People tend to either love or hate to-do lists (often in the same day). On one hand, it can be quite helpful to have a record of what needs to be done and extremely satisfying to tick off those items you’ve completed. On the other hand, it’s easy to get bogged down when you haven’t accomplished what you expected or when too many items simply overwhelm you. Luckily, with a few simple tricks and some handy tools, these pitfalls can be easily avoided and maybe even have you swooning over your to-do list. Okay, well at least maybe no longer hating it 🙂
A little honesty goes a long way
First, be realistic about what you can and will accomplish and when, paying special attention to promises you’ve made to your clients. The best way to begin is to sit in a quiet place and jot everything down you can, no matter how small or large. Don’t organize just yet, just get stuff down, preferably on that antiquated thing we call “paper”. This exercise of writing it in your hand and seeing it will help your mind sort things. Sometimes this is a painful process: you realize just how much stuff you have ahead, but really, it will get better.
A theme that might unfold at this stage is that of over-promising and under-delivering, especially where clients are concerned. For some, it’s our nature to want to get things to clients immediately, but it’s not always possible and really, it’s not practical. Break this nasty habit now, if it’s one you have. Establish realistic timelines for being able to deliver things to clients and build in the slightest of cushions, just in case things go wrong ahead of the deadline. If you fall behind and it’s possible a deadline won’t be hit, let the client know well ahead of time. Most will understand why there is a delay and ALL will appreciate you being forthright, even if they’re not happy with the news. If your clients set unrealistic or unattainable timelines, take the reigns and get things straight from your end. Let clients know your timeline for giving them superb work and stand by it. We’ve been taught “the client is always right”, but you know your own turnaround times better than they do. If they don’t yield and insist on something you know is unrealistic, it might be a bad fit overall. Identify that early, before you’re in over your head in an impossible situation.
This seems like a tough step when talking about a to-do list, but it’s an undeniable fact: if you don’t have control over your delivery schedule, you won”t have control over your to-do list.
Next up, get organized
Make multiple to-do lists, such as a monthly, weekly, and daily one, plus an “eventually/maybe” list for items that are not urgent, but you don’t want to forget about altogether. A few easy ways to kick-start this is to label different sheets, even a spreadsheet. I like to have my digital list sporting checkboxes beside them, but my paper lists I jot daily in pencil, then scribble out my “done” tasks. In my office, I use two types of lists for two purposes; digital, because I like electronic reminders on certain items related to projects; paper, because my handwritten objectives are things that are easier or quick tasks. I get personal satisfaction scratching those items off in pencil, then looking back over the day and taking any remaining items to make a new list for the following day. Which brings me to…
Use what works for you
Once you have decided on a list style that works for you, don’t be shy about adding items to the list as you accomplish them. In fact, I encourage this. You obviously spent time performing them, so add them to the list with my blessing as a record of the day’s accomplishments. (Trust me: it will feel awesome checking them off.) By allowing your daily to-do list to reflect both what needs to be done and what was done, you will be able to better monitor your time management and priorities. If you notice your number of unchecked daily items always outnumbers those checked off, consider what items you can eliminate and/or how you might restructure your days more efficiently.
Make your list the night before
This has helped me enormously over the years, especially when I knew there was an onslaught of work coming my way. Sit down the night before, when you’re ending your work day and lay out what’s coming up. I like my daily to-do list on my desk in the morning, so I handle it first, before emails, before phone calls. I might not knock the whole list off, but I know what’s on tap for the day, rather than taking that work time to form the list. The other thing that happens: your mind will begin solving things (sometimes in your sleep) overnight, so when morning comes, you are ready to tick more things off.
Control your environment
The enemy of most to-do lists is interruptions and distractions. Some people claim to be able to work great with noise, people, phones, dings, and pings, but each of these in their own way is trying to draw your attention, just by their very nature. It might be that you need to really block your time to prevent interruptions like email, phone, IM’s and the awesome and lovely Tweet. I tend to reward myself with some Twitter or Facebook time if I hit a certain number of tasks by a certain time, for example. Take note and acknowledge things that continually take you off track or distract you: the next day, try to minimize those things that allowed you to stray from your list. If you are serious about slaying your to-do list, you have to get a handle on these things and eliminate as much as possible that takes your eye, ears and attention away from what you need to get done. Try closing your door, turning off or muting your devices, shutting down social channels, etc., for a few hours at a time. Another thing to try is setting only certain times of a day that you can talk to people. You are the only one that can really control this, so give it a whirl. Others will get used to it.
Get creative with your lists
Unless tasks must be completely in a certain order, have fun picking items at random, or according to your mood, from your list. Color code items by priority or skill set, or arrange items into 15 to 60 minute chunks. The best part of a do-to list is checking items off, so have fun with it. Use a big black marker, colored pencils or highlighters, stickers, or write down something you’ll treat yourself to upon completion as an incentive. I like scratching off with a squiggly line 🙂
Another way to get creative with your to-do lists is to take them online. Simple programs, such as Ta-Da List or my favorite, Evernote allow you to create multiple lists within multiple categories, so it’s easy to stay organized, and save them online. You can share lists with others (perfect for collaborative projects) or just keep them on hand for your own use. Access from your computer or smartphone means you can check in with your to-dos at any time and check off items from anywhere. Also, if you’re not already using one, you should be using a project management tool, if your work has multiple steps involved to take it to completion. We use Mavenlink.
Which style of list works for you, and how you use it, is really a matter of personal preference. But, if your current system sends you hiding under the bed to escape the overwhelm, consider adopting one or more of the methods mentioned above for a change. When you find a system that works for you, you may surprise yourself with the enjoyment you get from logging and completing your tasks.
Finally, quit working at a reasonable time
Probably the hardest thing to do is to work a regular number of hours and quit for the day, even with the list unfinished. If you’re working more hours that a normal workday should be, you’re likely over-committing and falsely believing you’ll catch up: it’s a paradox. It’s better to stop working, walk away and return refreshed the next day. Doing otherwise means your list will continue to be insurmountable and guess what? It usually is. It’s no coincidence we do our best work after a great night of sleep. I know it seems counter-intuitive: it seems like the longer we work, the closer we’ll get to completing that list, but what really happens is the list gets longer and longer. The other problem? You start to become resentful of the work and the time you put in, plus the possibility for errors increases. What’s normal? You know. Make it happen.
Remember: to-do lists are a tool, not a life sentence. Sometimes you just need to move things on to the “tomorrow” list. The point is to come up with something that helps you get a handle and gives you the sense of accomplishment you need.