Ever since early man first scratched his desire to “Make fire, find food” and “Don’t get eaten” on a cave wall, goal-oriented people have been approaching each new day in a similar fashion, jotting down in one form or another the upcoming tasks that require their attention.
The “To Do List” hasn’t much evolved since those dark perilous days in terms of its primary purpose: the need to plan our day and manage time effectively, but there has been a progression in terms of its complexity.
Today, the need for better to do lists — from how to write them, what should and should not appear on them, and most importantly, how to get the most from them — has never been more important.
Put aside 15 minutes at the end of each day to write tomorrow’s to do list.
When “To Do” It
Ironically, the first thing to do each day should not be your to do list—it should already be waiting for you when you arrive at your desk. After all, there are much more important things to be doing first thing in the morning, like getting that first all-important coffee. Put aside 15 minutes at the end of each day to write tomorrow’s to do list.
Writing a to do list the day before has many advantages over planning your upcoming day on the morning in question. After all, you have just completed a day’s work and hence should have a good idea of where you are in the grand scale of things. What didn’t you get to today? What tasks will naturally fall into tomorrow’s to do list?
Writing tomorrow’s to do list can also be a cathartic exercise; a way of recognizing that everything does not all need to be done in one day.
Have you just had one of those days and are now left with that dreaded “I’ve got nothing done” feeling? Write tomorrow’s to do list. You’ll feel better for it.
Plan in advance. Look ahead a few days. Is there a big chunk of work looming on the horizon?
- Do check tomorrow’s calendar and schedule. Tomorrow’s to do list will likely consist of meetings and any crucial deadlines that are fast approaching.
- Do plan in advance. Look ahead a few days. Is there a big chunk of work looming on the horizon? Maybe tomorrow is a good time to make a start on it.
- Do consult today’s to do list and focus on any outstanding tasks. These remaining jobs will likely feature on tomorrow’s list.
- Don’t start tomorrow’s to do list at the very end of the day, as doing so will likely result in merely jotting down the more obvious of upcoming tasks on your agenda. To do lists help focus and guide you through the day and dedicating a few minutes to the process will save you time in the long run. Most comprehensive to do lists take less than ten minutes to draft.
- Don’t try and foretell the future. Avoid adding to tomorrow’s list tasks you think might crop up. Your to do list is a fluid entity, and you can always add to it tomorrow if need be.
Red tasks (usually) need to be done today no matter what.
Color Coded Prioritization
Introducing color to your to do list is a simple and effective way of clearly defining and easily categorizing the numerous and varying tasks at hand.
When it comes to prioritization, people use different criteria to determine how their tasks should be ranked. Generally, however, the tried and trusted traffic light system works best. Red tasks need to be done today no matter what. Amber tasks are important but it’s not the end of the world if they slip into tomorrow, while green tasks are usually jobs of such low priority that not doing them might have no adverse effect at all.
There are numerous ways to designate a particular task with a color. Some people might rate financial impact as the prominent factor and designate the red flag to tasks that either cost (or gain) the company money. For others, it’s simply a matter of how irate their boss will be if the task in question isn’t done in the designated time span.
As every business and employee is different, the most universal system is to rate each task between 1 and 3 in terms of importance and again in terms of urgency. Multiply the two numbers together with tasks rated 7 and over designated red, 4 – 6 as amber, while any task with a number between 1 and 3 becomes a lowly green task.
After your to do list is completed, quickly scan through the items and classify them with the above numbers in your head. Grab some fluorescent pens and mark each task with its respective color, and then review.
- Do take into account previously skipped tasks. If you’ve bumped a task from one day to the next, this task should automatically get a higher priority.
- Do ignore the rating scale above when appropriate. Something with very high urgency but low impact could still be deemed a red task and vice versa. Purchasing a leaving gift for a departing colleague might by 1 in importance and 3 in urgency (making it a green task) but you should make it a red anyway, as it needs to be done quickly. The scale is not perfect and there will always be exceptions to the rules.
- Don’t make everything red. Not only would that demoralize you completely, it’s important to remember that prioritization is relative. In theory, you should have an equal number of tasks of each color. The logic here is that it’s simply not possible to give everything the same priority. Something always has a higher relevance than another task upon reflection. Also, a task that is red on one day could also be amber another day. It all depends on what other tasks are on the list.
There are a number of very good products on the market that make the hassle of finding colored pens and scraps of paper totally redundant. Remember the Milk and Todoist are two of the more popular applications out there with free versions that are likely more than adequate for your to do needs.
Digital to do lists are also a great way of keeping a historical record of your workload. How often do you keep old post-its or journals of what you did a few years ago?
These applications allow you to bundle tasks into groups and quickly assign color-coded prioritization. Digital to do lists are also a great way of keeping a historical record of your workload. How often do you keep old post-its or journals of what you did a few years ago?
- Do try out different products before settling on the one for you. What works for one person may not work for you.
- Don’t rely completely on online versions. Sometimes there’s nothing better than just jotting down a quick list in a meeting or when you’re away from your desk. You can always transfer these tasks to the respective application later.
- Don’t get fancy. These applications will take up more time to manage, complete and maintain. Inventing a complex system will only have you fumbling with hot-keys and an assortment of groups rather than quickly adding and completing your tasks.
What Not To Do
It’s human nature to want to scratch task after completed task off your list but your to do list should only consist of unique tasks for the day. “Reading Email” may indeed qualify as a legitimate task but it’s a safe bet that you likely do this every day and will do it without prompting or reminder.
Cluttering your to do list with mundane and ancillary tasks might allow you to scratch off a larger number of tasks for the day but you’re actually defeating the purpose. A to do list is a formulated plan, not a shopping list.
“Reading Email” may indeed qualify as a legitimate task but it’s a safe bet that you likely do this every day and will do it without prompting or reminder.
- Do keep your to do list concise and devoid of recurring or regular tasks. If you fill in a time-sheet each day, you don’t need your to do list to remind you of this.
- Don’t bend the truth. Lunch is not a task. Neither is making coffee—unless it’s a coffee meeting. That’s different.
- Don’t flood your list with superfluous micro-tasks. It’s tempting, but over-filling your list in order to feel like your making headway through your workload is counter-productive.
If a task is very small, actually do it rather than adding it to your list. Use your to do list as inspiration for getting a host of small things done before you leave for the evening. Confirm a reservation, order stationary, clean up your desktop. We can get a lot of quick things done at the end of the day if we put our minds to it.
Quantify Your Results
Tasks on a to do list should be punchy, succinct and contain at least one action verb. Words like “Finish” and “Complete” are what you’re looking for. Stay clear of terms such as “Start” or “Investigate”. Starting something is easy. Focus on the stopping part. Similarly, if you find one of your to do list tasks to be a tad nebulous, it’s likely going to be quite hard to strike it off with a satisfactory “Done!” swipe of your pen.
Stay clear of terms such as “Start” or “Investigate”. Starting something is easy. Focus on the stopping part.
Avoid describing the action and pin-point the result. A task like: “Talk to Jeff re: options of what to do about the GUI” has no definitive outcome. You can talk to Jeff but how do you know you won’t be talking to him again about the same topic tomorrow unless you set an objective? To do lists have the handy knock-on effect of strengthening direction and making people goal-oriented. “Talk to Jeff and agree on an option for the GUI.” Now we’re getting there!
- Quantify your results. Never bog your to do list down with tasks that are immeasurable. Such indefinite tasks are guaranteed to never get off your list. If you know a task can’t be completed on the day in question, either aim for a percentage of the task in a set time scale or identify a milestone and set this as your goal instead. “Work on financial report” will have you there until midnight. “Complete sections 1 and 2 of financial report” will have you home at a respectable hour.
- Don’t put the completion of a task on your list that has a deadline in the future. Adding “Complete report before Friday” on Tuesday’s list is a prime example of a task that is just going to be ignored until Friday. Of course, your to do list should not only comprise of today’s work schedule but also elements of tasks that will end sometime in the future. Break these tasks down into logical units and focus on the segments. “Friday’s Big Report: Complete analysis of shipping data today” is a good task for a Tuesday.
- Don’t try and chronicle your day. No one is that prescient. Remember that a to do list is not a diary. To do lists should never be in chronological order or take the format of an essay. You’ll spend more time planning the day rather than actually working it.
Your to do list will probably tell less than half the story of how you spend your working day.
You’ve Got More To Do Than What’s On Your List
If you ever feel that your to do list is ruling (or ruining) your life, you need to take a step back and review how you are drafting your lists. Your day will undoubtedly consist of many tasks that you did not plan when drafting your list the day before. An impromptu request from your manager to write a report? Urgent call to head-office to mitigate a growing situation? Your to do list will probably tell less than half the story of how you spend your working day.
Always leave enough room for day-to-day tasks and other unplanned events that naturally appear during office hours.
- Do remember that some things will take longer than expected while other tasks will take less time than originally planned.
- Do review your list with an objective eye. If your to do list is full of tasks likely to take up the majority of the day, consider possibly moving some orange and green tasks to the next day or see if you can delegate certain tasks to other members of staff.
- Don’t get demotivated if, at the end of the day, there’s more things unfinished on your list than completed. Maybe you earmarked too much for one day or a number of unforeseen events absorbed a lot of your working time. “Didn’t-Do Remorse Syndrome” is the feeling of looking at a mostly incomplete to do list and feeling despondent due to not getting through as much as you originally had hoped to.
- To do lists are not sacrosanct and should be seen as your aspiration for the day. We all aim to get a lot done in the time we’re at the office but some days are better than others. Accept an unfinished to do list as what it is: an opportunity to finish it the next day. There’s nothing stopping you from moving the open tasks to tomorrow’s list and tackling them again with a new day’s freshness.
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