Crafting the Perfect To-Do List

Crafting the Perfect To-Do List

While researching productivity practices and challenges, I found that approximately 80% of us use some sort of calendar to manage and keep track of our time. We diligently enter in meetings, appointments, birthdays and other reminders. However, surprisingly, I also found that 80% of us do not have any system or methodology for tracking our tasks.

Some of us jot tasks down on a piece of paper but don’t have the list with us when we remember something else that we need to do. So, this list ends up being incomplete. Some use a notebook or try to remember tasks by adding notes or reminders on our phones. Others just hope that somehow it will all just get done.

So, why aren’t we using some sort of system, process or list to manage our tasks? Because most of them just don’t really work and often it becomes more work to maintain the list than to do the tasks. Here’s what you need to do to create a to-do list that will actually help you get things done.

KEEP ONE CENTRAL LIST 

The most critical element in developing a system that will work is to create and maintain all your tasks in one single to-do list. It’s best to keep track of everything you need to do on your Smartphone using the Notes or a task management app so your list is always with you as tasks come up. This makes it much easier to review, prioritize and determine what to tackle when.

PRIORITIZE

Don’t try to get everything done all at once. Many people fail to use to-do lists because they find them to be too overwhelming. While the list should contain everything you need or want to get done, you must prioritize the top three things you need to do each day so it’s more manageable and achievable. Schedule time in your day to focus on completing your top three prioritized tasks.

CLEANSE YOUR LIST

Spend a few minutes each day reviewing your list and updating it. Don’t be afraid to change your priorities during the day as things come up and challenge yourself to delete tasks from your list as well. Often, when a task lingers on your list for several weeks, it’s an indicator that it may not be that important.

CREATE SMALLER TASKS

Make sure to enter tasks that are clear and actionable in a set amount of time. Frequently, people get frustrated with their lists because nothing ever gets done. Make sure your tasks are broken down into each step along the way. For example, instead of adding a to-do to “Plan the party” start with “Set Date for the Party.” Once that’s done, then add “Create Guest List” and “Draft Party Invitation.”

TRY THIS OUT: How are you currently keeping track of your tasks? Are they all listed in one place? If not, start a central list or download a task management app like priorigami? After you get in the habit of keeping all your to-do’s in one list, check back to see how your tasks match up to these recommendations.

The Two Minute Rule

The Two Minute Rule

This rule is so simple in theory but harder to put into practice. Yet, if you can get in the habit of doing it, I promise you will save yourself so much time. The concept was first introduced by David Allen in “Getting Things Done” and many productivity experts and gurus continue to promote it including Daniel Pink in a recent Pinkcast episode.

Here’s how it works:  If you can complete a task in less than two minutes, you should just do it. Don’t put it off, don’t try to remember to do it later, don’t even write it down. Just do it and get it done. See, very simple.

So, how do you actually make that happen? Like I said, it’s much easier said than done but here are some examples that might help. When you bring in the mail, stand by the recycling bin and go through it. Immediately throw out any junk mail or flyers. Sort the bills into a pile to batch pay later. File anything that you might need to keep or reference later. Create a “follow up” pile for anything left over. You will never again have piles of mail laying around your house.

Similarly, you can use rule this for going through your email. This methodology called Inbox Zero is rooted in the same principle. Set aside time specific times throughout your day to check email and then follow these steps:

    1. Delete junk immediately.
    2. Archive or file emails that you may need to keep and refer to later.
    3. Forward emails that can be delegated.
    4. If a response or action can be done in under two minutes, just do it.
    5. The rest require further action and should be managed as tasks.

Some other opportunities to save time including putting your clothes away when you change, washing your dishes as soon as you finish eating, making your bed as soon as you get up in the morning. Imagine never having to find and devote time to doing a whole pile of dishes or cleaning up your room or closet. You also won’t ever have to spend time looking for your favorite sweater.

You can also use this rule for positive results. Take two minutes to call your Mom, text a friend or thank someone who did something nice for you. These are the types of things we think about doing but never get around to. How often do you say, “I was going to call you, but I’ve been so busy”? Instead of putting it off, just do it as soon as you think of it. Not only does it get done, but you feel good and so does the recipient of your kind thought.

TRY THIS OUT: As you go through the rest of your day, think critically about tasks that you need to do and how long they will take. Challenge yourself to immediately tackle anything that can be completed in less than two minutes. At the end of the day, assess how it went and how you feel. Did you get more done?

Your Life in Lists

Your Life in Lists

Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group and author, disclosed on his blog that the secret to success is to “write it down.” He shares, “Ever since I was a child I have made lists of all kinds, including short-term tasks, long-term goals and resolutions. It’s how I make sense of the world, bring order to the ideas in my head, and start turning them into action.”

I believe him. I have lists and lists for everything. It’s how I was able to keep everything in order and stay on top of everything for many years. The real key to success isn’t just about writing it down but also how you organize and manage your lists. Here are some ideas:

Shopping Lists

Keep lists of everything you need to buy. I organize my lists by store so when I’m in that store, I pull up my list and don’t forget to buy anything. A great app for this is AnyList which allows you to share your shopping lists.

Work Lists

If you are an individual contributor working on many projects, organize your lists by project. Include everything from tasks, to open questions and items you need to follow up on. If you are a manager, organize your lists by employee. Again, include all open items. I used a notebook that I always kept with me so I could write things down as soon as they came up.

Task Lists

The key here is to only have one to-do list and make sure you always have it with you. Most people I talk to have lists in all different places, their work notebook, their phone, Post-It Notes and in their head. When it comes down to it, items get forgotten or fall through the cracks. Most people always have their phones with them so I use the task management app, priorigami: the art of productivity, to store all my to-dos in one place.

Entertainment Lists

I keep lists of books I want to read, shows I want to watch, movies I want to see, restaurants I want to try, places I want to visit and people I want to catch up with so whenever I have some free time, I quickly scan through my lists and find something to do. I keep these in the Notes section of my phone so I can quickly access them.

Done Lists

I am a strong believer in documenting completed tasks and accomplishments because it makes you feel good and motivates you to do more. I have kept a Done list in various forms for over 20 years.

If you want to learn more about how lists can help you become more productive, check out Paula Rizzo’s book, Listful Thinking. It’s an easy read. If you want to have some fun with lists, try Listography: Your Life in Lists which is a series of journals of lists.

TRY THIS OUT: What lists do you currently maintain? Which work for you and which ones don’t? What lists might be helpful for you to have? What’s the best format for your list and where should you keep it to make sure it’s readily available when needed.

The Three List Assessment

The Three List Assessment

The leaves are changing colors. Football is being played across the country. Signs of the upcoming holiday season are popping up everywhere and then you suddenly realize that there are only a few weeks left in the year. It’s the perfect time to assess progress against your personal resolutions and business performance goals.

What did you set out to do this year? How are you faring against those goals? Do you even remember them? At the end of the year, many employers ask you to assess your own performance as an input to year-end reviews which may impact bonuses or salary increases. Take the time NOW to see how you’ve done so far and what you can do over the next two months to make sure you hit all of your goals.

First, figure out where you stand against your goals. Then, use this easy exercise to make any needed adjustments: simply identify the top three things you should STOP, START or CONTINUE doing. Periodically I use this three list methodology to assess progress against an individual deliverable, team project or a personal goal.

STOP

Start here because this is the hardest but most critical piece. Think about which activities take up a lot of time but are not helping you achieve your goals. Consider time spent in meetings, writing reports, responding to emails or time spent with a particularly needy colleague. You will quickly realize many of these can be eliminated, delayed or delegated. Pick three of these that you can stop doing without impacting your goals.

START

With the time you have just freed up, what three things can you start doing that will help you achieve your goals. Did you resolve to exercise more, try skipping a meeting a week and get outside and walk during that time. Instead of responding to every email, is there some research or other deep work that you can focus on doing instead? Come up with three solid tasks that will get you closer to achieving your goals and prioritize them over everything else for the next two months.

CONTINUE

What have you been doing that has been successful in helping you achieve your goals. Make sure you identify three productive activities and keep doing them. Being aware of these will help you to continue to make time and prioritize these activities. You may even think of ways to increase or improve these tasks.

TRY THIS OUT: How have you done achieving your resolutions or goals?  If you’ve been keeping a Done list, this will be easy to assess. Once you understand the gap and know what is left to do, schedule an hour this week to create your STOP, START and CONTINUE LISTS. Once you have created these lists, make sure you adjust your calendar to eliminate the things you are going to STOP and schedule in the ones you are going to START.

Big Rocks and Little Rocks

Big Rocks and Little Rocks

We all struggle with prioritizing the big and important things in life and making time and finding the focus to tackle them. For several years, when I was working in the corporate world, I printed this out and hung it up in my office.

img_3073

It often caught people’s attention and got us started on substantive conversations about their work, identifying priorities, choosing how to manage time and about focusing on the big rocks versus the little rocks.

When faced with a big long list of tasks, most of us naturally gravitate to the quick and easy ones first. And, why not? Finishing off a few things quickly makes you feel good and accomplished in the short term, but is this the right approach for the long term?

You might recall Steven Covey’s story about life’s bucket and if you fill it first with sand, then gravel, you will run out of space for the bigger rocks. However, if you start with the big rocks first, followed by the gravel and finally the sand, there will be plenty of room for it all since the smaller items will fill in the gaps in between the bigger ones.

Seems to make sense in the physical world but how do we apply this to our real life tasks? How do we make sure we are putting the big rocks first when it’s so easy to get side-tracked by the gravel and sand? Nowadays it’s more difficult than ever with so many constant dings, pings, notifications and alerts all constantly clamoring for our attention.

Simply start by prioritizing your daily top three tasks, or BIG ROCKS, for each day. You don’t have to prioritize the little things; they will just naturally fall into place. You don’t need to put eat lunch or check email or go to the bathroom on your list of priorities because you will naturally make the time to take care of those things. It’s the big, important and hard things you need to identify and then find dedicated time to focus on getting done.

TRY THIS OUT: First, evaluate what you are spending your time on? What are the big rocks that you need to tackle? How much time are you currently dedicating to the big rocks versus the little rocks? How can you adjust your schedule or your priorities to make time for the big rocks?

Smarter Uses of Your Smartphone

Smarter Uses of Your Smartphone

We all carry around our smart phones as if they were a part of our body and check them an average of 85 times a day. Not only do they serve as phones, they have replaced calendars, cameras, alarm clocks and radios. For some they have even taken the place of our computers. Here are some additional features of your smart phone that you may not be taking advantage of that can help you increase your productivity.

DON’T ANSWER TO A NUMBER

This one is very basic but hard to do. With contacts, you can see who is calling you. If you don’t recognize the phone number of the person calling you, DO NOT answer it. Let them leave a message and then you can determine if and how to respond. Nine times out of ten, they won’t even leave a message. Also, if someone you know calls but you’re in the middle of something, stay focused and give them a call back later.

KEEP TRACK OF TASKS

You always have your phone with you so it’s the best place to keep track of your tasks. Whenever something pops into your mind to get done, enter it into an app on your phone and then you don’t have to remember to remember to do it later. Free your mind and use your phone store your tasks. Plus, when you have time, all of your tasks will be in one single place making it much easier to prioritize.

USE YOUR TIMER

Being productive requires focus which is becoming more and more challenging given the large number of distractions competing for our attention. Try using the timer on your phone to set aside 20-30 minute blocks of time for focused, uninterrupted deep work. You will be amazed at how much you can get done in that amount of time as well as how quickly time flies by. When the timer goes off, reward yourself with a quick 5-10 minute break and then repeat.

SET REMINDERS

If you have to do something at a particular time or by a specific time, set a reminder. Reminders will alert you with a buzz and a quick message so you don’t forget something critically important. In this case, this type of alert or notification can actually save you.

TRY THIS OUT: Think about how you currently use your phone. It is just for phone calls, emails and text messages? What other features can you utilize to help you stay focused and become more productive. Pick one of the suggestions from above and try it out for a week to see how it feels and if it is helpful or not.

The Daily Top Three

The Daily Top Three

So, you have a to-do list and things get added to your list but it feels like nothing ever comes off the list. Sound familiar? While most people know how to create and update their lists, they don’t really know how to manage it. How do you prioritize items? When should you delete a task? How do you decide which task to focus on first?

Most productivity gurus promote the concept of selecting a few tasks to focus on at a time instead of trying to do everything all at once. Leo Babauta, author Essential Zen Habits, popularized the term Most Important Thing (MIT) to promote the idea of identifying your top one to three tasks each day. In a recent Pinkcast, Daniel Pink asserts that using the MIT process is a simple trick to getting the right stuff done.

Here’s how it works for me. It’s a little like playing the lottery. Each day you simply pick your top three priorities for the day and focus your time and efforts on making sure they get done. You win when you complete all three of them before the end of the day. Sounds easy and fun, right?

While there are many task management tools and apps available to track tasks, none help you actually manage your list and get stuff done. A new task management app called priorigami: the art of productivity has this concept baked into the app.

Each day the app sends you a reminder to select your Daily Top Three. You can choose to get the reminder at any time you choose such as the night before or at the beginning of your day. Click on the reminder to review your list of tasks and then drag and drop your priority tasks into the Daily Top Three section. The app tracks your progress and sends you a progress update towards the end of the day giving you just enough time and a little nudge to finish up any remaining tasks.

IMG_2837

Sometimes things come up and priorities change during the day so you can always go into the app and shuffle your tasks and reset your Daily Top Three tasks for the day. In fact, this is a good habit to adopt even without any unexpected disruptions. The app will send you a reminder to review and shuffle your tasks during the day as well.

TRY THIS OUT: Download priorigami for FREE from the iTunes App Store. Try it out for a week and commit to selecting your Daily Top Three each day. What were the results? Did you feel more focused on your priorities? Did you get more done? Do you feel better knowing you are working on the most important things?