A mantra on the office door of our production manager has stuck with me since he posted it a few years ago. It reads: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” I think those nine words resonate because I’ve felt overwhelmed lately with the number of tasks to be done.

I first thought I was the problem. So I tried several “productivity hacks.”

I tried to digitize and reorganize my to-do list, change my sleeping pattern to get more done without disruptions at night and convince myself to just power through fatigue to accomplish more. None of it worked. I learned we’re more productive when we sleep and when our to-do list is short and focused.

My fruitless attempts to short-cut productivity has led me to understand what I’ve read before but didn’t want to believe: The most productive people don’t try to do more; they try to do less. Or, as author Greg McKeown says in his book Essentialism, productive people “deliberately distinguish the vital few from the trivial many.”

This year, I plan to do something about my overfilled plate. Perhaps yours is overfull, too. If so, I write a few words that may help you get back to a manageable portion of to-dos. Some of these ideas are embodied in McKeown’s book, which I would highly recommend if you’re as overextended as I was.


1. Get comfortable saying no.

The white elephant gift I got for Christmas this year was supposed to be funny, but it has actually been quite useful. It’s a red “NO!” button that dispenses a random rejection statement when pushed. It’s given me the courage to decline good, but not great, opportunities to focus on what I want most.

2. Sleep.

Don’t kid yourself. Your body needs it. Remember the suggestion that adults get eight hours of sleep – I’ve found seven is as low as I can go before productivity is impacted. In short, that means every waking moment needs to be used deliberately.

3. Turn off your email alerts and text messages.

They are just distractions. Research has shown it takes our brains 20 minutes to redirect focus after an interruption. You need chunks of time (think 20 to 30 minutes) to accomplish big tasks. If you have multiple interruptions, it could take you an hour or two to do something that should have taken half the time.

4. Prioritize.

McKeown says that when the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s, it was singular. Somehow we’ve managed to make it plural. How many priorities do each of us have?

To improve your productivity and decrease your stress, pick one thing in each aspect of your life (home, work, marriage) that will be your one priority for the rest of the year.

Most important to regaining control of your schedule and commitments is realizing that you must make hard choices. What hard choices do you and your dairy need to make? Remember, you can do anything – but not everything.  end mark

Walt Cooley