The Ultimate Guide To Getting Little Things Done
Get ready to amaze yourself.
Welcome! This the first post in a series by me and my friend Naomi Dunford as we get ready to teach The Pivot Class – a workshop for people ready to make a change in their business.
Over the next few days we’ve got some fun, actionable tips to get you ready, and to give you some things to do to make your pivot happen.
Now, as you embark upon your pivot, you’re going to have a bunch of tasks you’ll have to take care of.
A few of them are big tasks.
Several of them are medium tasks.
The overwhelming majority, though, will be small.
Usually very small. Tiny. Miniscule.
The more we care about something, the bigger the associated tasks tend to feel. Our care, our desires, and our attachment magnify not only their importance, but their size.
We can easily spend four hours running all over Hell’s half-acre doing errands.
But signing up for a new Gmail account? That’s “overwhelming”.
We could do a few years’ worth of therapy on this to see what childhood wounds are being triggered, or which ancestral pain is coming up. Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of room to delve. But we don’t need to.
We could just get better at getting little things done.
Because when we get good at getting little things done? We get a lot of things done.
That gets us momentum. It gets us self-trust. It gets us into flow state.
(It also gets things done, which means we don’t have to do them anymore. This is a nice side benefit.)
While getting things done tends to be more of a habit than a skill, there are some ways to make building that habit easier. Here are some tricks that can help.
Put one or two or three of them in place, and you’re going to amaze yourself.
1. Bundles and batches.
The first thing you’ll want to do as you’re moving into this new phase is to start framing your small tasks differently.
In a world in which we’re inundated with stimuli, each new “thing” gets processed as its own unique unit. “Email Kevin” is one thing. “Call landlord” is one thing. “Get rid of junk mail in inbox” is one thing.
It’s no wonder we get overwhelmed! An hours’ worth of work could be 27 separate tasks, and our brains did not evolve to process that kind of volume.
The way to fix this understandable overwhelm is to experiment and play with the containers you put around your tasks.
When we buy groceries, we don’t think to ourselves, “I have to buy milk. I have to buy eggs. I have to buy Toaster Strudels. I have to buy bacon.”
If we did that, our brains would short-circuit half-way down the cheese aisle.
We’d have 50 items on our to-do list, and for no good reason.
So we’ve collectively batched these little tasks into the larger task called “buying groceries”.
It’s fairly instinctual to do this, because all of these tasks occur in the same place and there’s a literal basket to put them in. Groceries are intuitive things to batch.
Well, we can take that same logic and apply it to many of our other tasks.
Emails are all in one place.
Social media is all in one place.
And really, they’re both in the same place. It’s not like we do one in the parking lot and the other at Zumba class. They’re both on the same computer, just like chicken and nutmeg are in the same store.
If you have a lot of things to do that can be bundled in any plausible way, do so. Frame it as buying groceries, except at your computer or on your phone.
(Bonus points if you get creative with your bundles. Sure, you could put a bundle around all your emails. But there’s nothing stopping you from bundling all tasks that begin with B. Whatever gets you through the day.)
Time-boxing is a classic productivity technique, and it’s stood the test of time for a reason – it works.
In a study of 100 productivity techniques discussed in the Harvard Business Review, time-boxing came in first. It’s that good.
Filtered, who created the study, says “At the core it’s simple: assign a fixed period of time to a task, schedule it and stick to it.”
You’re going through emails? Decide to go through emails for 35 minutes. You’re commenting on popular Instagram posts? Comment for 11 minutes.
Time-boxing works because of Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
If you have 60 minutes, it takes 60 minutes.
If you have 30 minutes, it miraculously takes 30. Amazing!
We can work those miracles ourselves by setting amounts of time for a task… and putting forth the entirety of our effort to actually doing so.
Here are a couple of extra tips for getting the most out of time-boxing. First, setting non-traditional timer lengths – eight minutes, 14 minutes, 35 minutes – gives some added benefits.
Because we have decades of association with round time numbers, we’ve softened the edges of their meaning. They’re not specific anymore, they’re generalizations. To most of us, “half an hour” means “more than 15 minutes, less than 60, assuming I don’t get distracted”.
But 28 minutes means 28 minutes to everyone.
And how do you decide how long to allocate to a task? Again, from Filtered: “The tricky bit is chunking the tasks and estimating how long they’ll take, but this skill improves rapidly with practice.”
This is true.
It’s even truer when you set your mind to getting good at it. It’s easy to say, “God, I thought this would take half an hour but I’m not even halfway done,” despair and throw in the towel forever.
But that’s the opposite of what we should do. This is an opportunity to learn more about our tasks at a granular level, and we shouldn’t throw that opportunity away to sit on the couch mournfully watching K-pop videos and knocking back our grandmother’s elderflower gin.
Not that, you know, anyone here has ever done that.
Our last tip? Put your phone in a drawer. Don’t just put it down. Don’t just turn it off. Put it in a drawer.
This is partly so you’ll have to go through some serious personal embarrassment if you quit work halfway through. But it’s also to give yourself a ritual, a chance to create a Pavlovian association with, “OK, we’re getting started now. No cheating.”
When the drawer is shut, you’re on the clock. And speaking of clocks…
3. Pomodoros: Beefsteak Edition
You’ve probably heard of the Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo was a student in the late 1980s, and he was struggling with studying. He hit upon using his mother’s kitchen timer in 25-minute intervals. He studied for 25 minutes, took a five-minute break, and then did it again. His timer was in the shape of a tomato, the Italian word for which is Pomodoro.
The traditional Pomodoro Technique is great in a few situations.
It’s effective for studying, because some nice person has laid out your “work” for you ahead of time. (“Read till the timer goes off. Put down the book. In five minutes, pick it up again. Repeat till end.”)
But some people find that actual work, which is much more self-directed than reading a textbook, doesn’t follow that model very elegantly. It’s effective for good, studious people who always follow all the rules they make for themselves.
Unfortunately, this does not describe most of the general population.
Many of us, when the five-minute break is up, just carry on “breaking” because we’re hungry. And now the dog looks like he could use a walk.
And now we need to pee.
What was supposed to be a diligent 25/5 ratio becomes 25/infinity.
The Classic Pomodoro Technique is effective for tasks that don’t get much benefit from flow. For a lot of people who are battling to overcome months, years, or decades of inertia, 25 minutes into a task is right around the time they’re getting flow.
And if you’ve got flow and you’ve been flowing for a while, five minutes isn’t much of a break.
So for productivity beginners, or those getting back on the wagon after a long stretch of being unproductive, here’s another approach.
For the first segment of a given task, allot yourself a period of time a little longer than the standard 25-minute Pomodoro. (Naomi does about 40 minutes and calls it a “beefsteak” after the big, husky tomato variety.)
This eliminates the “I was just getting going” effect.
When your 40 minutes are up, stop and do a contained alternate activity, regardless of how long it takes. For beginners, this alternate activity should be recreational in nature. Play a round of a board game. Read a chapter of a book. Go for a walk and listen to a (fun) podcast. That sort of thing.
Then, when the other thing is completely done, come back to do a standard 25-minute Pomodoro, or a 40-minute beefsteak.
With this variant, you make significant, meaningful progress, and your brain isn’t unduly taxed. It gets real, legitimate relaxation and variety, often making the next segment even more productive than the first.
4. Decide it’s Little Things Day.
Naomi first heard of this concept from a social media guru. They were selling something about getting a years’ worth of social media content created in a day.
At first she had some serious reservations. But as she looked more deeply at the infrastructure behind it, it started to make a lot of sense.
There’s a tremendous body of research to support that task-switching is like nine shots of tequila for your brain’s ability to get anything done.
(If you’ve been following along with Clare’s emails recently, you might remember that for her, it’s a shortcut to overwhelm.)
We don’t see how much task-switching costs us.
Primarily because we have no other frame of reference. But the costs are there.
30 minutes of head-spinning drudgery, flitting from Unsplash to Canva to Buffer to Instagram, to get one picture up on social media, and we’re often dopey and mentally compromised for hours afterwards.
But if we get a bunch of things to do in a row (like the bundling and batching from earlier), the mental drag seems to go down.
There are some projects that are so stalled, so stuck, and so stagnant that the only solution is a concerted burst of energy and attention.
Baby steps aren’t cutting it…
…Largely because not many baby steps are actually being taken.
By setting aside an entire day for “little things”, it’s amazing how much progress we can make. Projects that have been stalled for months can practically travel through time.
Little Things days can be scheduled in advance or decided impromptu.
They can be one-shot deals, or planned for the same time every week, month, or quarter.
They can be themed and topical (like social media posts) or big catch-alls (close as many open loops as you can in one calendar day.)
However you do it, it’s worth it.
(One last benefit of little things days? They remind you what you’re capable of. We’re older. We’re tired. It’s been a doozy of a year. It’s easy for us to think that just because we feel like sloths, we’re actually sloths. Not so. Getting a bunch of things done can give you the shot of confidence you need to get more things done. Virtuous cycles, for the win.)
5. Race the clock.
Here’s a little trick that’s easy to use, yet it can make a huge difference.
Sometimes the task you’re embarking on is absolutely tiny. Three minutes, max. And yet, we can put it off for days. (Weeks? Years?) These are the little things that would make a big difference in moving us forward on our goals, but we avoid them.
We avoid them for a long time. We avoid them for so long that we become paralyzed. The amount of time we put off a task is commensurate with the amount of dread we have around it. Soon enough, “email Mike to see when he can start the design” becomes something we say we “don’t know how to do”.
Seriously? We “don’t know how”?
When we say we don’t know how in this situation, it’s not that we don’t know how to do the task. It’s that we don’t know how to bring ourselves to do the task. We’ve been building a story around it for so long that an email to some guy named Mike becomes bigger than us as a person.
Psychologically, The Task Known As Emailing Mike becomes bigger than He Who Must Not Be Named. Oy vey.
That is head trash, plain and simple.
It’s our personal demons playing tricks on us, just because they know they can. Defeating demons is not easy. Sometimes, defeating demons is downright impossible. So what do we do?
We redirect the entire issue and just race the clock. You can do this with a timer if you like, but most people prefer to use a song. Here’s how it goes.
Find a song.
Get the thing done in the length of time it takes for the song to play.
It’s done. Demon avoided. It’s like the world’s tiniest time box, and it works every time.
One adjustment for race the clock: Sometimes when we try to race the clock, we realize that we’re missing some piece of information, or there’s some obstacle in the way of us getting the task done in the time allotted.
This could be Mike’s email address, for example, or a date, or an address. This, in itself, can become its own Thing To Be Avoided For Months. If this happens, repeat the process, this time using the obstacle as the thing to be done before the song ends.
It’s okay if it takes you a few hours, or even a day, to bring yourself to do this. You got yourself all keyed up to act and something got in the way. It’s okay. You can do it later, as long as you actually do it later.
6. Do a thing, do a shot.
Are you familiar with the “do a shot” drinking game?
It goes like this. You engage in some activity – truly, anything will do – and every time something frequent or predictable happens, you do a shot of hard liquor. Like, every time Uncle Ben says, “with great power comes great responsibility” in Spider Man, for example.
Or if you’re Clare and Anthony, every time Rick Steves says “Luther” in Rick Steves Europe: Germany And The Luther Trail.
This is a really bad game and it’s very bad for your liver. But a modification that doesn’t involve Jack Daniels can be a really great way to get things done.
Here’s how it works.
When we’re experiencing a lot of resistance to doing a task, especially a task that has multiple components or multiple moving pieces, a lot of that experience is simply daunt.
We’ve been putting something off for a long time, and like we discussed earlier, the longer we put it off, the larger it looms. Soon enough, dealing with 15 pieces of junk mail feels overwhelming. And laundry? Forget about it.
To break the sluggishness of something with multiple parts or pieces, find something you like that comes in small, digestible doses.
A round of a match-3 game, for example.
An easy game of Sudoku.
Hell, do shots of artisanal smoothie.
Whatever floats your boat. Then get ready to do one – only one – piece of your task.
Throw out one piece of junk mail. Fold one pair of jeans. Send one person their download link.
Then go do your shot. Play your match-3 game, or your Sudoku, or your whatever. When that thing comes to its natural end – the round of the game is over – go and do the next piece of your task. Fold another pair of jeans.
Repeat until you’re finished, or you’re sufficiently proud of yourself that you’re good to stand down for the day.
When we’re beginning the process of training a puppy, we give them WAY more treats than whatever good deed they perform deserves. This is to create an environment where the reward is so much fun, so rewarding, that they actively want to do the task again. How could they not?
This is what you can harness in yourself when you “do a thing, do a shot”.
7. Bribe yourself with chocolate and cheese.
Last, but certainly not least, we have many people’s favourite option… bribing yourself with food.
There’s a reason we respond so well to food rewards. We’re used to them from childhood. They give us fuel. They give us dopamine. And they’re concrete enough that the reward centre in our brain understands the exchange.
Edit a product photo and get a peanut M & M for your troubles? Perfect.
Food rewards get a bad rap in the dieting community because people on diets tend to have a skewed relationship with food. Adding rewards tends to skew it further.
Get around this by making the rewards a perfectly reasonable size.
(Ask Naomi about the time she divided a Reese Peanut Butter cup into 10 slices, like a pizza.)
Depending on your food preferences, you’ll want to choose something that’s either high in carbohydrates or high in fat.
Carb burners get their little pips of energy and dopamine from sugar.
Fat burners get it from, well, fat.
But you want to pick something that has a high payoff for your taste buds, your brain, and your heart.
Clare has had good results with gummy bats.
You also want something that doles out well. Skittles are easy to portion out. Steaks – and Reese Peanut Butter cups – are harder to pull off.
You’re in a place where you’re changing a lot.
You’re making a lot of decisions. You’re doing the brave work of shifting your neural pathways through sheer force of will. Your cognitive resources are massively depleted, and sugar and fat help. It would be reasonable at this point to let yourself have some cheese and crackers.
When little tasks get easier, pivots get easier.
You may have some tasks that feel disproportionately challenging right now, but they won’t be that way forever. You’ll get better at this with practice. And when there aren’t so many tasks left to do, you’ll be less overwhelmed by the tasks that remain.
If you use some of the little tricks in our ultimate guide, you might just get so many things done that you’re feeling downright motivated.
And when you’ve got motivation? You don’t need a whole lot else.
Hello, I'm Clare Holliday. I'm a shopkeeper who's helped thousands of creative people sell their work to stores, galleries and regular customers all over the world. Now it's your turn.