The Simplest Productivity Hack

Jessica Lynn

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Lately, I’m obsessed with finding ways to increase productivity and getting stuff done. Because for far too long, I’ve been busy, but not productive.

Growing up, I was incredibly productive.

I started each day with a list, and if I didn’t get everything crossed off on the list — which was rare — I moved the undone task to next day’s agenda.

My daily list gave me a sense of accomplishment; it was the one thing — whether or not those tasks on my daily list got finished and crossed off — I alone had control over. Drawing a line through AND putting a check next to each line item after completion was satisfying and confidence-boosting.

I practiced My Daily List [MDL] all through middle school, high school, and college. MDL allowed me to focus, get straight A’s, complete two degrees simultaneously, while enjoying a social life, and gave me extra time to goof around at the end of the day because I made sure to accomplish the tasks on my list with purpose and a sense of incredible satisfaction and ease. Consistently.

Little did I know the origin of the daily list began in the early 1900s when Charles M. Schwab offered a reward to the person who found a way to increase the productivity of his staff at Bethlehem Steel.

Ivy Lee came along and gave Schwab this advice:

Every evening before finishing work:

  • Write down 3–5 things you plan to get done the next day
  • Rank them from highest to lowest priority
  • In the morning, start working on the task of highest priority
  • Only move on to task #2 when you’ve completed #1
  • Repeat

Within five years of receiving Lee’s recommendation, Bethlehem Steel went from an unknown, little steel company to the single biggest independent steel producer, making Charles Schwab one of the wealthiest people in the world.

Along with a $25,000 check (in today’s dollars that would be close to $295,432.49) Schwab sent Lee a note saying it was the most valuable piece of business advice he had ever received.

During my academic years, I had been unknowingly following Lee’s advice.

It is as effective as it is simple.

Getting back to productivity

We all slide. Some weeks — or years in my case — are more productive than others. And that is OK. Just get back on track.

I’ve adapted my MDL over the years to find what works best for me, and what kind of system increases my productivity and helps me reach my essential goals. I read blog posts and books about productivity hacks used by successful people like James Clear and Darien Foroux. Not only do I enjoy reading about productivity (I love reading about how successful people become successful), I also enjoy implementing their hacks into my life to figure out what works best for me.

We are all different, and therefore, we all work differently. Take what works and leave the rest.


Productivity isn’t a magic trick. It is merely integrating a few simple, effective techniques like Ivy Lee gave Schwab and then implementing them.

What it looks like:

1) Do the most critical task first — How do you discern what is the most important task for you? I identify the most important task as the one I have been putting off the longest. I put that at the top of my list, and I don’t go to the next task until the task that is giving me the biggest headache — the one I want to put off — is complete. This works for me every time, and when I get the number one task out of the way first, the rest of my day goes smoothly. Some people refer to this as their Most Important Thing (MIT), and they do their MIT first thing in the day. I do this with writing. Once I have writing – my MIT – off my plate the rest of the day can be dedicated to less essential tasks like busy work, email, texts, social media, etc.
2) Single-tasking — I used to be the queen of multitasking. For me now, multitasking means giving little attention to a lot of areas in my life, and none of them being done well — with purpose and meaning. Multitasking means you are not giving laser-focused attention to whatever task you are working on accomplishing. Just simply focus on the most important task of the day first, before you get distracted with emails and Facebook notifications and texts and CNN news alerts and tweets. Stay focused.

According to,

“Research has demonstrated that that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity. Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Also, doing so many different things at once can actually impair cognitive ability”

What is Multitasking?

  • Performing two or more tasks simultaneously.
  • Switching back and forth from one thing to another
  • Performing a number of tasks in rapid succession

Be more productive by doing less
When you focus on one task at a time, you start putting minutes, that add up to hours, into what is important first — and saying no to the rest.

I’ve stopped multitasking.

I stay focused on the essentials instead of busying myself with the non-essentials. By focusing on only a few goals at a time and plotting them out daily on a daily list, you will have a higher success rate at bringing these goals to fruition. Giving a lot less energy to the rest.

Be engaged

It has been proven that when we are engaged with our work, productivity increases.

Since I have been writing, I have been more productive. Because I enjoy the act of writing, I experience more ‘flow’ states where I move through my process (each task on MDL) quickly, simply because I’m engaged with what I am doing.

There is a term called “ego-depletion” coined by behavioral economists, which means humans have a limited amount of decision-making ability in each day. Thus, focusing on your most important task first each day, and only that task, makes getting it off your list all the more probable.

Happy producing.

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Writing on all things California and Texas. It unfolds here. Your daily dose of local news. From politics to food, from celebrity culture to current events. Follow me for the latest updates. Twitter: @girl_thriving

Los Angeles, CA

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