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« And now for something completely different... | Main | Newsletter Archive Now Available »

The One Must-Do Task Each Day

Many of you will know that I’m a fan of Beeminder - “goal tracking with teeth”. This is a guest post by Alice Harris, long-time reader of this blog. It is crossposted on the Beeminder Blog

Beeminder’s brilliant for encouraging yourself to Do Important Stuff. It’s turned me from the person who every week would remorsefully discard a fridge full of perished vegetables, into the person who has consistently eaten an average of 7 servings of fruit and vegetables a day for a straight run of 210 days! I’m also the person who exercises (okay, a little bit…), doesn’t eat too much chocolate, and hardly ever bites her nails.

But Beeminder doesn’t have to be for specific goals and projects. It can also help you action all those unrelated, one-off, annoying little tasks that you’ve been putting off for weeks. If you’re as much of a procrastinator as I am, then I’m sure you have some. I have many, but with Beeminder I’m slowly getting through them all. My Do One Must-Do Task Each Day goal is an idea that I shamelessly stole from Beeminder co-founder Danny Reeves, and if you look at my datapoints you can see the variety of actions I’ve been using it for.

To set up your own Must-Do goal, select Beeminder’s standard “Do More” goal. I unticked the “Start on a flat road” option because I wanted to be forced to get moving on my tasks straight away. If you’re new to Beeminder or don’t want the immediate pressure, then beginning with a flat road is probably a good idea. That gives you a gentle, forgiving start on the road towards awesome anti-procrastination-ness. Whenever you’re ready for pressure, dial in a weekly rate of 7. This will encourage you to do a Must-Do task every day.

For each day, you’ll be choosing a task to accomplish — something you otherwise would probably not have done on that day but something you’d really like to get done. At the end of the day, if you did that task, you enter “1” as your datapoint. If you didn’t do the task, you enter “0” — and perhaps fall off the yellow brick road!

When you enter your datapoint, use the comment to specify what your task will be for the next day. This keeps the momentum going, encourages you to think each night about what you’d really like to achieve on the next day, and records your commitment in writing. All of these things help in the fight against procrastination.

When I’m entering my comment, I like to use wording such as “On Monday I will clean the bath” (where Monday is the next day). Specifying the precise day and using a positive phrase like “I will” helps to focus my mind on the fact that this task IS something that WILL be done and the day on which it WILL be done is MONDAY. It leaves me with no wriggle room!

The kinds of tasks you choose for your Must-Do goal are really up to you. Select anything that you’ve been putting off no matter how minor or silly. Sometimes I use my Must-Do goal to force myself to do easy, five-minute tasks that for some bizarre reason I have been avoiding. Just don’t pick something too difficult or too time-consuming to be easily finished in one day (along with all the other stuff you have to fit into that day!). If there is something big that you really need prodding for, just enter one small step. Instead of “On Monday I will write the TPS report” try “On Monday I will start the TPS report” or “On Monday I will write one page of the TPS report”. Scary monster tasks become much more manageable when you chop bits off them.

But of course if you want to tackle monsters head-on, you can always chain a few tasks together: “On Monday I will wash the sheets AND disinfect the floors AND toilet-train the dog.” If you’re feeling up to it, be ambitious and indomitable!

A Must-Do goal can be a useful adjunct to a normal task management system. I usually use Mark Forster’s Autofocus at home and Final Version at work and they’re very good at helping to overcome procrastination, but even they can’t always get me moving on actions that I’m stubbornly avoiding. The commitment of a Beeminder pledge gives me the extra impetus I need. And on days when I have so little discretionary time that I don’t get around to opening my todo list, my Must-Do goal ensures that I do achieve at least one thing of importance to me!

You can also use a Must-Do goal to achieve a helpful state of mind during stressful times. If you know that tomorrow will be especially difficult, perhaps from extra duties in your job or a big family gathering, then spend a bit of time the night before thinking about what you’ll need to do or how you’ll need to feel to get through the day, and base your comment around that. “On Monday I will remain calm and will ask for help when I need it. With patience and careful work I can stay in control and fulfill my duties.” Throughout the day, leave a browser window open showing your pretty Beeminder graph with your string of successes so far and let it be a reminder of how much you can achieve with just a little a bit of dedication. When evening comes and you need to enter your datapoint, don’t judge yourself too harshly — if you did better than you feared, then that’s a success!

If you’re finding yourself interested in a Beeminder Must-Do goal, give it a go. You don’t have to pledge money straight away (or ever if the graph itself is sufficiently motivating) so it’s a risk-free experiment. For your first task, choose the first thing that pops into your head. For your next day’s task, choose whatever you happen to think of when you’re recording your first day’s success. You don’t need to plan out a sequence of tasks or keep a list for future days. If you discover one evening that you can’t think of a Must-Do task for the next day, that means you’ve done all of the important things you’ve been putting off! When I get to that point, I intend to enter “On Tuesday I will revel in my awesomeness!”

Reader Comments (8)

Darren Hardy recently impressed on me the importance of tracking week by week your consistency in working on your goals. He proposed to set a target number of times per week you work on each goal, or abstain from a certain inferior habit.

For example, I pledge exercise 3 days per week. And each day I mark whether I did or not.

Beeminder seems like an excellent tool for tracking these and pushing me to me my target numbers.
October 4, 2012 at 21:09 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I just found this tool, related to the One Must-Do idea:

(And thanks again to Mark and Alys for this post! I'm getting a ton of value out of this system myself. I had been doing a pretty lazy version of it but just dialed up my yellow brick road to 5 must-do's per week and have $30 pledged on it.)
October 4, 2012 at 22:23 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
Thanks, Daniel, for the link to Dayscore. I'm wondering which is more effective - having one thing which you specially select as your must do task for the day, or writing down a bunch of stuff which you can score points for.

It would be possible to get a really high Dayscore and a zero on One Must-Do on the same day.
October 5, 2012 at 16:41 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

"...just dialed up my yellow brick road to 5 must-do's per week and have $30 pledged on it."

One further point, my own experience leads me to believe that it's easier to keep doing something every day than to keep doing it five times a week. I think Alice's 7-day version would be easier to keep to and more effective at the same time.
October 5, 2012 at 16:44 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, that's a very astute point! We actually have a whole post about just that point -- -- though see my rebuttal to it in the comments... :)
October 5, 2012 at 20:34 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Reeves
I have been using for this purpose for more than a year.
It is really simple. There are no numbers, lines, or charts. Just a color-coded calendar to show if you did what you said you were going to do. It's worked well for me.
October 8, 2012 at 12:23 | Unregistered Commentermoises
I've been doing something similar for 4 months now, by answering to myself early in the day "how can I make today count?".

It's quite subjective what makes a certain day worthwhile, but that's on purpose. That way it works even on weekends, where the "goal" might be only to have "fun with the kids".

I've seen it helps me set the mood and focus for that day. I don't write it down anywhere and keep it only in my mind, like a "background soundtrack".

I also keep a compact calendar[1] where I circle each day that I feel I "made it count" (and put a cross on the ones I didn't), akin to Jerry Seinfeld's "Don't Break the Chain" method of motivation.

It doesn't necessarily have to be what I thought in the morning, just that at the end of the day, no matter what happened, there's this feeling that it was "worthwhile" and not a "waste of time".


October 12, 2012 at 17:08 | Registered CommenterHugo Ferreira
its true, so many people dont carry planned tasks. I like to plan my tasks the day before or in the moning then put a time next to each task to complete then add the total time up so you know how long it will take to complete all tasks. When you start each task, time yourself and you have to complete the task within the time that you set yourself.

You will find that you work harder and under a little bit of pressure to complete the task. At the end of the day you will look back at what you have done and see how much you have achieved in a small amount of time and loads of extra time for your family or the tings you want to do

You will naturally fit the task into the time that you set yourself. therefore, If you don't set a time for each task then it will take you so much longer to complete.

This is a great tool that will help you do this. watch the video:
May 18, 2013 at 10:36 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Merry

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