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Peter Bregman used to end each day the same way: Telling his wife he didn’t complete his to-do list. It might have been a super-productive day, but the leadership development consultant felt a tinge of failure in not getting through everything he had planned.

So now he keeps his to-do list to one item. He’s happier at the end of the day. And he finds his productivity has improved.

First, he compiles a long list of everything he needs to get done in the near future. Then he selects one item that he will focus fully on immediately. When it is completed, he doesn’t down tools for the day; he picks another task.

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He advises you in Harvard Business Review not to hold back on the list – put on every single thing you can conjure up. His has run as high as 50 items.

Then choose the one task from that long list you most want to accomplish. If it’s huge, break it down into chunks you can complete in one sitting.

He likes to write the item in pen on a clean sheet of paper. It will work with an app, or as he suggests, by writing the task on a sticky note that you attach to your computer monitor. “It might feel silly, but writing that one thing down on its own list is the key. It makes it a commitment that you are far more likely to follow through on,” he says. You are affirming the strategic and intentional choice you have made.

The concept of picking just one item from the list may seem intimidating and prevent you from trying his technique. It seems easier to pick five or six, like a normal to-do list, or dispense with the long list and start each day with what’s top of mind.

But, he says “if you give yourself a moment of contemplation, you’ll know what’s most important. If you’re really not sure, look at your list and ask yourself what you’re avoiding. That’s probably your most important thing. Your next one thing.” And in some ways it doesn’t matter. Just picking one thing gets you working to completion on something that counts. It has improved his productivity – often getting him to tackle items he would otherwise procrastinate on – and leaves him at the end of the day with a sense of success.

Consultant Judy Sims echoes his approach in calling for a new rhythm of work – particularly for people away from the hurly-burly of the workplace, operating from home and finding it difficult to focus. It’s a softer, slower pace. “Start each day in the cadence of a walk. Move slowly, deliberately moving from one thing to the next thing. Do it reverently, without frenzy, without scatterbrain and without projecting too far into the future. This isn’t easy. It’s a skill you will have to learn over time,” she writes on her blog.

She tells her clients to practise in the kitchen. If you’re doing the dishes, rinse one dish, then the next one. Don’t focus on all the other dishes you have to do; just focus on one dish. Then the next one.

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You can also apply this while working. Open one e-mail. Then another e-mail. Take one call. Then another call. Don’t try to mix it all together, looking at e-mail while on the phone or opening one e-mail and before dealing with it going back to respond to a previous message. As Mr. Bregman suggests, tackle one task at a time

“The goal is to be focused on what you’re doing when you’re doing it. It’s about releasing the past. It’s about now and not what the future may bring. In time, you’ll feel less overloaded. And less exhausted,” she promises.

Quick hits

  • Here’s another to-do list twist: Turn it into a to-feel list. Life coach Kelly Rudolph writes a list each morning of three positive emotions she wants to experience that day. Perhaps strong, happy, and confident one day, and grateful, funny, and loving the next. It builds mindfulness, turning the day into a science experiment as she watches how people and situations spark those emotions in her.
  • Jan Hase, founder and CEO of Wunderflats, likes to be more proactive in determining the day’s mood. He finds it gets set in the first 20 to 30 minutes. If he deals with email, he usually has a running feeling the whole day. If he checks social media, he craves more distractions. “The best solution for me so far is either doing nothing (meditate), clean something, or do a 7-minute workout,” he writes.
  • Beware in answering behavioural interview questions – particularly if you are in mid-career or beyond – that you don’t seem to relish telling stories from “the good old days.” Executive search consultant Gerald Walsh advises linking every experience to the future and how you will perform in the new job.
  • Improve your virtual meetings by taking advantage of the whiteboard function – a shared screen that can be used to keep track of issues and actions as well as brainstorm ideas, suggests consultant Julie Winkle Giulioni.
  • Have trouble remembering names? Here’s some good news: Research found it’s one area where we don’t think we’re better than others. So don’t beat up on yourself.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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