How to master your to-do list and boost your productivity

Recently, Al Partridge of iSite Design led a fantastic workshop as part of this month’s Cre8con Camp on ways to boost your productivity. Not surprisingly, mastering the ability to stay productive and focused requires laser-sharp self-discipline and should be treated like a practice you work at everyday. To help us all reach productivity enlightenment, here are a few highlights from the workshop that identify some essential tools and approaches that can help you move more things across the finish line, without shaving years off your life.

Find a system that lets you focus

No matter how you define productivity, there is an app for that. Renowned productivity coach David Allen advises that having systems you trust to ‘hold’ your ideas, tasks or reminder is an essential aspect of being more effective. In fact, he argues that in order for you to be able to focus better and have clarity in the moment, you can’t have your brain holding on to all the menial tasks, too. You tell yourself you can get rid of distractions, you try to remember, end up forgetting and then start getting in the habit of doubting that you can get anything done and lose confidence.

Even the way you define the tasks for the list matters too. According to the crowd, try to break your project down to simple straightforward activities you can strike off your list (and get those endorphins of satisfaction going).

Pro tip: tell yourself that you’re making a list for your inner intern who, shucks, isn’t the brightest, so tasks need to be doable and designed for a finite amount of time, otherwise that inner intern will just get stalled and procrastinate.

Working with an external list can give you reassurance about how things are progressing and allow youto get clear about exactly what to do next.

Experiment with online tools and apps to help you be productive

Online list managers like Things, Remember the Milk or Todoist are perfect for typing (or tapping) out all your items. These are cloud-based tools which means you can update your lists when you’re at your desk and download apps for your smartphone or iPad to be able to reference or add to your lists while on the go.

Some tools even have settings to email you reminders should you wish to make that be part of your process. Email add-ons can also help you save time – downloading something like Rapportive to your Gmail account gives you a snapshot of recent activities with your contacts along with links to their Facebook and LinkedIn pages, great for those who do a ton of outreach and working with numerous clients.

Other common systems include:

LeanKit Kanban

Similar to scrum boards, this visual way of tracking to do lists grew out of a manufacturing process to track vehicle parts and assign token codes. This approach applies the same methodology to tasks, visually identifying issues and ordering them in an actionable ‘lane.’ For example, you would write down all tasks on virtual sticky notes and categorize them under lanes such as Backlog, To Do, Doing and Done. Instead of a schedule-based system, you are visualizing a workflow for yourself or for a group. The idea is to pull work from lane to lane, not push it around.


Tune in to this podcast next time you have some travel time or a free half hour. Back2Work is hosted by Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin who discuss creativity, practical tips like how to get past procrastination, dealing with fear and learning the higher purpose of your life. Dive in with episode #20 “Muscle of Failure” which is all about getting started.


This online system could be considered the macdaddy of productivity tools, associated to the Getting Things Done methods developed by David Allen. It offers comprehensive task management for every aspect of your life with the flexibility to view your task lists in multiple ways and formats and to assign tasks to projects and contexts.

Embrace the iteration-based approach to projects

Besides using online systems to help you succeed, the right mindset is also important to keeping your momentum flowing and focused on action. The first step is getting more sleep, of course, but what about changes in strategy?

Ever found yourself secretly hoping that a project will be considered perfect, out of the gate, on first try? While this optimistic perspective can help you invest big creative energy to meet your first deadline, it might also set you up for taking a big hit to your motivation if the client deems your first draft a miss.

Taking an iterative approach means you’re embracing a constructive review process. If you’re expecting criticism and progress to happen in stages, you’ll be better equipped to cope with shifts in scope or timelines. Every review involves learning more about what the client wants for the project, and constantly testing to see if the goals have changed without you knowing. Crafting that culture and expectation of feedback requires training clients on what you expect from them but this is well worth the investment of time.

Final wise words of advice:

  • It’s worth your time to wrestle down the size of a task; if you set them too large you’ll just spin large.
  • Spend last ten minutes of a client meeting talking about actions, ownership and decisions.
  • Block real check-in times to ask yourself honestly – where am I on this project? What am I overly-attached to right now? Are there new constraints that require adjustments to the plan?
  • When things don’t go as planned, decide what you can take away from the experience and reflect on how you will still make the work worthwhile.
  • Consider sacrifice as a critical part of being a responsible project manager. In order to do anything, you have to give something else up. This trade off can seem alarming at first but it’s actually essential to savvy prioritization. For instance, list making is actually about killing projects – it gives you an opportunity to assess whether to pursue progress in a particular direction, over a different competing one.

Read more about Becoming a Balanced Business Owner

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.