How To Tame Your To-Do List
Getting organized is tough. We all mean to do it. We all try to do it. Making lists, using planning software and keeping a business calendar in 15-minute increments all begin with the best of intentions. But much like New Year’s resolutions, the dreams of the perfect solution are rarely sustainable.
I’ve found that the problem with organization isn’t so much a lack of willpower as it is the unplanned chaos of the modern workplace. Even if you’re laser-focused, when Dan from accounting drops by your office to ask about your expense report from back in December, your plans go off the rails. Short of locking your door, unplugging your phone and boarding up your windows, what can you do?
One place to start is with an effective to-do list. It’s important to get rid of that long and rambling list that has every to-do task in your life on it. When you’re working on the Smith company sales pitch, you don’t need to be reminded to take Suzie to the soccer game and write that novel you’ve always thought about. No wonder you’re distracted.
I recommend giving each category of your life its own separate list. Use categories that make the most sense for you. Make a list for personal tasks, a list for your children’s needs and yet another for the tasks you need to accomplish at work. You’ll be amazed at the effectiveness of such a simple change.
Another useful tactic is to study the due dates for your projects. If the presentation for the international conference is three months away, don’t put it on your current to-do list. It will only distract you from what you need to work on now.
Limit your list to three to five major tasks per day. If you cram in more than that, you’re setting yourself up for failure and the discouragement that follows. When you have a long-term project, break it down into smaller steps that are achievable.
In his book To Do List Mastery: A Stress-Free Guide To Quickly Increase Your Productivity And Get More Done In Less Time, Allen Donaldson explains, “When setting the goals, take into account the time each step in a to-do list may require. If the to-do list is working toward a goal that is a year in the future, some steps may take a day or a week, while others may take months. Put these in a reasonable order and give them appropriate time lines.”
A common problem I see is taking on work you shouldn’t because you want to be seen as a team player, or because you find it enjoyable or you’re afraid to say no. Pull out your last performance evaluation, or schedule a short meeting with your boss. Determine what you’re actually being paid to do. Understand and internalize those goals, and refuse to allow your to-do list to become cluttered with low-level tasks you should be delegating. If there is a particular task that isn’t in your wheelhouse, outsource it.
If you constantly find yourself getting off track because of interruptions, phone calls and unscheduled meetings, it’s important for you to take control. Make a schedule and stick to it. Let your team know that you are available at a specific time each day to help them or answer their questions. Put another specific time on your agenda to look at your emails and check phone messages.
Turn off email or instant messaging notifications and let your phone calls to voicemail. Otherwise, you may find yourself acting like Pavlov’s dogs each time you hear a noise and doom your productivity.
If you have an overflowing email box, you’ll likely waste time combing through it. Consider having different email boxes to keep things simple. For example, send your blog subscriptions to a box you know you only have to check when you have some free time. Separate the wheat from the chaff.
Learn to prioritize. Determine which task for the day is the most important, and do that one first, even if it’s difficult or time-consuming.
Set time limits for each task. Allowing yourself too much time to complete a task can lead to procrastination. If you arbitrarily decide that a report can be finished tomorrow, you’ll be tempted to waste time doing something you prefer but isn’t on your list. Self-discipline is important for success.
Batch similar tasks together. If you are reopening the same program multiple times each day, you are wasting so much time. If you have two tasks that require using the same program, do them both consecutively.
If a new task comes your way, schedule it. Don’t spend time dwelling on it and don’t stress over it. Schedule it on an appropriate day and time, and then go back to the current task on your schedule.
Set aside a block of time toward the end of the day to evaluate your progress and plan for the next day. Create a to-do list for tomorrow so you can begin your day with a predetermined plan to keep you focused on your priorities.
At the end of the day, spend a few minutes congratulating yourself for your successes, and don’t forget to celebrate what you’ve accomplished. It will give you satisfaction and motivate you to start tomorrow on the right foot.
Damon Zahariades, author of To-Do List Formula: A Stress-Free Guide to Creating To-Do Lists That Work! sums up the importance of taming your to-do list: “A properly-developed and consistently-executed to-do list system will improve your productivity as well as your quality of life. You’ll experience less stress and enjoy more free time to connect with those whom you love. You’ll also enjoy more freedom to pursue personal interests.”
This article has previously been featured on Forbes.