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Kelsey Alpaio tested four productivity methods to see which one was the best.

She only gave each a day, which is a short period, and her work as an associate editor at the Harvard Business Review may differ from your work demands. But she gave a shrewd assessment of each, so there could be lessons to consider.

An often recommended approach – mark everything you need to do in your calendar – didn’t work for her. It felt good the Friday before her test week to write things down and assign times, but on Sunday, with a busy day ahead, she began to panic and kept looking at her calendar. Monday, she calmed down, and it felt good to have time assigned, not needing to figure it out. Oddly, her least favourite part of the method was that she didn’t get the satisfaction – and dopamine boost – that comes with scratching a completed task off a list. “WOW did I miss that feeling,” she writes. But she says it’s probably effective for people who like structure, aren’t afraid of a crowded calendar or who love planning ahead.

Her favourite method was “just do one thing” – keeping a running list of tasks but marking the most important one on a Post-it Note placed on her wall and hiding the rest of the list. “The idea here is that by selecting one task at a time, you’re more likely to follow through on it, as opposed to hopping half-heartedly from task to task (or just staring off into space),” she writes. It also counters the tension when a to-do list is too long.

The Post-it Note served as a meditative focal point when her mind began to wander. She would bring her eyes back to the note and concentrate on it, much like focusing on her breathing in meditation. When the task was completed, she crossed it off and tore the Post-it off the wall. “Double dopamine!” she exults. The method works well for daydreamers, multitaskers or people who are easily distracted, she figures.

Using a digital task manager – in this case, Todoist – was also effective, and she plans in future to combine it with her preferred one-task-at-a-time technique. She feels the digital task manager is great for techies, people who love using their phones and have a lot of tasks to organize, or those who are working on a variety of projects.

The fourth method is less well-known and involves making three lists: One for important non-time-sensitive tasks (things you need to do eventually but not today), a second for today’s must-complete tasks and a third list of tasks that have been on your to-do list for a long time that you should admit you’re never going to finish. She found that last list very liberating to complie and found it useful as well to separate items for that day and the future. But all that scheduling can be overwhelming, and it was her least productive day. Still, the method might work, she suggests, for people who have competing priorities or who love crossing easy items off their list.

Mark Ellwood, president of Toronto-based Pace Productivity, offers another approach or tweak to consider on his blog, assigning priorities into four categories:

  • A: Your true priorities, since they determine your long-term results.
  • B: Activities you are responsible for that keep you busy, such as corresponding with clients and supervising staff.
  • C: Activities that are requirements of your job, often planned by others, such as departmental meetings, routine requests and filing expense reports.
  • D: Tasks that you must delete, delay, delegate or drop, including web-surfing. Beware of these, he warns on his blog.

He urges you to put a value on your time and not to squander it. “Know how you spend your time. Allocate it to the things that matter most. Your time is worth it,” he says.

Quick hits

  • Don’t let anxiety sabotage your job interview, advises executive recruiter Gerald Walsh. You are a qualified candidate or you wouldn’t have been asked to the interview. Avoid last-minute panic by preparing the day before. Print extra copies of your resume; figure out what you are going to wear (ideally clothes that make you feel strong and confident); ensure you have the Zoom link and the technology is working.
  • Former CEO Penny Herscher says you should avoid bosses who tell you to slow down and be less ambitious (particularly if you’re a woman and your boss is a man). Find a new manager in your company, if you can, or move on to another organization.
  • A work-related negotiation doesn’t have to start in the office. A far better location would be a restaurant, particularly if it serves food on sharing platters, a recent study suggests.
  • The best salespeople ask the best questions, notes consultant Steve Keating. Usually they ask the most questions as well. If your prospects can instantly answer your questions, you’re not probing deep enough.
  • Do you joots? Jootsing, a term coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter and recently revived on the Farnam Street blog, means gaining a deep understanding of a system and its rules, being able to step outside the system to find something surprising that subverts the rules and then creating something new and special.

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