A while back I stumbled on one of the most powerful productivity hacks ever: using the word “draft” in my to-do lists.

If you’re like me, you’ve got a to-do list a mile long. Some of those things are critically important and command attention by their sheer gravitational force. Others are someday-maybe kinds of items that you hope to get around to, but aren’t mission-critical.

And then there are those items that really are important, but you keep kicking them down the road. Things that you should make progress on today, but get little in the way of actual traction. 

Things like, 

  • Send that tricky email to Julie
  • Build a budget for the new program proposal
  • Write the job description for a new virtual assistant
  • Call Jose to discuss the project I’d like to pitch him
  • Write next week’s blog post

We know they are important, but we avoid them because they’re messy, we’re unsure of what success looks like, and some of them are just plain uncomfortable. The problem is, our avoidance doesn’t help at all. The answers don’t present themselves on their own and often the discomfort only builds. All the while, we’re burning precious creative energy on anxiety every time we scan over that item in our list.

That’s when I insert the word “draft” in my list:

  • DRAFT an email to Julie—but don’t send it
  • DRAFT a budget for the new program proposal
  • DRAFT a job description for a new virtual assistant
  • DRAFT an agenda for the call with Jose to discuss the project I’d like to pitch him
  • DRAFT next week’s blog post

Suddenly, I get productive. Releasing myself of the pressure of nailing it on the first go and free in the knowledge that this DRAFT is for my eyes only, I can finally start making some progress.

And here’s the real benefit: Once I’m drafting, I end up discovering all sorts of insights that help me overcome the anxiety that was holding me back in the first place: 

  • WHILE DRAFTING an email to Julie—I get much clearer on what the essential kernel of the message is that I want her to understand
  • WHILE DRAFTING a budget for the new program I discover where the weak points are in our plan and what to put on the next team agenda so that we can address it
  • WHILE DRAFTING a job description for a new virtual assistant I discover the problem I’m really trying to solve and can interview with even more acuity
  • WHILE DRAFTING an agenda for the call with Jose to discuss the project I’d like to pitch him I rediscover what’s most exciting about the project in the first place and can take that energy into the call
  • WHILE DRAFTING next week’s blog post I discover what really moves me about the power of drafting!

There’s a line in the improv world that goes like this: “You’re either moving forward or you’re not.” Certainly, great work is what we all strive for, but the only way to get there is to keep moving forward. Often that means sifting through more than a few crappy drafts on the way. 

Because after a few deep breaths, moving forward is almost always more productive than standing still.

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© Andy Zimney and Leading Off the Cuff, 2016.

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Andy Zimney is an organizational leader, coach, improviser, speaker, and facilitator. Andy is founder and principal at Leading Off the Cuff: Where exploration meets execution.