These are the time-sucks that are messing with your schedule. Spoiler: It's time to rethink that to-do list.

By Ana Connery
Updated April 18, 2018
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woman getting stuff done
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I’d like to meet the unicorn who has a firm grasp on what she can and cannot accomplish in a day. My friends and I run the gamut from stay-at-home parents to entrepreneurs, shift workers to office drones, and after comparing notes for years, I can say this: There are about a million things we all do every day that keep us from getting our sh*t done.

“Part of the productivity problem is that most us aren’t realistic about what we can get done in a 24-hour period to begin with,” says Wendy Ellin, an Atlanta-based productivity expert and author of Enough Is Enough, Get Control of Your Stuff. “Everybody sets out to do things they were probably never going to get done anyway, so at the end of the day, you’ve set yourself up for defeat.”

The good news is, there are tweaks you can make to morph bad habits into good ones and get on the path to success. From unwelcome distractions to choices that set us on the path to the land of Nothing Gets Done Here, here’s a look at some of the most common pitfalls that keep you from getting your sh*t done every day—and easy solutions for how to break the habits.

woman making to-do list
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Making to-do lists.

There’s something about seeing everything you have to do in one neat column, just waiting to be checked off, that gives many of us a sense of control. Unless, of course, your list gets so long that just looking at it stresses you out.

If you’re a list-maker, set yourself free by swapping your “to-dos” for “must-dos,” says Ellin. “Ask yourself, if something happened today and you couldn’t do everything on this list, what is the one thing you really have to do?” Consider what offers the most value or return on your time investment. “Stick to no more than five tasks, max!” Once you cull things down to what actually has to get done vs what can wait, you’ll start to feel more accomplished and less like you’re barely keeping up.

Making “quick” phone calls.

I’ve learned the hard way there is no such as a quick phone call. They’re as rare as the Hope Diamond. Whether it’s a check-in with your babysitter that turns into a dramatic reading of Goodnight Moon (with your kids, not the babysitter, of course) to your mother going on about your dad’s something-or-other, phone calls can steal a chunk of time from your day.

Before you start dialing, consider whether there’s a chance the call can morph into a longer convo, then evaluate your goals for the day. If you’ve got time built in that can work as a buffer, fine. Otherwise, send an email or text and leave the call for another time.

Constantly changing your plans.

If constantly changing your plans is wreaking havoc on your ability to get anything done, Ellin suggests “maximizing Mondays.”

The idea is to look at your week of “must-dos” ahead of time, and make decisions and changes before you’re in the moment. Is everything on the calendar likely to happen? If not, delete it—or move it to another week. Also, use Mondays to tie up loose ends, such as confirming meeting spots and times.

“Things are going to happen that change the course of your week, whether it’s an unforeseen circumstance or a simple shift in your mood,” Ellin says. “By looking ahead at what’s on your plate and making decisions on Monday, you can accomplish more and keep from driving yourself—and others—crazy.”

Working in an open office layout.

While it looks cool in the movies, there’s a slew of research that shows the open office construct that began in Silicon Valley and now blankets the majority of U.S. workspaces is destroying productivity. It’s no wonder—an open workspace is chockfull of distractions. Rather than encouraging collaboration, as it was first intended, it’s become a formula for getting little done, plus it can be extremely disruptive (how many times have you been forced to hear one colleague tell another about last night’s disastrous date?).

It’s okay to escape it by wearing headphones, but be careful what you listen to. Loud, thumping music or podcasts about complex subjects can take up lots of brain space, which can keep you from concentrating and adds one more obstacle to getting your sh*t done. Look for sounds that help you relax and focus while also drowning out unwanted noise. This may be Radiohead for you and binaural beats for me—there’s no one right answer.

Sitting during meetings.

When people are standing, they expect things to wrap up quickly. It’s really that simple. I won’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat through that could have been reduced to a quick chat or email, because I know you’ve sat through them, too.

It's time we started looking at meetings differently. The next time you plan one, ask yourself if what you really need is a simple conversation.

“A conversation is 10 to 20 minutes max. It doesn’t require an agenda or a conference room,” says Ellin.

For those times when a meeting is necessary, take the chairs out of the room before everyone gathers, and you’ll notice people won’t want to stay long. “Suddenly people get to the point faster, minimize their urges for unnecessary addendums and listen more closely," says Ellin. “It’s a win-win.”

Not sleeping enough.

Seems counterintuitive, right? Surely the less time you spend sleeping, the more you can spend doing. But if you stop to really think about your days, you'll realize how much less productive you are when you don’t get enough sleep.

Everyone’s rhythm is different, but research shows that focus and energy level are among the first to go when you don’t get enough sleep, reducing your ability to get sh*t done. It doesn’t matter if you’re a night owl or an early riser, you know what a good night’s rest means to you. Pinpoint what that looks like, and commit to it for a week, then examine how it impacted your wellbeing and your set of “must-dos.” Chances are, you—and your list —will be better for it.

Staying logged in.

If saying sayonara to email, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest makes you uncomfortable, consider for a moment what a time suck it can be. Studies have found that social media and emails can take up a significant chunk of time from your day, adding to the distractions from getting your sh*t done.

I won’t bore you with stats on how many of us log in to email and social media accounts on a daily basis, especially given that many of our jobs at least partially revolve around them. Whether for professional or personal reasons, we’re turning to these platforms more and more every day. It feels silly to state the obvious, but the fix is really pretty simple: unplug.

Whenever you need to get something done, log off—or at the very least, silence your notifications, suggests Ellin. Otherwise you’ll be tempted each and every time you’re pinged, increasing the odds that you’ll get sucked in.

“It takes discipline, it’s not easy,” she says. “It’s strengthening a muscle you’re not used to using, just like working out. But believe it or not, not everything that comes in needs your attention right away.”

Especially if it’s keeping you from getting your sh*t done.