The tip to end all tips

The tip to end all tips

Following this guideline will make life harder—but easier.
Feb 01, 2011

I'm a bit of an advice junkie. Addicted to giving it, as my very patient friends and family will attest, but also addicted to receiving it. When I walk into the self-help section of a bookstore or face a wall of magazines at the newsstand, I get a little buzz of happiness, like the solution to all my problems is only a paragraph or bulleted list away. How often these hopes are dashed by the time I've finished the last chapter or perused the final tip. But the allure always returns.

Much of the advice out there focuses on personal productivity. I myself am always searching for the system that will produce the maximum amount of effectiveness in my life with the minimum amount of effort. I thought I had reached personal productivity nirvana when I read Getting Things Done by David Allen. The promise of the book is that if you set up Allen's system to the letter, your mind will be free of stress and tasks will practically complete themselves.

But four years later I have yet to implement the sweeping changes Allen insists are necessary for the GTD approach to work. My tickler file sits unused. Stacks of paper in my office still harbor the gremlins of unfinished projects. My label maker's batteries are dead. In the end, the system was too complicated—who has the time to implement Getting Things Done when you're busy getting things done?

A few weeks ago I read a tip that I thought was probably closer to the mark in terms of helpfulness: Put only three things on your to-do list on any given day. This is a good one for me because I could easily spend a whole morning painstakingly crafting a comprehensive list of things I need to work on without actually working on any of them. By keeping my list short and simple, I can channel my energy into doing those things and experiencing the joy of crossing them off—all three of them.

But as great as the three-item list rule is, there's one I've found that's even better for enhancing personal productivity. Tackle the most difficult project first. Or, as a friend of mine said she learned in volleyball camp, "Do the hard thing and the power will come." That's the thing that's nagging at the back of your brain, the one you've been putting off for weeks, the worry that keeps you awake in the wee hours.

When you grit your teeth and dive into this unpleasant task, whether it's making a difficult phone call or writing that proposal or having that no-fun conversation, I'm not going to lie to you—it sucks. At first. Your stomach churns and your palms sweat and, if you're like me, you lay your head down on the desk and close your eyes and long for it to be over. But eventually, you get through it. It's over. You're free. And that's the golden moment. Compared to that awful task, everything else on your list is a cakewalk. You skip through those items, spreading flowers and sunshine in your wake.

So there you have it: the key to personal productivity, courtesy of a junior high volleyball coach. Do the hard thing and the power will come. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have two more items on my to-do list.