The Secret to Actually Getting Things Done

You to-do list isn't helping. Here are 5 tips to really boost your productivity—with advice from a procrastination expert.

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Tip No. 1: Be Real With Yourself

When you find yourself procrastinating, writing a to-do list may help you to remember what exactly needs to be done, but it isn't going to force you to actually do your work. "Procrastination is an emotional management issue," says Dr. Tim Pychyl, a procrastination expert and associate professor at Carleton University. Even if you have the appropriate amount of time to get your work done, when feelings of laziness or intimidation get in the way, your list of tasks won't help you become more productive—especially if you are making excuses for yourself.

"Your workflow has to be seamless or your to-do list is going to fall apart." —Dr. Pychyl

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"One way to get around self-deception is to do a forensic audit on a daily basis and say, 'What did I get accomplished?' Then you have to face that," says Dr. Pychyl. The first step to moving forward is admitting you have a problem, not convincing yourself that you don't.

Tip No. 2: Prioritize the Right Way

Even if crossing off small, menial tasks from your to-do list makes you feel good, it's best to start off with your most demanding responsibilities. "I go back to what Mark Twain said: 'If your job is to eat a frog, you'd eat it first thing in the morning.' So, when you're doing your to-do list, you've got to make sure your frog's at the top of the list," says Dr. Pychyl. "The smartest thing to do with a to-do list is to make sure you're starting with the tough stuff, because once you've got that done, holy mackerel, do you ever feel good."

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Tip No. 3: Try an App

For some people, putting pen to paper can give off the illusion of productivity, when really, a digital to-do list can help you stay better organized in just a few taps. "I like Things—it's structured and integrates well with email. I can take an email and turn it into a task and export that onto my calendar," Dr. Pychyl says. "Your workflow has to be seamless or your to-do list is going to fall apart."

Things by Cultured Code, $10,

Evernote, free,

Wunderlist by 6 Wunderkinder, free,

Tip No. 4: Make It a Habit

Any new organizational tool is not going to work overnight. "To-do lists need to become a habit, and habits take a long time to form," says Dr. Pychyl. "Don't just think that because you've got this new system and you've got this software that you're going to be successful." On average, habits can take around three weeks to form, so give yourself a month to reset your productivity before giving up. The more you work at it, the better you'll get.

Tip No. 5: Go Easier on Yourself

Becoming a more productive person means having a lot of determination—but alongside your grit, you also have to forgive yourself for slipping up. "What we've learned in our research is that if you don't forgive yourself, the motivation is going to be avoided," says Dr. Pychyl. When you're overly hard on yourself for not completing the amount of work you'd wanted to accomplish, it can be quite difficult to get started again. So, take a deep breath and give it another shot. Everyone slips up on a deadline once in a while—just don't make that a habit.

Inspired? Try embracing your new, organized life with one of these notepads.

Stick-Up Weekly Calendar, $10,

Feminist With a To-Do List Notepad by Word For Word Factory, $11,

Do or Die Tear Off Notepad, $8,

Productivity Play Journal by Intelligent Change, $26,

Assorted Task Pads, $6,

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