What To Do When There's Too Much To Do

Reduce Tasks, Increase Results, and Save 90 Minutes a Day

Laura Stack (Author)

Publication date: 07/02/2012

Bestseller over 60,000+ copies sold

What To Do When There's Too Much To Do

Presents a straightforward, comprehensive system that allows you to do less and achieve more.

  • Presents a straightforward, comprehensive system that allows you to do less and achieve more
  • Offers an approach tailored to the realities of today's wired, 24/7 workplace
  • Features links to complimentary online bonus material that will make applying the system simple and easy

Look at your to-do list. It's ridiculous. You can't get all that done. You're already at capacity. And it probably doesn't even list every single thing you need to do. The last thing you want to do is more. As a skeptical audience member once told author Laura Stack before a presentation, "I don't want to hear a productivity consultant telling me to do more with less. I want to do less and achieve more."

This is exactly what Stack offers. You're never going to save time and increase efficiency by adding more to your bloated list. You need a system: a comprehensive approach that will enable you to organize your life around the tasks that really matter and let go of the ones that don't. Stack's innovative, step-by-step Productivity Workflow Formula allows you to spend less time and achieve greater results than you ever thought possible. By following her logical and intuitive process, you can wrestle your schedule into submission. Ultimately, you can recover as much as ninety minutes of your day (or even more) to use as you see fit.

Stack shows how to separate the productive wheat from the nonproductive chaff-to home in on the high-value tasks, protect the time to do them, and focus on their execution. Throughout this book, you'll learn how to scale back; reduce, reduce, reduce is Stack's mantra. You'll find dozens of ways to shrink your to-do list, calendar commitments, distractions, interruptions, information overload, inefficiencies, and energy expenditures. Each reduction will increase your results and save you time.

You know you can't work any harder-if you want to accomplish more, you have to work differently. Let Laura Stack show you how you can keep your sanity, advance your career, and spend more time with your family and friends.

Read more and meet author below

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Presents a straightforward, comprehensive system that allows you to do less and achieve more.

  • Presents a straightforward, comprehensive system that allows you to do less and achieve more
  • Offers an approach tailored to the realities of today's wired, 24/7 workplace
  • Features links to complimentary online bonus material that will make applying the system simple and easy

Look at your to-do list. It's ridiculous. You can't get all that done. You're already at capacity. And it probably doesn't even list every single thing you need to do. The last thing you want to do is more. As a skeptical audience member once told author Laura Stack before a presentation, "I don't want to hear a productivity consultant telling me to do more with less. I want to do less and achieve more."

This is exactly what Stack offers. You're never going to save time and increase efficiency by adding more to your bloated list. You need a system: a comprehensive approach that will enable you to organize your life around the tasks that really matter and let go of the ones that don't. Stack's innovative, step-by-step Productivity Workflow Formula allows you to spend less time and achieve greater results than you ever thought possible. By following her logical and intuitive process, you can wrestle your schedule into submission. Ultimately, you can recover as much as ninety minutes of your day (or even more) to use as you see fit.

Stack shows how to separate the productive wheat from the nonproductive chaff-to home in on the high-value tasks, protect the time to do them, and focus on their execution. Throughout this book, you'll learn how to scale back; reduce, reduce, reduce is Stack's mantra. You'll find dozens of ways to shrink your to-do list, calendar commitments, distractions, interruptions, information overload, inefficiencies, and energy expenditures. Each reduction will increase your results and save you time.

You know you can't work any harder-if you want to accomplish more, you have to work differently. Let Laura Stack show you how you can keep your sanity, advance your career, and spend more time with your family and friends.

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Meet the Author

Visit Author Page - Laura Stack

Laura Stack is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and leading expert in the field of human performance and workplace issues. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., which specializes in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations.

Laura has authored numerous productivity books, which have been published in more than 20 countries. She writes on improving productivity, lowering stress, and saving time in her columns in The Business Journal, Huffington Post, Productive, and Time Management magazines. Laura holds the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation from the National Speakers Association and was inducted into the exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (CPAE). She was the 2011-2012 President of the National Speakers Association (NSA).

Laura has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and Forbes magazine. She has been a spokesperson for Microsoft, Dannon, belVita, 3M, Skillsoft, Office Depot, Day-Timer, and Xerox. Her client list features top Fortune 500 companies including P&G, Cisco Systems, Toyota, Wal-Mart, Aramark, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Time Warner, plus government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the United States Air Force Academy, the Census Bureau, and the U.S. Senate.

For 25 years, Laura’s keynote speeches and seminars have provided audiences with immediately actionable ideas on time and stress management, life balance, and execution. She uses both high energy and high content to educate, entertain, and motivate audiences to produce greater results in the workplace. Laura’s live presentations include:

What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do (burnout and life balance)

Doing the Right Things Right (leadership and time management)

Execution IS the Strategy (team and employee productivity)

Attack of the Productivity Suckers! (focus and productivity)

Managing Your Time, Tasks, and Email (workflow and Outlook)

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Case for Reduction

  • Saving Our Own Lives
  • Harsh Realities
  • The Solution
  • A Brand-New Model: The Productivity Workflow Formula

Step One: Determine What To Do

  • Why Do You Have So Much to Do?
  • What Is Your Productive Value?
  • Tracking Down Time-Wasters
  • Where Does Your Time Go?
  • To-Do Lists: Tracking What's Left
  • Triage: Wartime Prioritization
  • Summary: PWF Step 1 Checkup

Step Two: Schedule Time to Do It

  • About that 4-Hour Workweek Idea
  • Scheduling 101
  • Further Reducing Your Commitments
  • Learn to Say No -- And Make it Stick
  • Rescuing Your Time from Meetings
  • In the Decision Comes the Dilemma
  • Summary: PWF Step 2 Checkup

Step Three: Focus Your Attention

  • Driven to Distraction
  • Handling External Distractions
  • Heading Off Internal Distractions
  • Slipping the Electronic Leash
  • Focus Aids
  • The Zen of Avoiding Distraction
  • Summary: PWF Step 3 Checkup

Step Four: Process New Information

  • Taming the Information Glut
  • Filing Preepts
  • Your Personal Time Management System
  • Basic Information Handling
  • The 6-D Information Management System
  • The E-mail Decision Tree
  • Summary: PWF Step 4 Checkup

Step Five: Close the Loop

  • Organized Implementation
  • The People Problem
  • Handling Micromanagers
  • Reducing Inefficiencies and Breaking Bottlenecks
  • The Quest for Constant Improvement
  • Continued Progress Requires Constant Reevaluation
  • Summary: PWF Step 4 Checkup

Step Six: Manage Your Capacity

  • Personal Energy
  • Get Some Sleep
  • Watch Your Diet
  • Exerise Your Body
  • Make Yourself Happier
  • Maintaining You Energetic Edge
  • Summary: PWF Step 6 Checkup

A Final Note: An Extra Hour -- Or More

The Productivity Workflow Formula (PWF) Self-Assessment



About the Author

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What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do

Determine What to Do

The first step in the Productivity Workflow Formula is to determine what you should be working on. When you implement this step correctly, instead of having 117 things on your to-do list, you may end up with just ten tasks, or five, or even three … but they’ll be the right ones. And don’t worry: Once you have the proper processes in place, you can revisit all the others systematically and get them done in their place.

In this chapter, I’ll show you how to reduce your commitments to an efficient core group of tasks. In the end, you’ll produce for your organization at a record level and work fewer hours than ever before.

Workplace productivity, in its most meaningful sense, is all about achieving high-value goals—preferably in the shortest time possible. And make no mistake about it: At the end of the day, all that truly matters is results. What did you actually accomplish? Did your accomplishments advance the organization’s goals in some measurable way? If not, why not? If you just kept busy while not appreciably moving forward, why did you bother?

Never confuse activity with productivity. Everyone has too much to do, and nobody really cares how many tasks you crossed off a list or how busy you were last week if key projects keep falling through the cracks.

Therefore, you must pare down your commitments to include only those things that truly matter for you and your organization. Remember: your goal here is to reduce your responsibilities to a reasonable level, so you can go home at a sensible time and have a life outside of work—not try to take on everything, and punish yourself constantly with sixteen-hour days. That will result in plummeting productivity and burnout.

image At the end of every workday, take a moment to ask yourself: Was I productive today, or did I just stay busy?


When you look at your to-do list, does it scare you? Your list is so long, an entire team of people couldn’t finish it all. Looking at your huge to-do list, you might feel as though you’ll be buried forever and never see the light of day. So before I begin to describe how to reduce your commitments to a reasonable, consistently workable level, let’s take a step back and look at the reasons why most of us always seem to have too much to do.

Too many options. There are so many seemingly “good” things to do, and often we want to do as many as we can. The result is a huge running to-do list that doesn’t distinguish between today, next week, next month, and next year. Without a separation between the lists, many people stare at a to-do list with hundreds of items on it and have a difficult time choosing what to do when faced with an open thirty minutes.

Bad math. We take inputs without producing outputs. We accept projects, allow interruptions, go to meetings, answer calls, and check e-mail … and our to-do list grows longer, but nothing valuable gets checked off.

Pavlovian response. We’re slaves to our technology, environment, noises, and brains. We can’t overcome inertia, get in the flow, and focus on completing a single task. We respond immediately to every chime, ding, and noise.

Indecision. We don’t determine whether tasks are in or out or even relevant or not, so we leave them on our lists, which causes us to have to repeat the evaluation process again—putting them back into our ‘decide later’ consciousness, lengthening our to-do lists, filling our inboxes, and expanding our perceptions of how much we have to do.

Disorganization. Our tech toys can’t keep up with the speed of thought. This is especially inconvenient if you’re in a restaurant, meeting, or on a plane with all your electronic devices off, and you think of something to do. We need ways to capture inputs back into the system.

Fear. We can’t say no to anything that doesn’t meet our stated objectives. We’re afraid to take action to cut out the time we waste each day on nonproductive activities.

Lack of direction. We lack clarity from our leadership and haven’t taken the time to harness our own focus to determine what really matters. Or we’re not aligned with strategy from top to bottom; consequently, we don’t have clear priorities. Often, our actual work doesn’t reflect our job descriptions or what the boss actually thinks we are/should be doing.

In reality, many of the things on our to-do lists are unnecessary time-stealers. In most cases, they were added because somebody thought it might be a good idea. Watch out for “somebody”; they’re not necessarily interested in helping you be productive. In fact, the things they’re giving you to do are the things they don’t want to do. In other words, they feel those tasks aren’t worth their time … so they decide to steal your time instead. To top it off, many of us voluntarily take on tasks that are seemingly unnecessary at first glance (and may actually be), but end up burning time we could otherwise use to be productive.

To get control over your schedule, you must first eliminate anything that doesn’t have long-term consequences for your work. Philosopher William James once wrote, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” In other words, in trying to determine what to do, you must first eliminate those tasks that don’t enhance your productive value.


How do you determine your value? Look at what you do from your employer’s viewpoint. Simply put, the more productive you are, the more valuable you are to your organization. And let me qualify that by saying where this really matters is in the long term. If you shine brightly for a year by working eighty-hour weeks until your body gives up and literally falls over, then your productive value, while extraordinary for a little while, isn’t particularly impressive when viewed from a wider perspective. Your organization would rather get ten years of steadily productive work out of you than one extraordinary year before you burn out.

Reducing your commitment load to the bare minimum, so you can most effectively use your time at work (and still enjoy life and recharge for more work), makes you more valuable to the organization. Some bosses lose sight of that sometimes; but most will realize this is in fact the case (especially if you send them a photocopy or scan of this section of the book), and will prefer to keep you rather than lose you permanently … one way or another. If you’re self-employed, this isn’t as much of an issue. But it’s still apropos in terms of how it affects your organization, whether you operate a sole proprietorship or an up-and-coming Inc. 500 firm.

So What’s Your Personal ROI?

The concept of Personal Return on Investment (PROI) is one that’s been steadily gaining currency in the business world over the past few years. While the term can be defined in several ways, in common usage it’s just what it sounds like: the investment potential that you, as an employee, offer to your organization. Now, I realize that it may seem somewhat degrading to be treated (and especially to treat yourself) as a mere investment … but to some extent, that’s precisely what you are: your organization’s investment in its human capital.

Like any other resource, you’re only as good as your PROI. The harsh realities of survival in the Great Recession have hammered this point home to employers and employees alike. As a modern worker, you’ve got to be hard-nosed about your ultimate value to your employer. You ignore this at your peril.

Elsewhere in the business world, ROI is defined as the profit realized from a resource minus the original and ongoing investment. It’s no different with Personal ROI. In addition to your pay, the organization is probably providing you with various benefits, as well as regular training and/or education, experience in your field, and personal stability. What are you providing in return? The organization is pumping resources and cash into you, so how are you repaying them?

You’d better be returning a substantial multiple of your investment on a consistent basis—and, more important, you have to be able to prove you are. Before you can do that effectively, you’ll need to sit down and determine what you bring to the table. Perform a tough, even brutal self-assessment of your value, focusing on these factors:

• What are you really good at?

• What makes you special?

• What distinguishes you from your peers?

• How do you personally help the organization achieve its corporate goals?

As a business resource, your value is dollar-driven. A good rule of thumb is you should be able to prove you’ve earned or saved the organization at least three times your base salary every single year.

In some jobs, proving your PROI is easy. If you’re a salesman who’s just landed a $5,000,000 account, it’s easy to point to that accomplishment. But not every job directly results in corporate income. For example, what if you work in Human Resources or Customer Service? Well, you’ll need to dig deeper for your provable PROI, by showing how deft you are at hiring profitable, productive workers, or maintaining intra-departmental harmony, or soothing the feathers of irate customers—whatever the case may be for your particular position.

If you ever find yourself coming up short, you must be willing to invest your personal capital, especially your time and energy, toward increasing your PROI, so you can thereby make yourself more attractive. In addition to working hard, fast, and smart, don’t hesitate to ask for more training or institute new systems to maximize efficiency and performance in your job. These preventive measures are short-term in nature, and they’ll pay time-saving (and PROI) dividends for a long time to come.

In calculating your PROI, be reasonably creative about what you’ve accomplished, and don’t leave out anything that might be relevant. Do you have a tendency to finish projects early and under budget? Include that in your assessment, because you’ve saved the organization money. Are you good with clients, able to develop a positive relationship that lasts for years? Then you’ve earned the organization money, because that’s where profits come from: multiple sales to repeat customers (at a decent margin, of course).

You may not be able to provide a specific dollar amount or percentage for your personal PROI, but you should be able to demonstrate that without you, the organization would be worse off. This is also a great exercise to perform prior to your performance evaluation, so you can have an intelligent conversation with your supervisor about what you’ve accomplished in the past period.

image Recalculate your Personal Return on Investment (PROI)
periodically. This will help you determine what
you need to brush up or cut back on.

And never forget this: You can’t assume anyone will automatically realize your worth. So in addition to being able to prove your PROI when called upon, be proactive about stepping forward and demonstrating that hiring you was a positive investment decision. This is especially true if you feel you’re undervalued, or if some unscrupulous coworker attempts to take the credit for your work. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease; but be careful here, because obnoxious squeakiness can get you the boot instead.

Demonstrate by your actions and initiative that you’re worthy. Then be politely assertive, though not aggressive, in pointing out your PROI to those who matter in your organization—so you can maximize your value both to the organization and to yourself.

Defining Importance

You may discover that determining what’s truly important is one of your biggest challenges. How do you know if something you do is important? Sometimes a task’s importance isn’t immediately obvious. You need some simple guidelines to channel your efforts.

First, start with your job requirements. Think in terms of results, not a vague-sounding title or general tasks. What did the organization really hire you to do? Ask yourself, “Why am I here?” At the very minimum, what do your superiors expect you to accomplish on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even an annual basis?

If you made a list of the top ten things you believe you’re responsible for, and then asked your manager to do the same, and compared the two lists, would they be the same? If not, you have a problem, because you aren’t spending your time in ways that are valuable to your best customer. Know your manager’s requirements cold, both the formal ones on your job description and the informal ones your boss expects you to do anyway. Keep the notes from your last performance review front and center, and make sure you’re making progress on them daily.

For example, in a small company such as mine, I’m both the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO). As the CEO of my organization, I’m responsible for mapping our strategic direction and building our brand. I need to understand trends, conduct research, and write books. As the President, I’m the rainmaker. My job is to give killer keynotes and seminars on strategic platforms, so the referrals and recommendations continue to build the business. This requires me to practice my performances, continuously update my programs, and talk to clients. It’s incumbent on me to delegate, hire out, contract, ignore, or eliminate anything that doesn’t “fit” into one of those buckets. I don’t know how to use the fax machine or the postage meter. I could use them, of course, but I shouldn’t be doing that at my level, so I simply refuse to touch it.

Just because a task is important doesn’t mean you’re the right person to do it, and even if you are, you still might be doing more work than is necessary. Ask yourself:

• Are you doing things someone else could or should be doing? If so, take steps to rectify the situation.

• Are you working below your pay grade? It’s a mistake to waste time on something if someone else can do it more cheaply. Delegate everything you can.

• Are you letting brushfires and crises take up your time? Why? Whose crisis is it?

• Can you cut back on the output of some tasks without others complaining? Do they matter in the end analysis?

image If one of your tasks properly belongs to someone else, hand it back to them—even if they don’t want it. Your work must come first, so stop being so darn nice.

Second, determine what’s personally important to you: What do you need to do before you leave the office to feel good about what you’ve accomplished? Be sensible and try to limit yourself to a few core tasks. If you’re having trouble determining a task’s value, then weigh the consequences of not getting it done. Consider how much each task is really worth, based on the results you achieve and the amount of time you have to spend on it. Who or what would suffer? You? Anyone? If you didn’t do it at all, would anyone notice? If you can’t figure out why a task needs to be done at all, stop doing it and see what happens. I’m serious. If someone screams, consider putting it back on your list—but only if it’s something that affects you in some significant way. As my father (a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force) used to tell me, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission.” I tested that one a lot and it generally worked. If I got yelled at, that was a pretty good clue.

For every task, ask, “Who is affected by it, and how?” Remember, you’re the most important person in this equation. Is the task a job requirement? Formal or informal? Does it contribute to your immediate objectives? Is it related to your long-term goals? (Do you have long-term goals?) Is it necessary to achieve those goals? If the task only benefits someone else without noticeably impacting you in any way, then why are you doing it? If possible, hand it off to the person whom it directly affects, and tell them you won’t be doing it anymore.

The general idea here is to cut, cut, and cut more. It’s best to not have a task on a list in the first place than to continue to think about it, prioritize it, and organize it. Simplify your goals and objectives to a point where you feel good about what you’ve accomplished each day, week, or month, and your employer feels even better about the results (you’ve exceeded your PROI).


Of all the resources available to us, time is certainly the most precious. Unlike office supplies or even money, it’s impossible to get more; there’s no box marked “Time” in the supply closet where you can grab a spare minute or two. Once time is spent, it’s gone, and you can’t get it back. And yet, we invariably waste it. Every minute wasted keeps us from doing things we’ve determined we should be doing.

You can’t afford to waste time at work. A firm grasp of time management is absolutely crucial if you want to succeed in your workload reduction efforts. When you “manage time,” you’re ultimately just managing yourself. Where do you need to practice better self-management?

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the biggest self-inflicted time-wasters in modern business and how to avoid them.

E-mail. Do you hang out in your inbox all day long? Bad idea! If you drop everything and immediately attend to every e-mail as it comes in, you’re derailing your productivity, over and over again. Not only do you waste whatever time it takes for you to read, ignore, or act on a given e-mail message, but you also require more time to refocus your attention on whatever you were doing prior to the interruption.

Let’s face it. E-mail can be a phenomenal productivity tool, but it will eat your day alive if you let it. If you simply can’t resist looking, then you’ll need to shut down your e-mail completely to focus on other tasks. Turn off your alerts as well in your e-mail options, so the tone or the envelope in the system tray won’t constantly remind you that there’s e-mail waiting. We’ll discuss techniques for handling distractions from e-mail and other technologies in Chapter 3.

The Internet. The Internet has to be the single worst productivity thief in the modern business era. Sure, it’s useful, and it can and has built fortunes—but it’s also a siren that lures workers onto the rocks of unproductivity. In recent surveys, workers have admitted to wasting an average of two hours per workday, and approximately an hour of it is online.6 Yikes!

The Internet is a bottomless pit of information … some useful and some not-so-useful. It’s much too easy to sit down to do one thing (pay a bill or look up an address) and end up wasting time on something else entirely (reading news stories or checking your social networks).

If meandering around the Web is relaxing for you, it’s fine when you’re ready for a purposeful break. Just make sure you do it at an appropriate time and place, so it doesn’t interfere with work time. Otherwise, treat the Internet like any other tool: Use it when you need it, and put it away when you’re done.

Social media. Be especially careful with social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. From a productivity perspective, they can be time-sucking vampires. I use all three strategically in my business, because they serve a valid marketing purpose for me, as they do for many other entrepreneurs. However, in many jobs and companies, employees aren’t using social media to boost annual earnings. To the contrary, they’re squandering those earnings. Even those with a valid business reason can waste inordinate amounts of time reading postings and commenting on non-business issues. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this:

Meet Bob. Bob uses Twitter every day for just twenty minutes during business hours. No big deal, right? Wrong! That comes to one hundred minutes of lost productivity each week. There are fifty-two weeks in a year; let’s say Bob gets two weeks of vacation, so that’s five thousand minutes of lost productivity annually, just from Twitter alone. If Bob works for the organization for ten years, that’s fifty thousand minutes of lost productivity over the course of Bob’s career. That works out to more than 833 hours—twenty-one weeks of lost productivity! And all because Bob is a mild Tweetaholic who Tweets twenty minutes each day. How has his Tweeting impacted the bottom line? Now, imagine what happens if you have an organization with five, fifty, five hundred, or five thousand Bobs.

Socializing. We all want a workplace where people get along and enjoy spending time together. However, too often we’re chatting when we should be working. Chitchat is fine for lunchtime and breaks, but otherwise you should be working. You should especially avoid chattering outside someone’s office or cubicle, because then you’re not just wasting your time, you’re distracting someone else, too. So it’s a good idea to set limits on your social behavior, no matter how much you might not want to.

Back in 2006, I read with a mixture of interest and amusement an article referencing a study done by OfficeTeam/Robert Half International about whether socializing at work around the water cooler is a waste of time.7

Predictably, workers said no. Also predictably, managers said yes. The answer, of course, is yes … and no. Come now; this is a silly study. As with any study, it’s easy to skew the numbers. The answers will vary in any case, depending upon the context of the socializing and your point of reference. You can’t say that all socializing is a waste of time, although some is, of course. Thirty minutes spent discussing the details of Aunt Sally’s surgery could qualify as a nonproductive activity. However, some socializing is needed for relationship building, bonding, camaraderie, and mentoring.

Still, there should come a certain point in the conversation when you realize, “Okay, I’ve been here long enough … time to move on.” That’s when you should wrap it up— immediately, without spending another ten minutes winding down. If more people would listen to their intuition, we wouldn’t need time-wasting studies such as the one I just cited.

Negativity. Speaking of limits, I can recommend two so-called “social” activities you should stop altogether: gossiping and complaining. Not only do they waste time, they’re damaging to the corporate culture, which can skewer productivity even further.

Talking with your buddies should stop short of discussing other people behind their backs. Airing someone’s personal business for entertainment reasons is never going to help you achieve anything, and spreading negativity or criticism is downright hurtful.

As far as complaining goes, we all have things in our lives we’re unhappy about, but grousing about them accomplishes very little. As for gossiping, all it does is spread negativity, and who needs more of that? In particular, you should avoid complaining about the amount of money you make, and how dissatisfied you may be with your job or coworkers. Instead of moaning about life, readjust your attitude. If you’re disgruntled about things you can’t change, learn to accept them, and move on. If you find yourself complaining about things you can change, then by all means try to.

Handling personal issues. These days, it’s too easy for the rest of your life to intrude on your workday. You can be interrupted by personal messages in myriad ways—IMs, texts, e-mail, and calls—and you know the remedy. Turn off your electronics, don’t check your personal e-mail, and end any personal calls on the company’s phone or your cell phone as quickly as possible.

image We don’t like it when people gossip about us, so stop gossiping about others. It’s a hurtful waste of your time.

In addition to communications issues, many of us also allow minor personal business to eat away at our working hours. I’ve known people to balance their checkbooks, book vacation travel, or sort out their mortgage applications while at work. I suspect people do these things during the workday because they work so many hours … by the time they’re home … it’s late and they’re exhausted. This is obviously counterproductive. If possible, finish up work on time, leave, and conduct your personal business on your personal time. Some of our globe-trotting schedules don’t allow for this nice, neat compartmentalization, but it truly does help with focus to the extent you can make it happen.

Better yet, try to gain flexibility. It’s true that life happens, and it isn’t always convenient, and some things can only be arranged during the week from 9:00 to 5:00. Fortunately, companies are starting to realize that it’s in their best interests to assist employees who are attempting to manage their lives during the day, rather than standing in the way. That can mean anything from allowing workers to access the Internet for incidental personal use to offering flexible schedules to accommodate personal appointments.

If necessary, talk to your boss, your peers, and your staff about finding opportunities for flexibility within the workday. Employees who feel they don’t have to accomplish a million things during lunch hour will be more productive during the rest of the day. So do whatever you can to promote a reasonable work-life balance—but realize there’s only so far you can go in the “life” direction without damaging workplace productivity. Once you hit that limit, you’ll need to leave your personal business at home. Then go home and leave work at work. There’s always a blurring of boundaries you can’t avoid, especially when you own a company, but it does make sense to draw boxes around each one as much as possible.

Smoking. I’m sure I’ll get e-mails on this, but some workers have a ready-made excuse for wasting time: they’re smokers. Of course, it is your choice to smoke; however, you should only do so on regularly scheduled breaks or at lunch, within the parameters your employer has set. Not all smokers follow the rules, because they need more cigarettes than the rules allow. Many smokers often take extra time here and there to nurse their addiction. Given the fact that most employers don’t make this easy anymore, it can take ten minutes or more to get to the designated smoking area, smoke a cigarette, and get back to work. That can add up to a lot of wasted time per workday. The solution? Kick the habit.

Arriving late/leaving early. This one’s self-explanatory. Many of us pare a few minutes off the day occasionally, and some of us make a habit of it. It may not seem like much, but get this: if you’re late or leave early an average of just ten minutes a day, that adds up to about a week’s paid vacation over the course of a year. Better start setting that alarm earlier.

Boring or unpleasant tasks. It’s difficult to get motivated to complete mundane tasks. You’ll focus much better on your important work if you don’t have all those less-interesting tasks hanging over your head. So jump in and get them done! About 99 percent of the time, those nitpicky tasks are dramatically easier and less painful than you expect. Getting started is the hardest part. If you’re really having trouble, schedule a five-minute appointment with yourself to begin the chore. When the designated time arrives, start working on the task. If you feel like stopping at the end of five minutes, you can. The only rule is, you must schedule an additional five minutes for tomorrow. When you begin to see some progress, five minutes soon becomes ten, fifteen, and then twenty. Sometimes you just need some momentum.


The solution to all these time-wasters is simple enough: “Stop!” However, what if you’re not even sure where all your time is going? Paralysis can derail your efforts to reduce your commitment load and prioritize what remains. If so, spend a week logging how you spend your time during the week, activity by activity. Include everything, not just your important tasks. You can get a complimentary copy of a time-log worksheet, instructions, and debriefing guide on my website.8

With your logs in hand, ask yourself these questions:

• How aligned is my time use with my top priorities?

• What should I stop doing?

• What do I need to do more of?

• What am I not doing that I need to do?

To further clarify your time-use situation, you can adopt the approach Michael Bungay Stanier outlines in his book Do More Great Work. Separate what you have on your plate into BAD work (mind-numbing, non–value-adding tasks), GOOD work (largely what your employer expects from you) and GREAT work (important work that feeds your soul, and will make a huge difference if only you can find the time to do it). The goal, of course, is to reduce or eliminate Bad work and to address Good work—for example, by delegating it to someone who would consider it their Great work—so as to find more time and energy for your Great work. Michael’s book provides fifteen maps to help you sort it all out and get moving.9

Stay On Point

As you know, you can’t really manage time (or else you’d be able to do a really good job and create a thirty-hour day, instead of a twenty-four-hour day). You can really manage only yourself, so make a sincere effort to protect your limited stock-pile of minutes—not just from others, but from yourself. Stop trying to do everything!

There will be enough time to do the most important things if you’re efficient about it. So make your time-saving decisions authoritatively, and move forward without worrying. Remember, even if you work for someone else, the buck ultimately stops with you. You are in control of what you accomplish each day. When you take charge this way, you can focus on the truly important—and stop wasting time on things that don’t matter in the long run.

If you identify one or more of these time-wasters in your daily routine, here’s my recommendation: Choose the worst one, determine how to fix it, and discipline yourself to put what you’ve learned into play. Once you have a handle on that time-waster, move to another. I think you’ll be surprised at how much productive time you’ll free up over the long run.

Create a Not-To-Do List

One of my absolute favorite quotes, which I like so much it’s in my e-mail signature, is by the late, great Peter Drucker, who once pointed out, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

As a result of the analysis you’ve done so far in this chapter, it would be a great idea to compile a Not-To-Do list—a list of things you simply refuse to do. This type of list is central to my unifying theme of reducing your commitment load and teasing that extra ninety minutes out of your work schedule.

A not-to-do list need not be fancy. Just start by writing down the time-wasting behaviors you should avoid. Then include the misaligned tasks that end up on your plate because you’re “being nice.” Then review and revise your list periodically, to make sure you don’t accidentally slip into habits that damage your productivity and keep you at work too long. For example:

image Prepare a list of time-wasting things you refuse to do. Keep this Not-To-Do list close, and refer to it frequently.

• Don’t do low-profit or low-priority work when you can delegate it instead.

• Don’t let brushfires and crises suck up all your time.

• Don’t spend all your time at work at the expense of family and friends.

• Don’t deal with work issues during personal time—and vice-versa.

• Don’t procrastinate.

• Don’t fall prey to perfectionism.

• Don’t attend useless meetings.

• Don’t gossip or complain.

• Don’t multitask.

• Don’t let your electronics hamper rather than help you.

• Don’t waste work time on social sites or the Internet.

• Don’t check your e-mail more than a few times per day, unless your job requires it.

• Don’t check your morals and values at the door.

• Don’t undervalue those you work with.

• Don’t wait until the last minute to do important things.

• Don’t micromanage.

This sample list only scratches the surface; but you get the point. Obviously, not-to-do lists will vary from person to person, based on what applies to a particular workplace and what each individual considers impractical or illogical. Decide you’ll only tackle tasks that are necessary, and don’t waste your time on things that shouldn’t be done. Scaling back and eliminating tasks and time-wasters from your life might seem counterintuitive, insofar as productivity is concerned. You might think the key to productivity is getting more done each day. This is far from true. You don’t need a calendar full of unnecessary tasks to be productive and accomplish more.

Conscious thought is the first key to learning to scale back your daily commitments, so you can take back time that you ought to spend on the rest of your life. Study your obligations and work requirements closely so you can determine what’s necessary and what isn’t.


Everything you haven’t eliminated thus far has to be tracked and organized. Many people assume because there’s a crumpled up to-do list on the cover of this book, I’m against to-do lists. Not true! The paper wad is symbolic of the frustration people feel when they look at a single, giant, overwhelming list.

You do need to-do lists to stay organized; in this section, we’ll discuss not just one, but two lists. (There are other types of lists, which we’ll discuss later so as not to confuse the issue.)

1. A limited daily to-do list, which I call a HIT list, since it contains all the High Impact Tasks (HITs) that keep your workflow humming along.

2. A Master list, which contains all future projects and tasks, “someday” items, and good ideas you’re not yet ready to work on.

You must separate what you need to do today from what you don’t need to do today. Combining the two is very distracting and makes it difficult to determine what to work on next. Let’s review these two lists in detail.

image Instead of putting all your tasks on one huge list, establish separate HIT (daily) and master lists so you can prioritize appropriately.

The Daily HIT List

Your HIT list includes a reasonable number of items that you honestly plan to accomplish on a particular day. Most of your day-to-day activities will consist of tasks funneled to you during meetings, e-mails, phone calls, and verbal communication. (We’ll discuss how to process incoming information into these lists in Chapter 4.)

The HIT list isn’t a repository for everything you want to accomplish. By design, a daily HIT list literally guides your day’s work, so be realistic when compiling it. If you have three hours of meetings, and you know you’ll have a bunch of e-mail, and you know you’ll be interrupted by coworkers, clients, and your boss—and you need to take bio breaks—why would you plan seventeen hours of work for yourself? If your daily HIT list contains more than ten items, I’d say you’re stretching it.

HIT list items might include these tasks:

• Send agreement to XYZ client.

• Work on PowerPoint deck.

• Finalize monthly earnings report.

• E-mail Johnny’s teacher about running club.

• Conduct statistical analysis of marketing results.

• Write article for company newsletter.

• Call CSU College of Business to schedule tour.

If used properly, your HIT list can be one of your most powerful productivity tools. It’s a great way to manage up as well. It’s important to ask, “Which is more important—this XYZ task I’m working on currently or this task you just put on my plate? If I handle this new task, I may not be able to finish this other one today as promised.” When my office manager Becca has done this with me, I have removed things from her plate instantly.

The Master List

The Master list is a running list of everything you need or want to do at some point. (This is what some people have been using as a daily to-do list until now.) While items on the HIT list may rank as important in the short term, you can’t allow them to overwhelm the long-term projects and tasks needed to achieve true workplace success. Whenever something important comes in that lacks urgency or has no set deadline, add it to the Master list, so you have a running compilation of all the things you want to do eventually but don’t need to do today.

Many of the strategic goals of your company, department, and team will end up here, along with “someday” ideas like revamping old workflow systems and inventing new ones, or your intention to learn a new language. Your Master list keeps your daily HIT list from overflowing into uselessness, and may consist of dozens or hundreds of entries as a result.

Master list items might include:

• Hire a new assistant.

• Research new customer relationship management (CRM) software.

• Download barcode app.

• Buy new printer.

• Create QR code for business card.

• Find WordPress plug-in for membership sites.

• Get landscaping estimates for backyard.

A Master list should be a perpetual work in progress: a living, evolving document guiding long-term workflow. You can’t let it turn into a dead file for forgotten tasks. To keep it at the top of your mind, your Master list has to flow into your HIT list, so that each day, you’re not only doing the urgent, but you’re working on the important as well.

image Perform a “brain-dump” of all your important but nonurgent tasks, as well as all the “someday” tasks you want to accomplish. This will form the basis of your master to-do list.

The Flow from Master to HIT

Every time you think of something you need to do, ask yourself, “Is this something I need to do TODAY?” If yes, put it on your HIT list. If no, add it to your Master list.

We’ll talk through many different organizing options in Chapter 4, but in general, if you’re using a paper planner, write the task on the appropriate daily page for the HIT list. The Master list would be a separate paper list you file behind a tabbed section or the “M” tab for “Master.”

Personally, I like using Outlook Tasks for my Master list, because the Master list automatically becomes the HIT list, without having to think about it. To set it up:

• Change the “Arrange By” field in your To-Do Bar to Start Date (not the default “Due Date”—why would you want to know something is due today if it will take three days to work on it?).

• When you think of something to do, fill in the Start Date on the day you need to begin that activity or want to think about it again. Enter the Due Date for the day it’s due. (If you fill in only the “Due Date” field, you will see that item on your Task Pad every day.)

• Name your Categories with your key projects. Brainstorm a list of all Tasks needed to complete each project and assign Start and Due dates for each piece. Tag each Task with the correct Category, so you can view your Tasks “By Category” to see a list of all Tasks related to a particular project.

• The “Today” flag in the To-Do bar now becomes your HIT list, since Tasks move themselves forward automatically.

• Leave the Start and Due Dates blank for “someday” items, so they appear under the “No Date” flag and can be reviewed systematically.

The Review Process

Once you make your lists, you should conduct three reviews of them:

1. Monthly Forward Thinking. Review your calendar and project plans to determine what you need to complete by the end of the month. Assign Start Dates for those “someday” items ready to move into your daily consciousness. What deadlines are approaching, what project steps should be started, what meetings do you need to prepare for, what travel arrangements do you need to make, and so on. Delete out-of-date items or those that will never happen for one reason or another.

2. Weekly Reverse Thinking. Review the past week’s daily pages for incomplete activities and missed items. Where did you leave a message and didn’t get a return call? Where did someone cancel an appointment that you need to reschedule? What didn’t get done that needs to? When did you forget to send a thank-you present to a client? Make sure you move any follow-up to the appropriate day for action. The most successful performers are not only self-starters; they are self-finishers as well.

3. Evening Daily HIT List Triage. Let’s say you end up with ten tasks on your HIT list. The average HIT list will contain a mix of items with different priorities, originating from a variety of sources. By necessity, urgent but relatively unimportant items will dominate your list. But you must also work in the non-urgent but essential tasks—that is, the things that count most in the long run. So when you’re faced with a block of discretionary time, what should you do first? Before you leave work each day, order your tasks for the following day using the triage system below. If an unexpected task pops up, triage it accordingly and work it into the list.

image Triage your master list occasionally to cull any tasks you will clearly never do, or those that are out of date.

image Before closing down shop for the day, spend 15 minutes reviewing the tasks on your HIT list for the next day. Determine priorities, so you know in what order to tackle them.


Many of us fall into the trap of considering a HIT list a “Must Do” list, even if doing so requires a sixteen-hour day. You do not have to complete everything on it before leaving the office. If a task has relatively minimal significance, or you just don’t have time for it, then let it go—at least temporarily. Don’t assume everything is sacred; that just leads to overwork and all the negative things that come with it. Given life’s unpredictability, flexibility is a must.

How do you practice flexibility? Decide in advance which of your planned tasks you can drop at a minute’s notice, if necessary. To cut your commitment load to a bearable level—and thus recapture that daily ninety minutes or more that you deserve—the concept of triage is crucial.

The term ‘triage’ derives from the medical field, where it’s applied to the need to assign levels of care based on degrees of patient urgency. It literally means, “The sorting out and classification of patients or casualties to determine priority of need and proper place of treatment.”

In a hospital emergency room, a triage nurse decides which patients need to be seen immediately and which ones can wait for care, based on the relative severity of their conditions. The concept of first-come, first-served goes right out the window, as well it should; priority becomes paramount. Triage exists so the doctor’s time isn’t spent taking care of someone who has the flu, while another patient is bleeding to death all over the emergency room floor.

HIT list triage may not be as momentous as its medical namesake, but it does act as a form of preventive medicine for your productivity. Just as the triage nurse has to decide which patients need the most attention, you must determine which tasks on your list take priority over the rest. Those are the ones to focus on; everything else is secondary, to be taken care of only when the top-priority tasks are completed.

In wartime situations, due to the high number of casualties, time is of the essence. Accordingly, medical personnel have adopted assessment systems to shorten the task of prioritization. Most NATO armies use a procedure to divide the wounded into four groups by priority (P):10

• P1: Not breathing (life or death)

• P2: Bleeding (can become a crisis as time passes)

• P3: Broken bones (can become problematic if left untreated)

• P4: Burns (painful, requires long-term reconstruction)

They may adjust as necessary, depending upon the severity of the injury. P1 items require immediate attention (if you lose a heartbeat, you’re done). The other categories are more flexible. A wounded soldier might have extensive burns that are more serious than someone with a small wound with little blood loss. Such a soldier might require P2 treatment rather than P4, so the label is more important than the examples.

image Stop viewing your HIT List as a “Must Do” list. Instead, consider it a “Want to Do” list, and stay flexible.

Consider your current HIT list. What are the equivalents?

• P1: You will get fired if this isn’t done today.

• P2: A valuable long-term activity that should be done soon (often from the Master list).

• P3: Someone will be unhappy if you don’t do this eventually.

• P4: Human “pain-management” activities such as socializing and Facebook.

What must you accomplish today? If you have a meeting in an hour and haven’t finished preparing your presentation, this is obviously critically important, and should be taken care of right away (P1). Your strategic plan may need an update, requiring a few hours of focused thought (P2). On the other hand, if you need to return a call to a vendor, it’s much less important, even though the person makes a return call seem urgent (P3). As a percentage, most incoming e-mail is unimportant (P3), but if you don’t check it for two days, your boss might be unhappy (P1). You can even eliminate some tasks from your list of priorities. Cleaning out the break-room refrigerator might not be a task you should ever tackle (P4), no matter how much you have the urge.

Remember that everyone’s priorities are different. It’s up to you to determine the priority of each task on your to-do list. As you evaluate each entry, think about the hospital emergency room and ask yourself, “Is this task life or death?” This will help you to determine what needs to be handled at once (P1), what needs to be taken care of later in the day or perhaps the next few days (P2), what can wait even a few weeks if necessary (P3), and what can be eliminated or shouldn’t be done (P4). When you know the relative importance of each task, you can find an appropriate time to tackle it.

Remember to be a bit flexible. There are the urgent P1 and P2 tasks you need to tend to ASAP; as such, they represent the bread and butter of your HIT list. However, you should also leave space on your daily list for less pressing P2 and P3 items from your Master list. Often, these items have no particular urgency, so you must be proactive and work on them a bit at a time rather than allow them to languish and become crises.

As your day progresses, new emergencies might come up, and these need to be added to your schedule. The emergency room would never turn away a dying patient simply because they weren’t on the schedule in the morning.

Meanwhile, work toward eliminating those tasks that are unnecessary. This might be the equivalent of someone coming into the emergency room with the sniffles or a paper cut. These tasks don’t matter and shouldn’t be cluttering up your schedule. People aren’t going to get upset with you for not doing the things that don’t matter. Purely reactive busyness will get you nowhere; your work must be underlain and supported by the solid bedrock of job requirements, strategic goals, process maintenance, and other important but non-urgent items.

Constantly analyze your lists to determine where you can scale back. Triage ruthlessly and change your priorities when you must. By doing so, you’ll find you can cut out many tasks altogether. Do what you should do without venturing into not-to-do territory. The time you save will help you work toward that extra ninety minutes a day. This is one portion of the extra time you’ll gain to recharge, reconnect with life and family, and prepare for upcoming challenges.


You can’t exorcise the demon of overwork until you first determine exactly which tasks you need to perform on a regular basis, and then commit to doing only those tasks whenever possible. Start by studying your work requirements closely, and then make a sincere effort to apply the medical concept of triage to your task lists. Cut back or eliminate the time-wasters and set out to do only what truly matters. Common offenders include:

• Paying too much attention to e-mail

• Overuse of the Internet, including social networks

• Excess socializing

• Handling personal issues on the clock

• Smoking

• Arriving late/leaving early

• Too many meetings

Many of our reasons for having too much to do are hollow, with tasks imposed on us by other people, or taken on because of bad math, indecision, disorganization, fear, or lack of direction. Cut back on tasks that have no long-term consequences for your job, so you can catch enough breath to recover from work and enjoy the rest of your life. The concept of triage really comes into its own here, because it helps you establish task priorities on the fly, and push aside anything minor either until you can take care of it, or until it drops off your to-do list.

Speaking of to-do lists, don’t just toss everything willy-nilly onto one big list and then expect to be anything but overwhelmed. Leverage the concept of the Master list, where you put all fundamental and “someday” tasks—the important but non-urgent items—while funneling the “right now” tasks to your daily HIT list, where you can handle them right away. Furthermore, compile a Not-To-Do list, where you track the things you refuse to clog your schedule with.

The more you can trim the waste out of your schedule, the more valuable you become to your organization—because you’re much more productive than before, even though you may work fewer hours. Too many people confuse activity with productivity, forgetting that staying busy doesn’t necessarily mean creating results, no matter how many hours you work.

If you just shift your focus to the right things, you can do more in eight hours than you did in twelve before—and you’ll preserve your health and sanity along the way.

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“This book will give you the tools you need as a leader to get more done yourself and through others. Laura Stack really is ‘the Productivity Pro.'” —Mark Sanborn, President, Sanborn & Associates, Inc., and author of You Don't Need a Title to Be a Leader
“Stack has captured in this book what those select few great leaders know: you cannot strategize your way to greatness. You execute your way there! A must-read for anyone who wants better results!”
—Peter Sheahan, President, ChangeLabs
“A how-to for leaders who are serious about results. Make time to read this book—then thank Laura for all the time you save on future projects!”
—Harvey Mackay, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive

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