I learned a new productivity method last week that upped my efficiency, time management, and left me feeling positive and relaxed. I know it’s hard to imagine that a simple productivity tool could pack such a big punch, but the Must-Do Method really is that good.

What is the Must-Do Method?

The Must-Do Method is quite simple: once you write your to do list, prioritize the tasks that you must do today, do them, and then do the rest of the things tomorrow (starting with your must-dos, of course).  

I learned about the Must Do List from Sarah Knight’s “Get Your Shit Together.” I am of the opinion that curse wordy self development books can be hit or miss: they either feel like kitschy neon lights attempting to spice up banal ideas via shock value (bad), or they’re self aware enough to simultaneously jest at our shared struggles with self development and goad our asses into trying practical workarounds (good). In addition to making me laugh, Knight’s book had a strong through line of suggestions that actually felt novel and applicable. Plus, it looks like it’s still on sale for $6 via Audible.


It Works If You Work It

I know that’s a 12-Step Recovery mantra, but I used it on purpose. In order to start the Must-Do Method I had to break old habits and challenge workaholic tendencies that didn’t serve me. Once I committed to the change, I could start building good habits that will teach me not to steamroll my whole day.

Here are some real changes I made that helped me shift more easily into completing predetermined Must-Dos:

  1. I planned my Must-Dos the day before and flagged them as “priority” with a red flag in my Todoist app. I left the other to do items unflagged in case I wanted to do them later.
  2. I was brutally honest with myself about what really needed to get done the next day. If my Must-Do list looks too full, I move the least important task/s to the next day’s list.
  3. chose how to spend the rest of my day after I finished my Must-Dos. This might include non-time sensitive work, but only if I choose to do it.
  4. I stopped checking email in bed in the morning. Ideally, I don’t check it until I physically enter my office at work. I mean, people used to do that before iPhones, and if my bosses really needed to talk to me before the workday started they can contact me via phone.
  5. If it was possible, I said no to things that interrupted my Must-Dos, and I practiced not feeling guilty about it. 


I Had So Much Extra Time In My Day

One of the big lessons of the Must-Do Method is time management. By managing time better, you are able to not only practice self care or hobbies, but actually PUT THEM on the Must-Do list themselves. 

Knight summarizes how this works here:  

Not everything on your long, unwieldy to-do list must get done today, right? If you instead prioritize your tasks based on urgency—i.e. what needs to get done today versus what can wait until tomorrow (or the next day)—you’ll significantly reduce your overall workload. And that gets you out the door in time to enjoy a Happy Hour tapas platter well before the sun sets on a perfect summer evening. The best part? If you start using my Must-Do Method now, you’ll be in great shape whenever things get crazy at work, or during the holidays and other times when you have a lot going on. Just stop, look at your to-do list, move the stuff that must get done “today” to the top, and save the rest (and your sanity) for later.

See that line about the Happy Hour tapas platter? In her book, Knight mentions someone who always has to skip Happy Hour because they never seem to finish work in time. In using the Must-Do Method, they’re able to finish their Must-Do work tasks and make time for Happy Hour.

Once I stopped trying to do everything, I was able to do my work well and put additional things that really mattered on my Must-Do list, including:

  • take my supplements in the morning
  • take my time to do my physical therapy and yoga stretches well
  • do an overall quick clean of my apartment every day 
  • spend at least a half hour on hobbies at night, in addition to my usual bath


Obviously one of my takeaways is “Write a Must-Do List.” However, I recognize that shifting from a broad, never ending to do list to a shorter, focused Must-Do list might feel a little weird at first. Perhaps you struggle with the same workaholic tendencies as I do, and you feel guilty not working into the night. Maybe you just aren’t sure how doing fewer tasks is supposed to help you get more done in the long run (and do it better). If so, check out the two takeaways below for guidance.


Writing Your First Must-Do List

I’ve got some tips for first time Must-Do Methoders.

  1. I encourage you to write the list the day or night before. You can even put “write tomorrow’s Must-Do list” on your subsequent Must-Do lists as a way to build the habit. It’s up to you how many Must-Do tasks you choose, and don’t feel like it has to be the same number every day.
  2. It is essential that you be realistic about what you need to complete in one day. Sure, it’s nice to finish things ahead of time, but if it’s not absolutely necessary, don’t put it on the Must-Do list. You will never run out of things to do, so don’t chase the extras if you don’t have to.
  3. Next, I encourage you to put self care—or at least self maintenance—on your Must-Do list. I don’t mean go to the spa every day, but if you know you sleep better with a clean apartment, then washing those dirty dishes should come before answering a non-time sensitive email or lesson planning just because you could do it. 

If you want a visual to remember the steps, you can save this cute write up of the Must-Do Method from Sarah Knight’s website, No Fucks Given Guides:


(Image: “Must-Do Method for Prioritizing”)


Use Time Tools To Your Advantage

I’ve been incorporating other time management tools with the Must-Do Method. When I pay attention to how I’m spending my time, I sometimes finish all of my Must-Dos by the afternoon and get to choose how to spend the rest of the day. One day I chose to fill that extra time by working on my dissertation over a smoothie bowl. I felt really proud and calm, because I wasn’t working under pressure and I could choose to stop working if I wanted. Another day I chose to take a nice, relaxing walk. Try out these tools to help you uncover the extra time you already have in your day, and then you do you with how you spend it!


The 5 Second Rule

Created by Mel Robbins, the 5 Second Rule aims to help us make a decision by simply taking action. If you remember back to my month on habit building, you know that cues beget routines beget rewards. By counting “5-4-3-2-1” and then exiting out of Instagram, getting up to wash the dishes, starting that email to a colleague, or putting on our gym shoes, we “interrupt the old behavior pattern and trigger a new one” (Robbins). This creates activation energy, which is what motivates our asses to start and keep doing something—that something being our Must-Do items. To learn more about the 5 Second Rule, check out this video by Robbins.


The One Minute Rule

If you encounter a task that you can complete in less than a minute, do it. Although my Must-Dos shift from day to day, one of my daily ones is leaving my apartment relatively tidy at night. if I see a mug sitting in the bedroom and I am heading toward the kitchen, I take it with me. If I see my shoes splayed in the middle of the floor, I put them away. I scoop kitty litter or wash dishes when I run my bath. This saves me time and energy later in the day when all of my other Must-Dos are done and I’m ready to chill out.


The 90-Minute Work Session

If The Tending Year was sponsored by tools, one of them would be the 90-Minute Work Session, which I detail in my Mindful Production post. I learned about it from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and it really is exactly what it sounds like: work on just one task for 90 minutes. I like 90-Minute Work Sessions because they help me define what counts as “enough” work, and they encourage me to focus (for example, I don’t check email or text during a 90-Minute Session). You can of course adapt the timeframe to fit your interests and needs, and use the Pomodoro method for longer work sessions.


*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here

This blog is not affiliated with, associated with, or endorsed by the Pomodoro Technique® or Francesco Cirillo.

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