Busy, busy bees: That's all of us. Working amid the constant buzz of activity, we tend to overload our to-do lists each day so that we only cross off a fraction of the things we have on them. Instead of being a simple way to stay focused, our lists become overwhelming and demotivating.

Some days, I feel like my list loves me, but usually I feel like it's mocking me. It rests on my desk and accumulates doodles, cross-offs, and random notes and numbers. It helps me categorize my action items according to the different aspects of my business and life, but it hurts my sense of accomplishment when so much remains undone at the end of the day.

As much as I have this love/hate relationship with it, I can't imagine living life without a list. Grabbing a sheet of paper and a pen is the first thing I do when I start to feel stressed. Making a list is a good reminder of how much I've done and how much more there is to do. But, even on its best day, my list is just a tally sheet.

The number of cross-offs doesn't tell me anything about whether I'm doing the right things with my time. And I regularly wonder if I am. In those moments, I'm driven to read every article I can find on productivity, prioritization, goal-setting, and morning routines. In fact, my biggest FOMO (fear of missing out) is that everyone but me is in on one great productivity and prioritization secret.

With my overloaded list weighing particularly heavily on me one day, I happened to have a conversation with Janelle Capra of Capra PR. We weren't talking about lists, but the topic of balancing an entrepreneurial life came up. In the most casual way, she said, "Oh, yeah. I limit myself to [doing] three things per day."

Wait, what?! I had to stop her right there.

Surely, as a mom of three, business owner, and community volunteer, her list must be several pages long in 8-point type. Nope. It turns out that she's disciplined herself over the years to list the three most important things to do for each day. That's it. She said she gets more done, feels more aligned with her long-term goals, and has found the simplicity freeing.

Now, of course, she gets a lot more done than those three things. But the beauty of her method is that when those three things are done, she can feel great knowing that her top priorities are taken care of for the day. Everything on her list gets crossed off, every day. Doesn't that sound liberating?

I decided to give Janelle's list method a shot as my "just one thing" for a day. "Just One Thing" is a series of articles and videos that each suggest one simple action step that will increase your productivity, expand your network, or make your life easier. As a list-making addict, I couldn't commit to doing more than one extra thing per day.

So this was my experience.

First, I made a list template and printed it out. "Template" is a strong word. It was three numbered lines on a sheet of paper with some extra unnumbered lines below. (I'll start my 12-step program for people who complicate things next week.) You do not need this step. Plain paper is more than enough for this exercise. However, I needed to know that I could put more things on once I finished the first three. It was like a deal you'd offer to a kid at the dinner table: Finish these three things, and then you can have your dessert to-do items at the bottom of the page.

Next, I realized that I had to really reflect on what my three top things for the day should be. (Hint--I think this is the point of the method. It makes you prioritize and really think about both what is urgent and important to your long-term goals.) After about four minutes of considering all the options, I picked my three and felt a little pang of sadness for the dozens left behind.

Lastly, I got right down to work. Ha! Kidding. I immediately procrastinated a bit by scrambling some eggs and drying my hair. Feeling full and not drippy, I then sat back down and worked through each of my three items and got them done in about two hours.

How did the three-item list work? I thought it worked great, and have continued to use this approach since I first tried it out. However, on days when I'm a bit stressed or unsure about what should be done, I fall right back into my list-happy ways. In fact, today I'm staring down a laundry list of 22 items of varying importance. The difference now is that I know there is a better way.

Disciplining yourself to limit your list to three items per day results in greater productivity and focus. By making the decision early in the day about what's more important--and sticking with it--you're less likely to get distracted. The three-item approach does wonders for work-life balance, too. Making and keeping the commitment to get those important things done freed me up to enjoy a little extra time with my oldest child at the end of the week, without feeling any pangs of guilt about work I should be doing.

The long-term test will be whether I can firmly establish the habit and hold myself accountable. Having tried this "just one thing," I firmly believe Janelle is right. Limiting your to-do list to three things is precisely the practice that could help you focus and increase your productivity.

You should try this out too!

Published on: Oct 7, 2016
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