An Easy Way to Stay on Top of Goals and Actually Get Stuff Done

There is simply too much to do, yes?

I’m guessing almost everyone can relate to that statement. So what have you tried to make it all work?

Have you tried planners, new organization programs, goal-setting, resolutions, even apps that are supposed to help? And then you got excited about the new program and started off with a an enthusiastic bang, only to lose your resolve when things started to pile up? Yeah, me too.

This is a favorite subject for me personally because I have a lot to juggle. I’ve read and studied about various methods of organizing and prioritizing tasks, and have tried quite a few of them. There is definitely a lot of good advice out there.

That said, I have come up with something quite simple that I use, and that works for me, and I want to share it with you. I call it the “3-Goal Week”.

The 3-Goal Week

  • Every Sunday, I write down 3 things a want to accomplish over the next 7 days. That means by midnight on the following Saturday. Only 3.
  • Then I write the actions required to get those three things done, and I schedule each action on my calendar.
  • Every night I look at my calendar for the next day to prime myself for what needs to be done. Then I sleep on it. I check the calendar again in the morning, make any revisions, and then complete the actions listed on that day.
  • By the end of the week, my 3 things have been completed and my goals are met. It feels great!

Why Only 3?

I’m a list maker and I love to plan out goals and objectives and write out task lists. The problem is that the longer the list and the more elaborate the plans, the less likely I will be to follow through. If the list is too long in the time period I’ve allotted, then I will fail to complete everything.

I had to come up with something realistic and doable, and accomplishing only 3 things worked.

When choosing the 3 goals I want to reach, I go through a series of questions in my head to make sure I won’t overload myself and up the chances for failure.

Here’s what you need to consider:

1. Can I really accomplish this goal in the time I’ve allotted for doing it?

Be realistic about this. Make a goal that doesn’t require too much time, or doesn’t have so many action steps that you will only get to some of them.

It may take you a few try’s to really get good at making the right choice about what you can do in one week. These goals should be small action goals that you can finish, even if unexpected things come up to get in your way.

2. Have I made the goal actionable by creating a step by step task list?

If your goal is a single action goal, then you’re ahead. Most likely, there are several actions that need to be done to reach the goal, and the key is to break down the goal into as many single actions as necessary to get it done.

3. Are the tasks (actions) on my calendar?

Making the goal is is important, but having them scheduled is what ensures success. Put each action on your calendar. Be specific. Put it in the time slot most likely to work, and then follow through.

You can use any kind of calendar you want, but it should be one you look at. I use my Google calendar because it comes up on my phone, iPad, and computer, and I get automatic reminders.

4. Is my plan simple enough to follow without overwhelming me?

Make sure your goals are fairly easy to accomplish. These are not big goals like writing a book. These are goals more like writing 3 pages, or walking three times this week 2 miles each time, or making a dental appointment that has been hanging over your head.

These goals can be smaller parts of a larger goal, and often are. By doing them you get closer to your big goal.

Why This Works

Some people can handle more goals in a week, and maybe you can too. Even so, problems arise when you set yourself up for more than you can handle, and then fail to follow through. The more you do that, the more you break down your resolve and the easier it is for you to ditch the plan.

Conversely, when you accomplish just 3 things every week, you build momentum. You are exercising your ability to make plans and follow through, and the more successful you are at it, the stronger your resolve becomes. You become confident that you can get on top of things, and your general level of stress recedes.

If you happen to accomplish more than your 3 designated goals, bravo! Be careful though. Don’t start piling on more each week. Stick to the 3 goals per week plan, and when you occasionally knock out 5, just feel good about it.

One Last Thing

As already mentioned, make sure that the goals you choose are not mammoth in size and scope. These are three small goals that you know you can accomplish, even if other things come up during the week unexpectedly that will take up extra time.

The key is creating small, doable, actionable goals you can meet without a lot of strain or stress. Then follow through and accomplish them.

Over a year, how many goals will you accomplish? Let’s take 4 weeks off just for fun and relaxation. That means you’ll complete 144 small goals! That’s a lot!!!

If you knew you could accomplish 144 small goals this year, then you could do just about anything you have a mind to in 2016.

To get started, tell me the first 3 goals you are going to accomplish during the first week of 2016. You’ll be making your goal list and actions by Sunday night, January 3rd, and you’ll begin on Monday, January 4th. Let’s hear them. The more people who respond, the better, because it will give everyone some ideas about what people are doing and what they want to accomplish, and what kinds of goals will work.

Multitasking: Not Really a Good Idea

It’s pretty near impossible to operate on any given day without multitasking. With the explosion of technology, people have become used to talking on a cell phone while driving or walking, sitting at a desk and working on a paper and pencil task while glancing at email or tracking Facebook, cooking dinner and doing laundry at the same time, or any number of other scenarios that are familiar to us all.

We think very often that multitasking makes us more effective and is a good time management strategy, and it would seem that sometimes it is. If the washing machine is washing a load of clothes while I get dinner on the table, then my time later in the evening to dry and fold those clothes is reduced. This probably isn’t a bad strategy. But putting the clothes in the washer while I’m talking on the phone might be a bit more difficult, although not super taxing. Writing this blog while glancing at my email and listening to the news on the TV in the other room gets to be more difficult. Searching for my ringing cell phone in my purse while driving on a busy road is quite difficult, and quite dangerous I might add.

A fair amount of research has been done on multitasking, and the evidence is clear. It’s not a good idea, and better yet, it isn’t effective.

We don’t as a rule get things done faster or more effective when multitasking, and in fact, our productivity is reduced. Here’s why.

We Are Set Up to Focus on One Thing at a Time

Our brains are not really set up to multitask. Even if we are doing two things at one time, what we are in actuality doing is switching our attention back and forth between the two tasks.

If the tasks are simple and familiar, we are relying on our autopilot response to carry us through the switches back and forth. I’m sure you’ve tried the tricky one of rubbing your tummy in a circular motion with one hand while patting the top of your head with the other. It requires some intense concentration to do that, but if you break it down, we are actually switching our attention back and forth between the two motions in rapid succession to keep both of them going.

We do this kind of thing all the time, and some of the activities may be easier such as walking while talking on the phone. With this activity, we will likely get absorbed in the phone call and we can walk all right as long as the walking doesn’t require looking out for traffic, or avoiding bumping into furniture or other obstacles. If it’s a straight course on a sidewalk, we can probably manage it because the walking can be done on autopilot.

In most cases, both activities require attention and focus, and by switching back and forth, we lose effectiveness and stress ourselves out.

The more complex the task is, the greater the energy used to keep the switch mechanism going.

There is a cost to this. It requires time and energy, and rapid switching can greatly dilute our focus leading to a loss of productivity. Attention is most effective with a singular point of focus, and the more we try to dilute it among numbers of things, the less effective it is.

Switch Time

The switching mechanism described above is called “task-switch”, and it has two parts (Rubinstein, J., Evans, J & Meyer, D.E.). The first part is to make a decision to move from one task to another, which is called “goal shifting.” The second part is to switch off the rules for the task you were doing, and switch on the new rules for the task you are taking on. This is called “rule activation.”

An easy way to think about this is to imagine yourself engaged in a TV show in which you quite engrossed, and then someone tells you it’s time to come to the dinner table to eat. There is a mental process (and in this case an emotional process too) that requires you to first decide that you are going to comply with the request. Once you make that decision, you then have to emotionally and mentally disengage from the TV show, and then shift your attention to getting to the table to eat.

What’s important to understand is that this two-part shift requires time, and the time it requires is controlled by your brain more than it is by you. This means that the brain needs a specific amount of time to “task-switch” for each particular type of task and transition.

Some task switches take longer than others. Each has it’s own time, and if you try and move it along faster than the time it actually takes, you may miss something.

In other words, if the situation is pressured and the time allotted is not enough, your brain will still take the time. This is what happens when you glance down for a moment to find your ringing cell phone while driving. There is a second or seconds of time in which you are mentally in limbo. When you finally get through that limbo (or switch time), your car may be out of control.

Decreased Focus and Effectiveness

Because we don’t really do more than one task at a time, the energy and time required for multiple switching from one task to another actually slows us down and dilutes our focus.

If I get a cell phone call while writing this blog and I decide to answer it, when I come back to writing I will have to go through another whole emotional submersion process to get myself back into the mental space where I was when my mind was percolating along and there was a flow of successive thoughts and feelings that were working together to create the words on the page.

That time it takes to get back into the task, or the switch, is great in this case and may be impossible until another day. The same is true of many more complex tasks that require greater attention.

Creative tasks in particular are not well disposed to multi-tasking. In fact, productivity can be reduced up to 40% by multitasking, especially when more complex tasks are involved.

Multitasking is Stressful

Multitasking over time is like listening to chronic background noise that is dissonant. It requires energy to try and keep the brain functioning properly when something else is agitating it. That energy expenditure can be overwhelming, and the emotional response can manifest as feelings of being out of control, overwhelmed, anxious, irritable and over time, depressed. There is eventually a shutdown that occurs to turn off the stress meter.

How to Get Around Tt

We can’t always get around it, but often we lay it on ourselves. Here’s some quick ways to make improvements:

Attend to only one electronic device at a time.

If you are working on a task on your computer, close your email and shut off your phone (or put it on silence), iPad, iPod, or any other device you have. Do not have any other screens or windows open other than what you need to do your task. Keep it this way until you are finished or at a stopping point.

Create blocks of time for specific tasks.

Gary Keller in his book, The One Thing, calls this “time blocking.” If you are washing the car, or cooking dinner, or writing a blog, set aside the time you think you will need to do that and don’t engage in anything else at the same time including talking on the phone. Allow yourself to settle into the activity fully and focus. Not only will you accomplish more, it will be much more pleasant and gratifying.

Silence your phone in the car.

This really is the only way to totally focus on driving. If you really have to talk, pull off the road and talk and hang up before you start driving again.

Spend some time every week in silence.

If you like silence, you will relish this activity. If you feel uneasy without noise of some kind, you will find this difficult. That just means that you have trained yourself to need constant stimulation. You don’t, and you should be able to do without external stimulation for short periods of time. Quiet allows your mind to expand and your system to relax.

Consciously practice doing one thing at a time.

Do this as often as you can on a daily basis. If you actively pursue this, you will find that your whole experience of time changes as does your sense of accomplishment. It will be less stressful.

Limit multitasking to easy things.

I may cook dinner and do laundry at the same time, but actually I am fully engaged in cooking dinner and taking mini-breaks in my cooking to take laundry out of the dryer and put more in the washer. It is multitasking, but one that can be handed without much stress. Delete complex multitasking in any way you can.

Gopher, D., Armony, L. & Greenspan, Y. (2000). Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229.

Keller, Gary and Papasan, Jay (2013). The One Thing. Bard Press.

Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.

Rogers, R. & Monsell, S. (1995). The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 207-231.

Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.

The Starter Technique

Last night I was on the couch trying to relax on a Sunday night, but thoughts of some work I needed to get done kept intruding in my mental space. I could put it off until Monday, but I knew that if I did that, my whole day would be thrown off and probably my whole week. It wasn’t hard work at all, but tedious and I just wasn’t in the mood. Happens all the time doesn’t it?

The longer I sat and tried to ignore it, the louder the “just do it” voice intruded. Conversely, my resistance was amassing its mighty forces along my emotional battle lines, and was making headway.


It occurred to me to use the simple technique I have used many times to make a little path around that big mountain of resistance. That technique, which I call “starter,” is to just make a start. Do some tiny part of the task.

The task in this case was to update my Quickbooks, which meant finding all kinds of back up for deposits that had been made and entering them into the books, as well as pulling up bank accounts and entering in expenditures. I decided to just input a couple of deposits that I had listed on a page in my iPad. Wouldn’t take long at all. Probably all of 15 minutes. That seemed like a good idea, and I convinced myself that I’d still have the rest of the night, and I would feel better that I had at least started.

It worked! I put in two deposits. I felt so much better that I decided to put in two more. Now I was in the swing of it and sort of enjoying the work and sense of accomplishment and decided to go ahead and log in some of the expenses. So you know the rest of the story, right? I did the whole thing, and it was painless.

How It Works

Here’s the lesson: When you have something to do and a mountain of resistance to doing it, just start some part of it. Don’t review in your mind over and over how big the whole task is, and don’t hold yourself to doing it all at once.

A small start usually leads to doing more than you planned, but even if it doesn’t, you will get something done and you will be more likely to do another part sooner than later. Even doing little bits at a time will lead to finishing a big project.

When you make a start, however small, you shift your internal energy from resistance to flow. Once the energy is moving in a “go” direction, it’s easier to continue, even if the continuation is on another day. The alternative is to never start and have it hanging over your head. That locks you into a “red light” position that takes root. Using “starter”, you can shift this energy and get things done.

Quick Method to Get on Top of Your “To Do” List

It’s easy to get quite overwhelmed when you have a lot to do, especially if there are timelines involved and your list covers many different areas of your life. Most of us have work stuff, house stuff, kid stuff, relationship stuff, and any number of other things that come up periodically like getting the oil changed in the car, renewing your auto tag, making brownies for the fund raiser at school, etc. You get the picture.

All of this can swim around in your head, and can find yourself going over and over your mental list because you’re afraid your going to forget something. The process of reviewing the list repeatedly is usually an attempt to get on top of the anxiety the list produces. The problem is, the anxiety doesn’t go away and can in fact get worse using this method. Have you every dreamed your list? My point exactly!

Obviously there are books written on this problem and there are a number of systems available that can help organize your life. These systems go from simply keeping written checklists to more elaborate classifications and prioritizing of your “to do’s”. I’m all in favor of researching these various ideas and systems and finding the one that fits best for you. However, here’s a quick method you can use anytime either by itself or in conjunction with some other organization system.

Get a stack of index cards, or any type of cards you like, just so they are blank and you can write on them. You can even cut your own cards up from leftover scrap paper. Just make them all the same size. Then begin writing your to do’s on the cards. The trick is to place only one item on each card. That’s very important because what we’re aiming for here is to reduce the anxiety that occurs when we try to hold more than one thing in our head at a time. Once you have your list down on your cards, begin putting them in order by priority with the most urgent items on the top. Now you can begin doing your tasks in whatever timeframe you like. When you finish something, toss that card! Feels good actually.

One young woman I know purchased a key ring type contraption at an office supply store that has small index cards attached. She keeps all of her “to do’s” on the key ring, and when she finishes a task, she rips the appropriate card off and throws it away. She is a student and finds very helpful to just focus on one task at a time without thinking of her entire list while she’s working. Her favorite part is tearing off the card and tossing it!

This method is not elaborate at all and may not work for more complex organizing tasks, but the simplicity of it makes it very useful on a daily or weekly basis, and even longer. I originally used it mostly with kids that have tendencies towards ADD. By giving them one task at a time on one card, they have less problems with forgetting or becoming distracted when they are trying to accomplish something. It is even helpful with kids to add some sound to the task if it is a task that doesn’t require quiet, such as picking up clothes off the floor and putting them in the hamper. If they listen to a song while doing the chore and they are supposed to be finished by the time the song is over, they are more likely to complete the task without becoming distracted. This strategy is equally effective for adults that need stimulation to help complete mundane tasks such as cleaning.

The idea is to make it work for you and have fun with it!


Suggested Reading for Organization Strategies: Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Consistency is the Key!

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