The more you have on your plate, the less you’ll be able to focus on any single item. As you work on one task, the others will nag at you and demand your attention. Moreover, if you have 10, 15, or an even greater number of tasks on your to-do list, you’ll inevitably start to feel stressed. That will further erode your concentration, making you more prone to distraction.

To some extent, I suppose I’ve always had challenges with my attention span. It’s not that I get bored easily, per se; it’s more like I’m easily distracted. As Jerry Seinfeld so famously said, men are interested in “what else is on TV.” All these recent “advances” in technology have only served to exacerbate the issue. Oh, my phone just got a notification. Oh, my inbox is showing an unread message. Meh, I’ll just open another browser tab and hop over to Facebook. You know, just for a moment, that’s all.

But it’s never just for a moment. Our ability to focus is quickly diminishing, because there’s always something else that seems infinitely more appealing than whatever it is we should be working on. And believe me, working from home (especially with a very active preschooler) comes with all sorts of distractions and opportunities to procrastinate. Hey look! A castle!

Part of that, at least for me and assuredly for many others, is our relationship with the to-do list. With a to-do list (or three), I’d never be able to remember all the things I want to do. At the same time, staring at an unfinished to-do list at the end of the night haunts me like nothing else. Look at how you failed.

What’s more, during the day, I’ll always have that to-do list in the back of my head. I may be working on one task, but all the other (unfinished) tasks will continue to nag at me. Hey! I need your attention too! Do me next! There has to be a better way, right?

Going through this ongoing struggle, I decided to pick up Fast Focus by Damon Zahariades. It’s a book about “mastering your attention, ignoring distractions, and getting more done in less time.” And one of the big tips he gives is to pare down that to-do list into something a little more manageable.

I recommend you limit the number of items on your daily to-do list to five. Five is few enough that you’ll be able to focus on them one at a time without the worry of leaving some unfinished. If you know you’ll have time to complete every task on your list, you won’t feel pestered by the ones waiting for your attention. They’ll eventually get addressed as long as you allot sufficient time for them.

I’ve written before about the tyranny of incomplete tasks left on my to-do list. And really, there are two big factors that have contributed to that ongoing struggle.

  1. Too Many Items: I put too many items on the to-do list in the first place. That’s becaause I underestimate how much time or energy each task is going to take. We all do.
  2. Adding More Items: As much as I try to set my to-do list the night before, it’s not set in stone. Over the course of a day, I may end up adding new items. Even if I could complete the original list, these “extra” tasks push me past my limit.

And so, I’ve been trying really hard to stick to this deceptively simple advice from Damon Zahariades. Five items isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course, as some tasks are bigger than others. It’s still a good rule of thumb though.

Motivation is fleeting. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. It’s helpful in the moment, but has a short shelf life. You need something enduring in its place that you can count on.

Believe me. I get it. Sometimes, it can feel like we’re just hamsters running in a wheel. We’re just going through the motions, and not actually getting anywhere. We read a motivational quote somewhere that lights a fire under our bottoms, but that flame eventually dies. We need something with a bit more staying power.

And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what that is. Maybe it’s a bigger picture objective, an over-arching reason why you’re doing anything at all. You can feel like it’s never enough, and that’s why we need to find value and meaning in what we do. And once we do, we need to focus on that.

Damon Zahariades has authored numerous books on productivity and procrastination. From what I can gather, they’re all meant to be quick, easy and actionable. Based on my experience with Fast Focus, the content reads like a series of blog posts. Casual yet direct, with minimal fluff. So, which one should I tackle next?

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