Friday, September 15, 2006

To Do Lists

A few days ago, a friend of mine growled that she wasn’t sure if her To-Do list was growing while she wasn’t looking or if her days were getting shorter, but she didn’t seem to be making any progress into reducing the length of the list. There was always so much to do, and so little time…. Considering the way she looked at the list, it’s a wonder it didn’t spontaneously combust right there in her hand!

A “To-do” list is a great reminder, but it sure can boost the pressure and the stress if you let it. Make sure you control the list; don’t let the list control you.

Here are a few things you can do to keep the list from getting the upper hand.

1. Use your two “ize:” organize and prioritize.

Write at the top of your list: “Should do today” and list the five most important tasks to complete for the day. No more than five, please! These should be the tasks that have deadlines within the next couple of days, and projects for which you have all the resources and are prepared to complete. If you have a high-priority project or task, but do not have all the materials you need to complete it, do not rank that project in the top five. Instead, you might include gathering the materials in your 1 to 5 ranking so you will be prepared for this project the next day. Make sure this “top five” list includes at least one job or task that is something you will enjoy doing. Looking at a list of things you don’t like to do can be depressing, and will adversely affect your mood and efficiency.

Next, write: “If there is time” and list the five tasks that follow the first five in importance. If you get to work on any of the items in this second group of five, fine; if not, without feeling guilty you can move them to the top of the list for tomorrow.

Next, write: “Do whenever” and list the rest of the tasks that you know you will have to complete sooner or later, but are low priority. There can be any number of “whenever” tasks or projects, but try to keep the list reasonably short so as not to look overwhelming. “Whenever” tasks are often notes to yourself, “ticklers” as one of my former employers called them; they “tickle” your memory but are not immediate tasks or projects that you must deal with. Keep your “To Do” list on the straight and narrow by writing these ticklers on a separate “Tickle” list.

Here is the part people find most difficult: Stick To Your List! At least part of the frustration many people feel today is due to hopping from one task to another, doing part of many but completing none. If you gathered your materials together before you started the job (see item 2 below), you should be able to sail through your task without needless interruption. Once you have written your list, do finish each task in order, and do not change the priority of the items unless you absolutely must.

2. Start each task by gathering together all the materials you will need to do the job. Nothing wastes your time more than interrupting your work to go get that report you need from Beth, or that box of parts from Steve. Not only does it waste time, it interrupts the flow of work and thought, and when you return, you take even more time reorienting yourself to the task. I call this the “Now, where was I?” syndrome. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but do avoid it if you can.

3. When you do complete a task, congratulate yourself, cross it off the list, and put the project, report, or other accomplishment as far away as possible! Any finished reports or projects should be sent on their way or put out of sight. Once you have gone on to the next job, you do not want to be tempted by it beckoning to you from the edge of the desk to go back and “improve” the work already finished.

4. Take a break between jobs, especially if you have spent more than ninety dedicated minutes on it. It is a fact that people begin to lose the ability to focus after an hour or so of intense concentration. (Yes, this really does mean you, too.) You are not doing yourself or anyone else any favors by pushing on or toughing it out on a long project. In fact, you may end up taking longer to complete it or redoing parts of it because of the detrimental effect working without a break has on your ability to concentrate. Wise and effective people take a few minutes each hour to walk around or stand up and stretch, or just get away from the desk or workbench for a few minutes. See my previous article “Stand up and stretch! You will be better able to concentrate, and will complete your work in less time than if you had not taken a break.

The sad fact is working yourself to the point of burnout does not make you indispensable, it makes you disposable.

5. Revamp and reorganize your list at the end of the day. This finalizes your day, brings some closure to whatever crazy things went on as you tried to work through the ringing phones and other interruptions. Updating your list at the end of the day allows you to go home and relax knowing everything is as prepared as possible for the next day. You can always reassess and rearrange the list in the morning if priorities have changed overnight.

Take the last ten minutes of your day to rewrite your list so it is neat. When you see your list in the morning, it sets the tone for your day; you do not want to enter your office or workspace and begin your day by trying to decipher a scribbled-on, crossed-off, circled, starred, or otherwise messy list that you can barely read. If you start off fresh, clean, and neat, knowing what you need to accomplish, and having all the materials at hand so you can complete your tasks, your day will go much more smoothly!


G said...

Excellent post Michelle and so true. I am working on my obsession with to do lists but its a tough habit to break. I know have a 'to Don't List, which I actually posted about, all the things I will not do to negatively impact my day. It works when I take the time to read it...

Thanks for the reminder. G

Michelle said...

Hi G,

I finally learned to keep my "tickler" notes off my "to-do" list so the list was more focused and useful, but now I have hundreds of little sticky-notes all over the place!! lol