-planner we might use to manage our time, my schedule managed my mental energy.

(You can actually read more about it and download the schedule for yourself here.)

What Finally Helped Me Accomplish Big Projects

One of the most important steps in my schedule was to write down the title and goal of what I call “Project One” every morning.

This helped me continually focus on the most important thing on my to-do list. Day after day, my work added up to significant progress. I wasn’t just getting things done. I was getting my most meaningful projects done.

If you’d like to be more focused on your most important projects, I can help. It turns out, there’s more to it than sheer willpower. Try these five productivity strategies that will help you get focused on your big project and finally cross it off the list.

1. Get to work as soon as possible.

In their book Willpower, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney make a compelling argument that the brain works like a muscle, meaning it gets fatigued as the day goes on. For this reason, productive people tackle their most important projects early in the day.

Get into the chair and start working as fast as possible before anything can interrupt you. If you have to take the kids to school, tackle Project One immediately when you get to the office.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you protect this time. If a writer, for instance, writes 1,000 words each day before 9 AM, he or she will complete more than 6 full-length books each year.

And in my experience, you end up enjoying your entire day so much more because you can relax knowing you got the important work done early.

2. Develop a morning routine

One key to starting your work earlier is developing a morning routine. When you give your mornings a predictable structure, you take the guesswork out of how your day starts.

For example, a simple morning routine might be:

• Get up
• Take a walk/jog
• Take a shower
• Make coffee and eat breakfast
• Get to work

What I love about my morning routine is that I don’t have to will myself to work. It’s just the next thing I do as a part of my daily habit. It took some time, but now the habit and routine kick in, even when my motivation doesn’t.

If you’re thinking, Donald, dude, I am not a morning person, it’s possible to become one. My friend Michael Hyatt has some great tips on becoming a morning person. With a little effort, you can learn to love the early morning hours.

3. Pinpoint the next step in advance

I’m convinced that 90% of productivity is simply getting started.

A lot of big projects get pushed off simply because we don’t know where or how to begin. We feel overwhelmed by the scope of it, so we spin our wheels. Instead, we do a lot of little tasks that chip away at our energy because it feels easier.

To combat this, pinpoint one small, doable task for your project. Know what it is the day before you sit down to work so you don’t have to think about it that morning. For example:

• Find five relevant research articles.
• Write an outline for the blog post.
• Run the report you need for analysis.

This is helpful in two ways. First, it gives you a focused place to start, eliminating that feeling of being overwhelmed. Second, it creates momentum that can carry you forward into the more challenging aspects of the project.

4. Skip the negative stuff

Have you ever heard of the term “negativity bias?”

Psychologists coined the term because they have repeatedly observed that we are much more likely to remember the bad stuff than we are to remember the good. It’s hard-wired in our brains from our caveman days, when our survival depended on remembering what could harm us.

So when you start your day with negative thoughts, they’re more likely to stick with you, interrupting and diminishing your work.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Twitter and Facebook can be pretty negative places these days. So those casual check-ins on social media over breakfast may be undermining the work you do all day.

If you’re not sure you can resist it, try an app like Freedom that monitors your usage and can disable sites or apps during certain windows of time.

5. Don’t check your email first thing

For 80% of people between the ages of 18-44, the first thing they reach for in the morning isn’t an alarm clock or a toothbrush. It’s their smartphone. Before even getting out of bed, they’re off to the races, checking emails.

And even if you manage to wait until you’re in the office, it’s often the first thing we do — open up our inbox and “get to work.”

Don’t do that! Why? Your email inbox is full of tasks from other people’s to-do lists. Your best energy of the day gets scattered among little to-dos that don’t move your big project forward.

Your email inbox is full of tasks from other people’s to-do lists.

In an article on Huffington Post, time management expert Julie Morgenstern said, “It’s hard to go from your transactional, shallow part of your brain, the frontal cortex, to the other parts of your brain where strategy happens and relationships happen. It’s easier to start in the deep recesses of your brain and go to the shallow parts.”

So wait to process your inbox until after you’ve made significant headway on your big project. If you’re worried about responsiveness, just add a footer to your email signature that tells people when they can expect a reply from you — for example, not before 10 a.m. and not after 6 p.m.

Accomplishing your big projects is about more than productivity. Your ability to execute high-level, deep-focus projects is critical to the success of your business. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport says, “If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.”

Try these strategies to accomplish more of your key tasks, and share your best productivity tips with me in the comments.

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