It can be challenging to keep track of everything that needs to get done. This week we look at ways to create a practical and realistic to-do list that works for you and helps you manage your busy life.
How can we make our to-do list function well?
This week we’re talking about creating a to-do list that works for us. I was inspired to think about this topic from a chapter in Laura Vanderkam’s book, The New Corner Office), which I listened to during a long drive last week.
A to-do list or task list is often one of the first things that come to mind when we think about productivity. In order to get stuff done, we have to do stuff. But most of us have a lot of things to do–lots of commitments we’ve made, lots of interests, lots of people who are important to us. Goals we’ve set, projects we’re working on at work and at home, dreams we hope to make come true someday. Different stages of life mean different–and sometimes competing–sets of commitments, priorities, goals, projects, and tasks.
That can make it a challenge to keep track of all the stuff that needs to get done. We need a system, and one of the fundamental building blocks of that system is a to-do or task list.
But maintaining a perfect task list isn’t the goal. It’s a tool. Its purpose is to help us get the stuff done that’s important to us.
The purpose of a to-do list
- Capture things–so we don’t have to hold them in our head, which means we can relax, knowing things are preserved, and use our minds for more creative work and problem-solving.
- Organize our tasks–when we have everything on our list, we can approach our tasks strategically. Can we batch any of them? Do we need to enlist the help or input of someone else for any of them, or assemble supplies? Does one or more of them need undisturbed focus time to complete, and if so, when will we carve that time out of the day?
Why does our task list fail us?
Because we’re listing projects rather than tasks. (we talked more about this in TWP130) Often when something stays on the list for a long time without completion it’s because we can’t identify how to do it–it’s too big, too time-consuming, too overwhelming. Consider whether it can be broken out into small steps. Here is an example from my recent workweek: I had a complicated document to draft, and it kept getting pushed aside for other tasks.
So I broke it down into steps:
- Spent 10 minutes searching our document management system for other similar documents; found a couple that were for similarly structured deals, governed by the same state’s law, that I could use as a starting point.
- Spent 20 minutes re-reading the deal terms and the other existing documents for the deal to make sure I understood what the parties’ goals were and how this new document would interplay with the existing ones.
- Spent 30 minutes filling in the factual information that didn’t require creative thinking: party names, addresses, dates, dollar amounts (the easy stuff).
- At that point, it became easy to flow into doing the tougher analysis and drafting, because I’d built momentum.
Because we’re creating a wish list rather than a to-do list (Vanderkam, The New Corner Office). They are aspirational, but a to-do list should be practical, listing only immediately actionable tasks. Aspirations, ideas, etc., should go somewhere else (David Allen’s “someday/maybe” list), not on our working task list.
Because we’ve got too much on the list (Vanderkam refers to it as the “sin of impossibility” and says it’s “surprisingly common.” We are too ambitious or overestimate our time and (even more common) our energy available for the day. We are hesitant to say no or to delegate, succumbing to two big lies: “If I can do it, I should.” and “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself.”
What should go on your task list
Tasks–discrete actions- if it takes more than one step or more than one session, it’s a project. Break it down into the smallest steps.
Tasks you’re actually going to complete. Vanderkam says: “Ideally, your to-do list is short enough to become a contract with yourself. Once an item goes on the list, you are guaranteeing that you will do it by the end of the day.” She goes on to describe something I’ve certainly experienced: “there is no virtue in putting something on a to-do list and then not doing it. It’s just as not done as if it were never on the list in the first place, only now it’s sitting there, mocking me in its undoneness.”
A realistic number of tasks
Keep a running master list of tasks and projects, but for your daily to-do list, limit it to 3 or so top priority tasks that actually must and will get done that day.
On any given day, there are lots of things you could do, but which would have the biggest impact on your work, your personal goals, your relationships?
Limiting the number on the list forces you to prioritize–what’s going on today’s list, and why is it there?
When we over-plan the day we leave no cushion for when life happens–a child gets sick (or we do); a client calls with an emergency, a friend or loved one needs your support or caring conversation, your computer malfunctions, requiring an hour on the phone with IT to get it working again.
Realistic means looking at not just the number of hours in the day but also considering our health and energy level available.
Both current, immediate commitments and action steps toward your longer-term goals (this is important!)
1. Consider planning for the week rather than for the day.
Days are flexible-many times we have certain things that need to be done at some point during a week but not at a specific time. I like to start the week with a list of tasks for the week on my plan, and each day I can choose 2-3 of them to get done
Vanderkam says: “Our schedules tend to repeat on a weekly basis, not a daily basis, and this slightly broader view of time allows you to manage personal and professional tasks with a sense of abundance. You don’t have to do everything that matters tomorrow.”
2. When you create your list, add an estimated time for each task. Be realistic.
- Maybe time yourself doing certain tasks to get a realistic sense of how long each takes to complete
Keep in mind, though, the virtue of intentionally setting time boundaries around tasks. Not, “this task will take me an hour” but “I have 45 minutes to work on this task.” Remember Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for it. For example: Cleaning that normally would take an hour or more gets done very quickly when you get a call that somebody’s coming by to visit or the realtor’s bringing someone for a showing. Another example: If you have no pressing deadline, a report that could be written in half an hour takes half the day.
3. Use tools you enjoy.
You don’t need something fancy–I recommend something as simple as a 3×5 index card for your daily to-do list–but the best tool is the one you’ll actually use, so if it gives you pleasure and thus makes it more likely to use it, get yourself a pretty to-do list pad or notebook and a nice pen. You can find all sorts of pads and notebooks that are expressly designed for use as a preprinted to-do list template. Check out Target, Walmart, or Etsy, and grab something you like and will enjoy using. Or if you prefer digital, find an app that you find easy and enjoyable to use.
4. Create a routine for planning
Set aside a specific time each day or week to plan your task list. As Vanderkam describes it:
“This designated weekly time allows you to pause and reflect and ask how you’d like to spend the next 168 hours. Ideally, you plan your weeks before you’re in them — which is why I plan my weeks on Fridays . . . any dedicated weekly planning time can work — Sunday evening and Monday morning are other popular options — but Friday afternoon in particular has the benefit of being a low-opportunity-cost time (you aren’t doing much else), it’s during business hours so you can reach people and preserve your weekend, and it lets you hit Monday ready to go, instead of trying to plan Monday during the Monday morning crush. . . . After you create a rough plan for the week, revisit the schedule each evening to think through the next day. What do you still need to accomplish? Note anything that has to happen at a specific time (calls/meetings) and anything else that should be done by the end of the day. This can help as you start making your daily to-do lists”
Although Vanderkam makes a compelling argument for Friday afternoons, there’s no magic in the day. I like to do mine on Sunday afternoon. Choose a day/time that works for you and stick with it. Get ahead of things by giving some thought to next week before it begins, rather than just reacting to things as they come along.
5. Don’t spend a lot of time managing the system.
Keep it simple. Your objective isn’t to have a Pinterest-worthy checklist; it’s to get the things done that matter enough to you.
A productive life–even a productive day–doesn’t just happen automatically. If we’re not strategic and purposeful about it, the tyranny of the urgent directs our attention and efforts, and days, weeks, even months pass with no action taken on the goals, projects, and relationships that matter most to us. It requires us to be intentional about how we use our time, making sure that we have a simple, functional system in place both to capture, schedule, and complete the tasks that come up for our attention and to make sure we’re taking action, one small step at a time, toward accomplishing our long term personal and professional goals.
What do you think?
How do you manage your to-dos and get the things done that are most important to you? Post your suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links
- The New Corner Office, by Laura Vanderkam
- Getting Things Done, by David Allen
- TPW217, Being Intentional with Time, with Laura Vanderkam
Past episodes about task management
- TPW215 – Task Management 101
- TPW145 – Making the Most of Your To-Do List
- TPW130 – What’s On Your To-Do List?
Advice on choosing a task management tool
- TPW030 – Task Management Options
- TPW065 – How to Choose the Best Task Manager
- TPW355 – Simple Way to Manage To-Dos
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