How to Get More Done with "The Short List"


I up and quit my job of a decade (with three months' notice, I'm not the impulsive type) last August. In the weeks and months that followed, I worked to structure my days in a way that allowed me to feel accomplished each day without my routine clinic schedule. 


Even with what felt like an expanse of time, I initially struggled with feeling like I wasn't getting enough done. In the months I spent anticipating my future career intermission, I dreamed of spending it doing everything in the world I needed to do to get my life in order. 


But, as students who've taken a gap year before PA school can tell you, that "break time" goes by pretty quickly. 


If I got 19 of 25 items from a to-do list accomplished, I still felt like a failure, especially given the time I had on my hands. The most nagging items always hung around, finding a spot on new to-do lists, haunting me all the while. 


So, instead of either working even longer hours than before or giving up on meeting all of my goals, I've changed what goes on the list. I've moved from the to-do list to a "short list." 


The short list allows me to get more done, feel more accomplished, and leave the ghosts of to-do lists past behind. Here's how you can make it work for you.


1. Pick two items for the short list each day

Only two items get space on the short list each day; this is what makes it the short list. 


Pick tasks that are very specific and have a clear endpoint. "Work on my personal statement" does not belong on the short list. But, "create a personal statement outline" does. Get the idea?


2. Choose short list tasks appropriate for that day

If you are working all day, you should pick your two short list items based on what you can reasonably do before or after work or on a break. 


Your items do not have to be groundbreaking, but they need to be something that must be done that day. 


If you'll be super busy that day, maybe that means booking a haircut for next week and dropping by the post office on your way home. 


If you have a day available to work more deeply, your short list can include bigger goals, but these should remain specific. 


Again, even with a full day at your disposal "working on my personal statement — all day" won't cut it. You won't get it all done in one day, and you'll be left feeling unaccomplished, which should never happen with the short list. 


However, your two short-listers might include "create personal statement first draft" and "ask Adam to review my rough first draft." Those are specific, attainable goals fit for a single day that, when reached, will leave you feeling accomplished. 


3. Create a short list every day

Even on your most freewheeling, spontaneous days, there are two simple tasks you can identify that would help you feel like you are moving yourself forward. You can make these whatever you like, but going through this 2-minute exercise on a daily basis creates a habit. 


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Once it's a habit, it will be part of your routine and hardly take you any time at all.


4. Find your best list-creation time

The best way to get into the habit of creating a short list is to be consistent with the time of day you make it. I make mine at the end of my daily work session. If I know where I am leaving off for the day, I am clear on what I need to accomplish the following day. 


Some people prefer to decide what's most important at the beginning of each day. Whichever approach you take, be consistent with when you decide on your daily tasks to get into the rhythm of creating your short list. 


Spend just a couple of minutes a day deciding on the two most important, specific actions that can help you move forward. Once it's a habit, it will be easy for you to decide what should make the cut for each day's short list. 


By keeping your to-do list small, you'll easily be knocking out your daily goals, feeling more accomplished, and be inspired to achieve even more the next day.