The power of constraints


If you’re like most people, when you make a list of tasks for the day, you look at your calendar, your list of tasks with an approaching deadline, incomplete tasks from the day before, and things you’d like to finish (or start) soon, and there’s your list. 

There are two potential problems with this approach. 

First, your list might be too big to do in a day. Too many tasks, or tasks that take more time or energy than you have available, are overwhelming. And when you don’t do most or all of the tasks on your list, disappointing. 

Better to have a list of “too few” than “too many”. A short list is a list that gets done. 

Second, your list might not prioritize your most important tasks—the ones that provide the most value. 

A better way to make your list for the day (or every day) is to start by choosing a number—the number of tasks for the day. 

Let’s say you decide that a good day for you means doing 5 tasks (not counting small, recurring, or routine tasks). 5 tasks that move the needle. 

Starting with a small number, a constraint, forces you to choose your most important tasks. You’ll have a more productive day doing 5 important tasks instead of (trying to do) 10 or 12 tasks. 

I usually start my list with 2 or 3 MITs (Most Important Tasks), and a few other things I’d like to do if I have the time. But if I “only” do my most important tasks, I consider it a good day. And it usually is.