No matter what time management or productivity tricks you use, I’m sure you’re no stranger to the to do list.
For many of us the dreaded to do list is a mile long page of all the stuff floating around our heads – to dos, project, goals, urgent or not, important or not, time sensitive or not.
When we go to do battle with the monster every day it feels like the battle with the mythical hydra where every time you cut off one head two more would grow back. By the time you get something done and are crossing it off, you’ve already written down two more things at the bottom – sometimes more.
And some of you might be like me and aren’t really writing any of it down. Instead it circles round and round your brain and you just do things (or not) as you think of them. Getting steadily overwhelmed by the amount of stuff just knocking around in there.
Because we can’t really get through life and reach our goals without tackling tasks, this is one of those universal unifiers of productivity. Many tasks will come at each of us, some of them need doing, some need delegating, some need ignoring.
There are multiple ways to handle your tasks, for sure. Just a quick search of “to do list” in the iTunes app store brings up a seemingly never ending scroll of options. Or you could be like me and go old school with paper and pen. Any way you scratch it, you’ve got to figure what’s coming at you, how to prioritize those items, how to organize them, and how to make time to get them done.
In this post I’m going to be talking about various methods that you can try to do all of the above. As I’ve said before, no productivity technique is one size fits all. You’re going to have to be willing to play around with different options to find what works for you. Don’t be afraid to piecemeal things together. Take only what’s useful and leave the rest.
HOW TO CONTAIN WHAT’S COMING AT YOU
To me the first step in managing tasks is containment. We’ve all go so much coming at us from so many directions that it’s very easy for something important to fall through the cracks.
As requests come in, it’s helpful to write them all down in a central place. This does not mean that it automatically becomes something you have to do. It is a request for your time and energy, and you need to evaluate it before you take it on.
Set aside some time in your day (usually first thing in the morning before checking email) to deal with your to do list. Take a look at that list of requests and decide what’s staying and what’s not. Just remember that if you’re declining an invitation that will still generate a to do in the form of calling or emailing someone. But that’s a lot less time than sitting in a meeting you don’t need to attend.
Unless you’re a hermit living in a yurt in the mountains, it’s highly unlikely that you can physically do all the things that are thrown at you over the course of a day/week/month. The demands on our time in this hectic society are immense and so we need to set up our boundaries around managing our time and energy.
If you’re struggling to ever say no to anything please check out this post before going any further. Saying yes to everything will lead to burnout and trust me that’s not a road you want to go down.
While evaluating your list you need to decide what is THE most important item on there that MUST be done TODAY. Sometimes there might be a couple more items on there that are non negotiable, but this is a short list that should be no more than 3 items. These are your urgent and important items.
Next scan through the list for other important items that you might work on if you have extra time. These can go under your top priorities.
There might also be items on there that are urgent for someone else, but not really important to you. These are items you might look at delegating to other people, or simply declining. Someone else’s lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for you. Help if you have time, but if it’s not important to you, use this finite resource elsewhere.
Anything that isn’t important and isn’t urgent needs to get put on another list. You might have a someday list or perhaps a list of things that you want to do but just isn’t time sensitive. This way you can refer back to it later and also by writing it down it lets your brain stop bouncing it around your head. That relief alone is worth it.
If you need more help figuring out what’s urgent and/or important, check out this post where I lay out all the definitions. You can process your tasks through it and save yourself a lot of energy that would be otherwise wasted on pointless tasks.
HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR TO DO LIST
Most of us are balancing multiple aspects of life. You’ve got personal stuff, work stuff, family stuff, and anything else you’ve got running like clubs, groups, volunteer work, teams, etc. And it seems like there are days when your phone won’t stop buzzing with new things that people from each of these areas needs you to do.
Some of these are those important things that are below your 1-3 MOST important to do items. In order to get the most out of your time it’s helpful to organize these items in a way that makes sense to you.
I personally break them down into work and personal first and then break it down further by actual action. But I’ve also heard from people that they break it down into actual action first such as phone calls, emails, physical errands, etc.
Everyone will be a little bit different here depending on your needs and your schedule. Sort it however it makes sense to you. Then if you have time where you’re stuck in traffic, maybe you can knock out a bunch of phone calls you need to return during that time.
As I talked about in the beginning we have so much swirling around us that it can get so overwhelming we just shut down and avoid. Procrastination is a method of avoiding the stress that the to do list is generating. But it doesn’t have to get like this.
There are some things to remember as it pertains to to dos. First of all, most of us have an average of 150 items that we want to do at any given time. This, of course, is impossible to tackle in a day – and it wouldn’t matter anyway because it will never, ever, EVER all be done.
Realizing that will help you release some of the stress of getting everything done. No one can, it’s not just you.
Also, that swirling list you have running should be considered a brain dump list. I have a notepad that I keep next to my bed because when I lay down to sleep is when all the things I didn’t do that day come at me. So right before I’m going to go to sleep I pour them out onto the paper.
The purpose of this is not to overwhelm you. This list is NOT your to do list. This is just a brain cleansing ritual. It’s a way to let your brain know that you’re not going to forget all this stuff you think you need to do. It allows you to calm your thoughts by knowing that the information is safely tucked away somewhere.
When you do a brain dump it’s highly likely that your next 1-3 most important things are in that list somewhere. So this can be a helpful exercise if you’re struggling to figure out what you really need to do.
Just starting writing it out. Whatever is in your head goes down on the paper – not matter how irrelevant or inconsequential. For example, I plan to paint our basement this summer and my brain keeps coming back to that as a to do even though I have absolutely no time to start until June.
But that’s just how brains work. Paint the basement comes up on the brain dump on the regular but it won’t make it to the 1-3 items or the important items for quite some time. Just getting it out there helps me let go of it for awhile and shows me that not everything swirling around my brain is mission critical for a random Tuesday in March.
To avoid overwhelm transfer only the 1-3 most important things and any of the other important things you might realistically do today or can schedule on your calendar. Then put the brain dump away. It’s not your to do list and you don’t need to look at it anymore.
HOW TO AVOID OVER SCHEDULING
Our brains are terrible at estimating how long things will take. Throw in unexpected distractions or urgent items out of your control and you might not get anything done you had thought you would today.
The struggle is real in this department but there are a couple things that can help.
First, time yourself doing tasks that you do all the time and write down the average. I write this blog post every week and it takes me about an hour. It feels like it’s two hours, but it’s not. I’ve also timed all the other aspects of prepping it to be published. And while in my head it’s this day long affair – it’s really not. And knowing those numbers helps me realize that I can in fact do more in one day than just a blog post.
Second, schedule anything you can on your calendar. You can do this one of two ways. The first is you literally take your to dos that you have for the day and you put the time blocks on your calendar. You can also look at those other important things and carve out time for them later in the week. This will help make it clear that you can’t do everything on the request list so it’s time to start declining some stuff.
Personally, this is not realistic for me. I have two small kids at home and I rarely know exactly when I will have time. What I do is I have a calendar for the week where I have put in all of our activities and all the times we need to homeschool. I’ve prioritized my workout for first thing in the morning and put in the times when I need to make dinner. Anything that was left I marked for work.
Then when I get to my work block I start at the top of my to do list and work my way down. If I hadn’t already figured out what my most important things were for the day I would be wasting my time during my work block trying to decide what to focus on.
That’s why spending some time in the morning to organize your tasks for the day is so important.
HOW TO MAKE AN ACTUAL TO DO LIST
As I mentioned earlier your brain dump is not your to do list, but neither are your projects, your goals, or your dreams. Putting items that are too big on your list is another solid way to send yourself straight into overwhelm.
If you need to keep another list of these things, then by all means do so. I find it helpful to put projects on a page and then break them down into the actual to dos underneath. For example if I need to “get ready for the party” I can’t just put that on my to do list. It’s too big, too vague, and not exactly actionable.
What I will do is create a party list and then list out all the food I need to make, the rooms that need cleaning, the decorations (by store) that need to be purchased. Any added information you can put with your to dos to help yourself later is worth it. For example dividing things up by stores, or putting in the phone number for the bakery, or the address to the balloon place will save your energy when you’re actually doing the work.
If you do it like this then you can go ahead and insert that stuff in your calendar or do as I do and put dates next to the items and put them on your to do list when those dates come up.
HOW TO KEEP MOTIVATED
If you’re always going to have around 150 items you want to do, it’s pretty easy to say I give up and go binge watch instead. How on Earth can you stay motivated in the midst of all these demands?
One spectacular way to do this is to keep a DONE list. This is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a list of all the stuff you did today.
If you happen to be a work at home mom like me I’m willing to bet that you get a heck of a lot more stuff done in a day than you had ever planned. A typical Tuesday for me would just be taking my kid to dance class, homeschooling, and going to Toastmasters. Those are my 1-3 most importants.
However it’s likely that I also made dinner, did laundry, did dishes, assembled a lego set with my kid, or got some other manner of work done. That’s a lot of things outside the bounds of those 1-3 priorities.
When I go back to look at my to do list I would say yeah I checked off those big things, big whoop. But why the hell am I so tired? If I keep a done list I can see all the stuff I actually did and feel really proud of myself.
A done list can even serve as a way to keep a gratitude practice. I’m sure something happened in the course of getting all that bonus stuff done that I am really grateful for. Maybe my four year old “helped” with laundry or maybe my son actually ate all his dinner.
These little things can get overlooked or forgotten, but when we reflect back on our day like this, it’s easier to feel proud of our accomplishments and be grateful about the day. These feelings help bolster our motivation to keep moving forward tomorrow.
To do lists are the ubiquitous productivity tool. Just about everyone has one in one form or another. Learning how to use them properly and make them work for you, with the above tips, will help you start accomplishing things instead of hiding from them.
If you’re constantly overwhelmed or drained from everything life is throwing at you, please contact me here. Coaching can help you sort out your priorities and find time for what’s really important to you.