Planner Use: The Magic of 5 Tasks at a Time

Planner Use: The Magic of 5 Tasks at a Time

Planner Use: The Magic of 5 Tasks at a Time

Last week I mentioned that when I’m less than motivated or when I’m overwhelmed, I use a technique for planning that I call 5 Tasks at a Time.  This week I wanted to share a few specifics about how I use it.

Planner Use: The Magic of 5 Tasks at a Time

First of all, I started using this technique years ago when I found myself unmotivated and/or overwhelmed.  I found that I couldn’t plan a to-do list the night before or even the morning of because I just couldn’t figure out what needed to be done or plans changed so fast that my list couldn’t keep up.  So I started writing down only 5 things at a time – 5 things I knew I could do right now.  Once I started marking things off, I discovered my productivity skyrocketed.  So now I default to this technique whenever I need a motivation boost.  Here’s how it works:

  • Keep the list short and sweet. Don’t fill the list with 5 things that will take all day.  That’s NOT motivating!  Write down tasks you can complete quickly.  Sometimes my list of 5 takes half an hour and sometimes it takes 2 hours.  It depends on the tasks I’ve included and how many interruptions I have.  But I love it when the list takes half an hour to 45 minutes.
  • Choose a list of 5 things you can do right now. Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you make a list the night before, by morning everything’s changed? Making a list of 5 things you can do right now eliminates that problem (most of the time!).
  • Have a master list to pull tasks from. You don’t have to have a master list, but it makes things easier.  When you’re ready to make your list, sometimes you know exactly what needs to go on it.  But other times you aren’t sure.  Looking at a master list makes it easier to decide.
  • Break larger tasks into smaller chunks. This allows you to mark more things off in a shorter amount of time.  But more importantly, if you get interrupted while you’re working on a larger task, it makes it easier to get back to it after the interruption.  For example, sometimes I write “Clean the bathroom” but other times I write:
  1. Clean the tub
  2. Clean the sink
  3. Clean the toilet
  4. Mop the floor
  5. Dump the trash

If I happen to get interrupted in the middle of cleaning the bathroom, when I’m ready to go back, I look at the list and see exactly where I was and what still needs to be done.  Yes, I would probably remember but having the list allows me not to have to remember in case I have more important things to think about.

When I’m blogging, I rarely write:


Instead I write:

  1. Write Friday’s Post
  2. Check Facebook
  3. Comment on three blogs
  4. Email new subscribers
  5. Edit one old post
  • You can do the items in any order as long as you do those five before starting the new list of five.
  • Sometimes I start a new list of five before the old list is completed. When I’m working on the list, sometimes I think of something I need to do.  Only if it’s an emergency will I leave my current list of 5 to do it.  Instead I leave a blank line after the current list of 5 and start a new list of five with that item at the top.  When I finish my 5, I’ll add to that list and then start on it.  I never have a third list of five going.
  • Don’t skip items unless you have a really, really, really good reason. It’s extremely rare that I skip an item. The only reason I might skip is because circumstances changed and I can’t do it or I ran out of time and didn’t get to it.   In that case, I leave it unmarked.
  • Keep track of your time. Sometimes I like to write down when I start and finish a list of five.
  • Yes, you can write a task down after you do it. I do this sometimes because my lists are a written record of what I did.  So if I did something, I want it on the list for future reference.
  • At the end of the day, if you want to, add up how many tasks you completed and keep score. It’s fun to see how much I got done on any given day.  It’s also interesting to analyze the days when I didn’t get much done and figure out why.  Usually I’ve had a lot of other things I did that kept me from completing “tasks”.
  • Make the list anywhere you want. It can be in your planner; on a blank sheet of paper; on your computer.  It doesn’t matter.  And any planner will work.  You don’t need a specific format.  I think the ideal format is one that provides a spot to write down anything that MUST be done that day and then another space for writing lists of five.
  • Simply draw a line through the tasks as you complete them. If you skip an item (which I don’t recommend), leave it unmarked.  And by the way, if you skip an item, you probably aren’t doing this method correctly.
  • Don’t write an item on the list if you don’t intend to do it. This isn’t wishful thinking.  This is a list of stuff you’re going to do!
  • If you need to delay an item, do everything else on your list and come back to it when you can. I was planning to go to the grocery store this morning but ended up delaying it until later so I could have lunch with my daughter-in-law and grandson.  But I had to delay it again because my grandson ended up staying at my house.  I was going to take him with me but he needed a nap (he was falling asleep on the couch).  So I put him to bed and postponed grocery shopping for another day.
  • Nothing is too small to put on the list. Seriously.  Even a task that takes more time to write down than to do can be put on the list.  I don’t do this very often because it obviously doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I will do it for a task I won’t do otherwise.
  • Don’t write every teeny, tiny thing you do. Some of the stuff I do is so automatic that I don’t need to write it down.  However, that list is going to be different for each person.  I write down “make dinner” whereas someone else may not need that.  I don’t write down “make bed” but someone else might.  So write down what you need to and don’t worry about what anybody else is or isn’t writing.
  • Write your list of five directly on the schedule section of your planner in the time slot where you’re currently working.

Planner Use: The Magic of 5 Tasks at a Time

Seriously – this technique is like magic!  It’s simple, easy and motivating.  My productivity skyrockets when I use this method.  And the icing on the cake is that it works with any time management system (like GTD or Franklin Covey or Bullet Journal) and it works in any kind of planner.

So if you’re lacking motivation or feeling overwhelmed, give the 5 Tasks at a Time method a try.

Do you think this is something that could work for you? Or do you have another strategy for days like this?


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Born in Kentucky, I am a wife and mom to 1 son and 2 daughters . I have an ink pen obsession, as well as a love for all things planner. I have been married for 10 years to my high school crush. I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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15 thoughts on “Planner Use: The Magic of 5 Tasks at a Time

  1. “Don’t write it on the list if you don’t intend to do it” – yesssss. I’m more of a “I’ll get to that, right?” list maker than a “I will be for sure doing this” list maker. Which means that tasks get moved around and around and don’t get done for quite a while, ha. Because, well, I half-heartedly intend to do it, but not necessarily…it’s easy to say “later, it’s alright” when really, if I’ve wrote it down, it probably does need to get done.

    1. I do occasionally write things on a regular to-do list that are wishful thinking – but never on my 5 at a time list. And if I write it, I do it! I can’t bear to skip anything.

      It’s not that bad to write stuff on your regular list that’s wishful thinking. Sometimes seeing it day after day eventually results in you doing it just to get rid of it. At least that’s how it works for me!

  2. Great ideas. I’m glad I’m not the only one who writes down tasks after they are done. Sometimes it’s for a record, but sometimes it’s just to make me feel better when I look at my list. 🙂

    1. You’re for sure not the only one. And you’re absolutely right – it makes you feel better when you look at your list. Sometimes, especially if I’m feeling bad about what I did that day, I’ll go ahead and add some things I did so I can see that I wasn’t a slacker that day. Not everything we do ends up on a list so a list is sometimes a false picture of what we actually accomplished.

  3. I like the idea of pulling from a master list. I keep a master Task Log (rather than make one every month) in my bullet journal as things come to me. I look at that every week to see what I can reasonably handle. This 5 at a time may work well for me on the weekends when I’m home and have a lot to do. May give this a try. Thanks Patty

    1. It works really well – especially when you’re unmotivated or overwhelmed. But it works the best when you have an unpredictable schedule – like weekends tend to be. You can make tons of plans and have it all fall apart. So if you plan in shorter bursts, you can plan more realistically.

      Do you have any photos of your bullet journal on your site? I’d love to see it. You know, I’ll just wander over there and take a look.

  4. I only have 3 tasks to do lately. I’m just in that place lately where I feel like a wet dishrag. You know, where getting out of bed is the first task! 1. Get out of bed. 2. Get a shower. 3. One load of laundry. Sometimes I end up cleaning the bathroom since I’m there and tidying up the laundry room too. As usual I enjoy your posts.

    1. I’m sorry Bettyann. I’ve been struggling with menopause hormones and I’ve had some days when I felt like that. I think you’re right to keep your list small. And I think it helps if each task is small and simple to complete. I don’t know what you’re going through but I hope it passes quickly.

  5. Patty, thank you for a wonderful post!
    This is exactly what I’ve done in the past, but kinda forgotten about it & stopped using it. Thank you for the reminder as it works so well for me, especially if I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed or anxious.

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