How Many Tasks Should You Do in a Day?

The answer may (but shouldn’t) surprise you.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
When you have too many good tasks to choose from, how do you decide which ones to complete?
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
When you have too many good tasks to choose from, how do you decide which ones to complete?

Every Monday, I face the same problem.

During my weekly planning on Sunday, I get inspired. I get ambitious. “Oh, I can do this on Monday! And this! And this!” I’ve reviewed the active goals I have for the quarter, chosen my big rocks for the week, and I want to make progress on everything.

That plan usually takes me several days to work through.

There are 24 hours in the day, on average. Roughly eight of them should be spent sleeping. Two more for meals, one for commuting, one for self-care, and we’ve already cut that in half. The remaining twelve hours are all that we have for work, re-creation, and family.

So how do we divvy up those hours?

Ever since Henry Ford adopted the eight-hour work day in 1926, it’s been the norm. On weekdays, expect to spend eight hours in the office. (Un)fortunately, not all hours are created equal, so don’t expect to put in a single eight-hour block of Work and call it a day.

Our brains are only good for about four hours of creative work each day. After that, you should work on tasks that don’t require high creative energy. In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang studied the lives of some of the greatest minds in recent history and found a pattern. Two hours of creative work, a break, and two more hours of creative work. At that point, many would wrap things up and transition to leisure activities.

However much you’re trying to fit into your day, there’s a basic approach you should take so you can schedule a fully productive day without biting off more than you could possibly chew.

  1. Acknowledge your limits. You don’t have the same capacity for work every day. Maybe you’re recovering from a cold. Maybe you got a poor night’s sleep last night. Maybe you’ve just got a lot on your mind. If you’re not going to be at full strength today, that’s fine. Pushing hard will just burn you out faster. On the other hand, if you’re feeling great, step up and get ready to knock it out of the park.
  2. Look at your hard landscape. Any place you have promised your time to someone else is a commitment that needs to be honored. If you can’t say no to other people’s priorities, you’ll have no room for your own.
  3. Block out time for your routines, if you haven’t already done so. This might be as simple as not scheduling anything before 9am or after 7pm. Those hours are just off-limits.
  4. Create your prioritized task list for the day. What are your active goals and important projects for the week? What are your priorities for the day? Which tasks are critical (no more than 3)? Which tasks do you simply expect to accomplish? Which tasks could easily be deferred if necessary without consequence?
  5. Schedule those tasks on your calendar. Leave yourself margin. When your calendar is full, it’s full. Anything that’s left, defer, delegate, or eliminate.

Be flexible as the day goes. Adapt. Estimating how long a task is going to take—under ideal circumstances—is hard. If you’re off, you’re off. Expect it. Plan for it. Schedule your big rocks, then leave yourself margin.

The further down your prioritized list a task is, the more optional it is—the more likely it is you’re not going to get to it. That’s okay. Everything you did get done is more important than everything you didn’t get done. That’s a win.

Gradually, you’ll learn two things. First, your estimates will get more accurate; you’ll develop a better sense of how much work fits into a day. Second, you’ll get better at separating the productive work that moves you forward from the busy work that holds you back.

Question: What is the least you could do to call today a win? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.