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Small steps to big results: Do one High Value Task a day

We've all been there: Overwhelmed with the day-to-day aspects of life - incoming stuff that's relatively easy to handle - we focus on it, excluding the "big things." After a while it feels like the trivial many have sunk the vital few (from the Pareto principle - see Koch's book The 80/20 Principle for an in-depth discussion).

I've been experiencing this for a while, and it's really unsatisfying. Since making the leap to full-time personal productivity consulting, it's very important for me to maintain steady progress on multiple fronts, e.g., marketing, networking, reading, and writing, but I'd like to do more. I realized I wanted to, as Laura Stack puts it, end each day with a sense of accomplishment, rather than finish being frustrated by my inability to accomplish anything important.

So I've found something that applies Maurer's one small step approach: Do one high value task a day. If you do this, I guarantee you'll feel better about your day.

Breaking it down a bit: First, complete just one per day. Sure, doing more is great, but I've found thinking of nailing one action (even a small one) gets around the mind's resistance, which is the essence of Maurer's book. As he says:
Small steps are a kind of trick - a stealth solution. Do small, easily-attainable goals - they won't set off alarm bells.
Second, it has to be of high value - the vital few. What's high value? Something that moves you one tangible step closer to where you want to be. Call it your goal, purpose, current initiative, or concern, but think vector, not just speed. (Next week we'll talk about how to discover the latter based on your action management system - a challenge when using a bottom-up approach.)

This approach is a cousin to Gina's idea of deciding your Most Important Task the night before, and doing it first thing in the morning (covered in Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day, with an earlier version here), and Leo's variation, with some caveats:

Things not to worry about:
  • Doing it first thing (a fine idea, but not required),
  • Planning it the night before (again, if it works for you, great),
  • Making it big (think impact, not size), or
  • Doing more than one per day (otherwise you risk procrastinating).

However, there are some Things to worry about:
  • Make sure you have a list of some, esp. small ones (e.g., respond to a prospect's email, prepare for a conversation),
  • Never finish the day without doing one (i.e., NO EXCEPTIONS, which Mark Forster claims is crucial for developing a habit, along with identifying current ones, listing new desired ones, and being specific WRT adopting them), and
  • Don't include routine "care and feeding" tasks such as emptying your inboxes, networking, exercising, blogging, or reading (some exceptions apply).
(An example: Today I spoke with a potential telecoaching client [1] and wrote an email to a top productivity consultants.)

Give it a try - I've found this helps a lot with being able to let go at the end of the day, feeling satisfied I've done something worthwhile. And please let me know if you're currently doing this, what kinds of tasks you do, any variations, and how it's helped.

I'll finish with an surprising idea from Liz Davenport's book Order from Chaos. She claims she can predict where anybody will be in ten years just by looking at their to-do lists. If it's only taking care of business or survival items, in ten years, you'll be right where you are!

  • [1] Interesting observation: The people who call me need my help, but paradoxicaly, often have trouble following through. This includes returning emails (such as "Let's talk and see if I can help") and making appointments! So I've learned to a) give them some slack, and b) be persistent, which for me requires continuing development of my boldness skills (see If not now, when? The importance of being bold).

Reader Comments (10)

Hi Matt,

One small correction; you got either Liz Davenport -or- "Do it tomorrow..." matched incorrectly...



September 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDiagnostic

Thanks, Dave! Corrected.

September 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great post, and thanks for the comment at GTD Index blog where you pointed to Lingo Bingo! Hah!!

September 26, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter@Stephen

Thanks, Stephen. And I'm glad you enjoyed the bingo. (Shhh: I suggested it ages ago, but don't tell anyone - I asked him to rename it from the original...:-)

[ Gtd Bingo | http://www.bullshitbingo.net/cards/gtd/ ]

September 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I like the points! On the 'do it as the first thing' I would agree that it can be optional, but if the 'thing' is something that is hanging over you, getting it out of the way first makes for a much better day. Also, aiming to do it first reduces the chances of it not getting done because your day got hijacked.

September 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

Those are very good points, Benjamin. I think that's why it's a good practice if it works for you.

September 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This is great advice. I know I always feel so much better when I cross something big off my list.

Thanks for a great post!

[ Every, Every Minute | http://everyeveryminute.wordpress.com ]

September 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterClubbs

Thanks, Bob. I know that feeling too, and would like to have the satisfaction more often. Thanks for reading.

P.S. I appreciated your [ goal to live in the moment | http://everyeveryminute.wordpress.com/about/ ] (my interpretation).

September 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

According to a post on LifeHacker.com, Jerry Seinfeld uses a technique to check-off every day that he gets one major thing done. After awhile, you don't want to break the chain. A couple of sites have sprung up to be these tracking calendars. See posting at http://lifehacker.com/software/goals/follow-seinfelds-advice-at-dont-break-the-chain-298908.php



October 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Great pointer, Mark. Definitely in the same vein. I like how he encourages an unbroken chain (to build momentum and not make exceptions), and his use of an [ information radiator | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/09/dozen-small-ways-to-get-productivity.html#6 ] (wall calendar).

I tried to focus on general high value tasks (with a first stab at defining them), and on small steps. I see now the latter could be clearer.

Thanks very much for your comment!

October 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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