To Do Lists - Performance Chunking motivation starting

One Hour Sprints vs. The Mega To-Do List

A mega sized to-do list is a function of a creative, ambitious personality. No need to be self-deprecating and say it’s a fetish of an obsessive and unfocused neurotic who can’t commit to any one thing. Re-read your mega to-do list – the feelings it evokes are more about the list, actually, than about you. What if it was transformed into a list of things that are simply easier to do, quicker to tick off, and you could make rapid progress just by adding a little tool to overcome that motivational deficit you’re convinced is responsible for this mess? Recently I started doing 1-hour sprints – not the kind that involve knee injuries and runner’s cramps. That phrase “1-hour sprints” includes just two things, and these are the only two changes you need. One is a change in your relationship to time, the other a change in your relationship to format or expression, if you happen to be a writer or a nominalist.

ONE – SETUP THE LIST: I break my to-do list down into one hour intervals, and spread any longer projects over multiple hours, but identify each hour’s goals:

  1. Hour: scan all receipts, scan remaining papers, do online deposits
  2. Hour: verify backups, provide 2 client quotes, review new content
  3. Hour: client project initial install/layout
  4. Hour: client project add-on setups/forms/research
  5. Hour: read 10 saved inspirational articles from my favorite guru
  6. Hour: walk/dinner, pick up fruit, bring back laundry, take dog

To Do Lists - Performance Chunking motivation startingTWO – SETUP THE TIMER: I use a little tool called or (as a backup) there’s – I set eggtimer for 50minutes, instead of a full 60 (to push myself just a little more toward excellence), and set it on the ring alarm instead of the beep. The nice thing about eggtimer is that you just refresh the browser to start the count again for the next hour, with exactly the same settings. And, you can bookmark it with those settings intact, since they’re saved in the URL/link.

THREE – BEND THE RULES: We cheated – we added a third item. As the maker of the rules, I am free to break my own rules – but I do it intelligently, as always – to build sustainable habits. A rule is a guideline and a maxim, not an ideology, so we make rules expecting the exigencies of real life to intrude a bit on the idealism. As St. Anthony says, with no flex, the bowstring is too taut and will break.

  • Coming in Under the Hour: If I have extra room in the 50min ‘hour’, I do things from other hours, or do other things I think of on the way (usually I note those quickly on the list for future hours), or just scan my Facebook stream for an interesting article to read or video to watch. I let myself be a human mix of work, food, exercise, and curiosity, so it’s actually livable.
  • Going Over the Hour: If I go over by a little, I left myself 10 extra minutes after all, so no great loss. If I go over by a lot, I create a new hour to maintain/reorder the list and just refresh the timer. They’re our rules, so we get to modify them on the fly; it’s just like a runner deciding to go an extra mile before turning back, or a swimmer adding extra laps. Achieving more through breaking your rules isn’t cheating – it’s raising the bar above the limits of your reasonable expectations. Alternately, I could just stop and push the rest of any given thing into a future hour, but it can be tough to do that in the middle of something continuous. The point isn’t keeping the item order – that can flex, if we trust ourselves – personally, I reorder on the fly according to what my intuition and feelings suggest, if I prefer a different order; the point is simply getting the important stuff done consistently through a process that works.


  1. Chunking: not the place in China. Chunking in educational psychology is an efficiency technique of grouping tasks for better achievement or grouping data for better absorption/recall. One hour is an arbitrary chunk, but it forces you to break down larger projects into smaller, identifiable tasks – it forces you to group smaller tasks under one chunk (in this case, a 1hr block) to keep you moving and for more efficiency (you tend to group intuitively by relationship, which creates flow) – and chunking forces you to clarify tasks as specific actions/verbs that significantly summarize even smaller sub-tasks under one statement, without leaving you at the mercy of vague or conceptual terms for accomplishment that produce vague or little action. We may think we produce clear concise writing, but it’s never more important than in our to-do lists, and writing isn’t clear and concise if it isn’t actionableThe gentle, steady pressure of a tongue can break bone, goes the proverb. In other words, achievement is always a union of time and action.
  2. Starting: momentum is produced by starting – so says inertia. It can seem more daunting to start an endless to-do list or one that includes vague goals that need thinking about (instead of motion) just to clarify as actions. It’s easier to start a smaller one-hour to-do list that’s composed of straightforward actions. Classic avoidance behaviors (doing fiddly things to avoid working) are not necessarily a sign of laziness, but can simply be a problem of expression – one that creates mental fog. The list is about clear, specific thought expressed as actionable, time-informed imperatives. What good are ideas we don’t start? Someone said that if the notes you take while reading books aren’t to-do items (i.e. actionable items), then you’re reading the wrong books. The creative side wants to argue with that, but then there are countless “creatives” who don’t create anything. In the end, it comes down to how we construe our lives – as action or as hypotheticals that aren’t fully realized into action.
  3. Motivation: the timer isn’t a trick to give us some false or arbitrary sense of accomplishment; nor is it a bribe system like getting a brownie if we do our work. Instead, it’s a set of personal challenges, like working on your 50-yard dash, or knocking strokes off your golf game. The goal is getting better, being better, and living better with your work. We like to think, in this culture inspired by Puritanism, among other things, that the work itself is the goal. Even though it’s satisfying to find and do the work you love, it’s not always enough. People who love to write often don’t. In reality, the goal is *being* the person you love. Work is a vehicle for ontological fulfillment which gives us access to transcendent meaning. It’s not enough to run a race, as romantic as we make that out to be in movies (“oh! just to run is the thing. whether you finish or not doesn’t matter. How fast you are doesn’t matter.”). It matters if you finish. And it matters how fast you are, because you’re going to die, so there’s already a clock, and there are other things you want to do and feel good about doing – feel fully realized in (instead of the nagging sensation that you’re goofing off or that it’s just a bribe), so you can also find in those things (in play, love, whatever) an ontological fulfillment which gives you access to transcendent meaning. We find our being in everything by insisting on becoming better in everything. An hour chunk may not seem like a huge accomplishment in itself but, an awareness of ticking off hours of well defined achievement punctuated with delight or at least satisfaction, and pushing yourself to do it fast and effectively, actually redeems time, infusing it with satifaction and meaning, and it makes everything taste sweeter. It makes us experience ourselves as sweeter. It isn’t about “seeing yourself doing it” either, which is about introspection rather than action – it’s about the awareness of doing it that comes from actually doing it.
  4. Powerful Randomness: Sure, using hours might seem arbitrary, but our clock isn’t broken up into 45 minute chunks, and why create added barriers to utilizing the process? There’s an excellent reason for using one hour chunks, though, if you are a consultant or other professional who bills in hours. Any hour you waste or cut into is an hour you can’t sell, because no one’s paying you for the remaining pieces of a broken hour. This doesn’t stop me from ‘selling my time to myself’ in hours that start at 10:18am when I made today’s list, and proceed as 11:18, 12:18, and so on. It’s arbitary but useful, as with many arbitrary things. Sticklers will say this isn’t actually ‘randomness’; true, but there’s a larger principle at work in our lives and I wanted to use the term.

DON’T MISS THE REALLY IMPORTANT ENDING: The items in the mega to-do list, which is shrinking rapidly – crazy rapidly – after stagnating for years, are getting filtered and transformed as they become material for addition to the sprint list. I’d counsel NOT labeling every item with an hour until the day those sprints can actually be run. The rule I use is really important to my success: My to-do list, expressed as hours, only ever contains the number of hours I can realistically expect are remaining for work that day, which is also the day I create it. If I don’t achieve it all, I’ll get better at creating sprints for myself, but it simply rolls into tomorrow. If I do achieve it all, instead of adding more, I go relish my amazing accomplishment with whatever I do that’s full of relish – a bunch of Netflix movies, hanging out at the local diner – don’t pay it to yourself as a reward – the achievement itself was the reward – bribing yourself pollutes the relationship with yourself by prostituting your deepest desire for satisfaction – do whatever it is that, for you, constitutes actual relish. If it’s lying naked on your room just breathing the glorious air, then do that. For me, it’s usually going and being with my city. Doing one-hour sprints might sound nerdy or uninteresting at first, but if you’re that creative, ambitious personality – a combination of the boundless and the specific – you’ll need to create specifics for your passion and space for your achievements. Look on yourself with warm regard for who it is you are, and start doing sprints.