I used to have an insane to-do list that never seemed to end. And it used to keep me up at night. I was a lot more stressed and always felt like I was missing something that needed to be done every minute. I knew sooner or later I couldn’t sustain that lifestyle of always feeling like my to-do list wasn’t getting completed. And the key to achieving productivity for me was not only to check off milestones but to actually feel like I accomplished everything on my list.

But with a never-ending to-do list, there was always some sort of stress brought on by not seeing the end of the list.

When I got pregnant with my second child, I knew I had to make changes immediately to not only streamline and cut down my workload, but to actually stay productive or – dare I say it – even more productive than I ever was.

And this is how I started to do it months before he was born…

I cut down my to-do list to only three (3) items per day. And even better, those three items didn’t all have to be work-related as you can see in the example below with the baby’s doctor appointment. I also paired heavy tasks with lighter tasks too.

I use Microsoft OneNote (which I absolutely adore) to organize and sync my weekly tasks similar to this:

March 18

  • Appt – Baby to doctor @ 10am
  • Start – Article 1 for pub X
  • Send– Photos to client X

March 19

  • Lunch – Colleague @ 12pm
  • Continue – Article 1 for pub X
  • Upload – Post to STS

That’s it!

I’m an extremely visual person so breaking down my to-do list this way in Microsoft OneNote, I can see what tasks are the most critical and I can just delete each item under each day as they get completed.

And the best part is I switch items too. So if I can’t send photos to client X on March 18, I move that item down to March 19 or another day, and move less critical items to other days.

I also have about two days (sometimes even three days) a week where I have only one item on that daily to-do list. I call these my buffer days so I can slide tasks over if I don’t get them completed. But never more than three (3) tasks per day.

When adding a task to a day, I ask myself – Do I really need to complete it today or can it be done tomorrow? And that’s how I begin building the weekly layout in Microsoft OneNote.

How I handle existing assignments, new assignments, and deadlines.

I always have my “SubmitArticle” listed a few days before the deadline itself. And that gives me extra buffer days before its real deadline in case I have to shift things around to accommodate new assignments that come in at the last minute too.

And this is the most important part – Notice under my examples above I have “StartArticle 1” for March 18 and then “ContinueArticle 1” for March 19?

This is the key to productivity for me. Sure, I could start various articles simultaneously, but for me to meet my deadlines and work smarter,  my daily tasks don’t always involve starting brand new articles every single day, otherwise I would have to stay up every night to finish every single one.

This is also why I’ve become a lot more efficient in balancing higher-paying but lesser known client work with the occasional big brand name work.

How I handle email

I actually have “Clean – Email” as a task if I am backlogged. Most of the time, as they come in, I do a quick visual scan and if it requires a long response, I leave it for my “Clean – Email” task which happens about twice a week. I love working with my buffer days because they also allow me to take on assignments with quick turnarounds too.

How I handle social media

This remains an area I need to better streamline because I spend way too much time on Facebook. Yes, it is part of my business model and I love engaging with friends, family, and colleagues. But I need to cut down my Facebook time to maybe just three times a week.

Right, my social media time skims the edges of my daily to-do list. For example, when I’m on the subway in town, sitting in the backseat of a car, during buffer days, or once the kids are asleep and there’s nothing worth watching on TV before bedtime…you get the drift.

So what I did for the time being was that I turned off all email notifications from Facebook so I only see what I see when I turn on the app at a certain time and if I’m tagged.

Once I publish an article or post, sharing it across social media is part of that publishing task because it takes one-two minutes max.

The results?

A lot more sleep – six-seven hours, sometimes eight or nine even depending on the night before, better use of my time, being more productive because tasks actually get done and deleted from the list, plus I’ve been able to shake that feeling of being overwhelmed.

In the past, when everything was consolidated on one to-do list, it was difficult to parse out which tasks were critical and which weren’t as critical. Submitting photos to a contest whose deadline isn’t until the end of the year isn’t a critical task and shouldn’t even be on my visual radar until a week before its deadline.

In short, I am a lot more productive while still getting enough sleep and time with my family. It’s a far from perfect model – nothing in life is – but so far, it seems to be working for me and I’m looking forward to fine-tuning it even further by possibly outsourcing some tasks I don’t need to be doing myself at this stage.

So what do you think? How do you guys stay productive without feeling overwhelmed?