Have you ever sought advice from people regarding time management, you know how it goes your feeling overwhelmed because you have too many things to do, and the response you get is, along the lines of make a to-do list, prioritise that list, start with the most important task first and work your way down?
It all seems so simple and many people consider to-do lists an easy way to manage and prioritise their tasks. Unfortunately, without understanding how to use a to-do list, it’s just as likely that it will increase your level of overwhelm, as decrease it.
If you ever used a to-do list, you will recognize this scenario: you add 10 items to your list that urgently need to be completed as soon as possible. With such a list where everything screams “important”, where do you start?
Let’s say you do get started, here’s what generally happens: you decide that the easiest thing to do on the list is the sensible one to start with, so that’s what you do – ignoring the most vital task, which is always the most difficult or time consuming. You rationalize that decision by thinking you are picking off the lowest hanging fruit. Then another task gets added to your list, and the next time you start ticking off items, you pick the lowest hanging fruit again (lowest hanging fruit is corporate lingo for the smallest, easiest to complete tasks). And so on, and so on.
If I were to gamble, I’d bet you never get to the most important tasks, because it’s too easy to continuously delay them in favour of smaller, simpler tasks. We all tend to do it – moving items up and down the list as we go on, but never completing tasks that make a difference.
3 Steps to escaping from To-Do List Prison
Step 1 – The Master Task List
Its essential that we get everything we need to do recorded. David Allen of “Getting Things Done” fame advocates moving ideas and tasks from your mind out into an idea capture mechanism. This frees your mind from preoccupation and allows it some freedom to concentrate fully on the task at hand. It also means you are not in danger of forgetting good ideas
For me the ideal Idea capture mechanism is an A5 size notebook in to which you write down all the actions you need to take, you have actions from a meeting, write them down, you have to buy your partner a birthday card, write it down, you have a big project to complete, break it into smaller activities and write them down. This becomes your Master Task List. Important note – Your Master Task List is not your To-Do List
Step 2 – The Action Today List
Once you have completed step 1 and created your master Task List its time to decide on 3 or 4 tasks that come what may you either have to complete during the day or at least make a start on. These tasks are the ones that usually have a significant influence on results.
- Step 2a – start working on the first item on your Action Today List and continue with it until it’s either complete or you can do no more because your waiting on information from others.
- Step 2b – Start working on the second item on your Action Today List and continue with it until it’s either complete or you can do no more because your waiting on information from others.
Whilst working on this task you may receive the required information to complete task 1. If this happens get task two, to a point where it will be easy to pick up again, and return to task one to complete.
- Step 2c – Rinse and repeat, only adding new tasks to the bottom of the list when one has been completed.
Step 3 – The Waiting List
Many people make the mistake of putting unfinished tasks back on to their Master Task List, unfortunately they then get lost in amongst everything else. Once a task is removed from your Master task list, it should stay removed. If the task is started but not yet complete due to waiting on information from others, then it gets added to you Waiting list and chased at a designated time each week.
Using this three step system will ensure that overwhelm is kept to a minimum and priority tasks receive the attention they deserve. You will also escape from and stay clear of To-Do List Prison
Till Next Time
Mike Gardner is The Time Doctor