To-Do Lists That Work
“To Do” lists have been a part of my daily life for over 30 years. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of you reading this use some sort of daily list of tasks you intend to accomplish on any given day.
Lists can be very motivating. There is nothing like seeing the tasks on your list to keep you focused and moving. There is nothing like the satisfaction of checking those items off the list one-by-one, and getting to the end of the day to see them all finished.
But used improperly, lists can suck the life out of you and erode your motivation. When the To-Do list becomes a record of what you failed to accomplish the previous day, it becomes little more than a dreary reminder of your apparent inadequacy. Who wants that to be the first business of their day?
Plan for Change on the Fly
If you are not using an electronic device which is easy to edit, always write your lists in pencil! I recommend a mechanical pencil with an eraser. Useful “to-do” lists are flexible, not cast in bronze, and can be edited and changed and reordered in a moment. I have always used 3×5 cards, and don’t plan to change. That’s what works for me. Keep experimenting until you find a system that works for you.
Schedule and Limit the Groaner Tasks
Allocate a particular time slot, with a beginning and ending time, to tasks that you have a history of avoiding. This diminishes the task avoidance usually associated with that task. For instance: “2:00 to 3:00…work on taxes.” With this tactic you know that you will work on that task for an hour, then on to something less tedious. It’s easier to start a difficult task if there is an established amount of time that you know you will spend on it, and not “work on it until it’s done.”
Don’t Tilt at Windmills
Apply the reality test to every list. What is the likelihood of you actually accomplishing all of these things in the time allotted (usually one day)? If you put so many things on it that when you go out the door you find yourself mentally racing ahead on a plan to save a minute here or a few seconds there, you probably have too many things on your list. That kind of list-making does NOT make you more efficient and productive. It saps your energy and attitude day after day until you burn out.
Apply Murphy’s Law
There will be unanticipated phone calls. Traffic may not flow at its usual speed. Your copies could be delayed. If accomplishing your list is contingent on dodging all the delay bullets, you’re going down. Assume some things will go wrong, and write some wiggle-room into your list. If the average commute time is 17 minutes, allow 25. If it normally takes 25 minutes to make X number of copies, allow 35. Doing this allows you to experience being a little ahead of the game during your day, instead of behind it. It’s energizing and allows for moments of reflection and creativity instead of panic and pressure.
Many of my lists have 2 sections: The first section is for things that are both urgent and important. These are the things that I must do during the day. They are the priority. The second part of my list is for things that I might do if I have time. This is the gravy. These are the things that are important, but not urgent, which I really rather enjoy doing…at least, anyway, they are not tedious to me. They exist as possible to-do tasks, and getting to them constitutes sort of a reward. This can be quite motivating.
Reduce Big Tasks to Sub-Tasks
It’s very, very important to break large tasks down into smaller tasks. Whenever possible, you should avoid items like, “Write the X proposal.” Instead, break it into smaller tasks, such as “download market data for the X proposal.” Then later, perhaps scheduled for that afternoon, “list the main elements to include in the X proposal.” This tactic makes it a much more effective To-Do list.
Don’t Fight Your Biorhythms
Schedule the most difficult, or perhaps the tasks you most dislike, for earlier in the day. Schedule the tasks that require the most mental sharpness for when you are at your peak. Schedule tasks that require moving around physically for when you need to get your blood moving and perk up. This is different for everyone, but you know what your biorhythms are. Take them into account when you make your list.
Finally: Some of the best advice I ever got…
Make a “Not-Do” List
This is exactly what it sounds like. When we avoid tasks few of us just sit and stare at the wall. We have certain “avoidance behaviors” that we do instead of the tasks on the list that we’d like to avoid or delay doing. The seductive thing about these things is that they are good things…not time wasters. They are just not the best things, the most efficient use of our time, but we find ourselves doing them almost daily. Put them on your “Not-Do” list. It might include things like recording inventory, computer maintenance, sorting files, etc. Save them for their own To-Do list, and don’t use them as avoidance behaviors that distract you from your course. There is just something powerful about writing these things down and committing ourselves to them in a “Not-Do” list that helps keep proper focus.
To-Do lists are powerful, but they must be used properly. Apply these guidelines to keep your list experience a positive and productive one.
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