It’s no secret that my life is way too busy, but I am not alone in this trend. Today, more and more people are feeling overwhelmed and out of control in their daily life. Mystical to-do lists haunt our nightmares, as one checked off box magically makes three more appear – only it’s not a dream, it’s our real life.
How do we conquer the evil to-do list? Is it even possible to walk away from a day feeling like we were productive? I believe that we can learn to take control of our hectic lives of unruly to-do lists. With just a few key shifts in our thinking and processes, we can once again be masters of our own day.
Step One: Purge The List
As a first step, you need to thoroughly go through your to-do list and evaluate everything on it. The key here is to eliminate things on the list that are not important or are no longer needed. The problem with a lot of our lists is that they get so big that some items become outdated before we ever get to them, yet they still sit there, taunting us. As a general rule, I would say delete anything that is more than three months old. If it is important, you can add it back later, but for now, if you have not done it yet, let’s face it, you’re not going to. Don’t hate yourself – just scratch it off and move on. Also, delete any other tasks that don’t directly affect your day-to-day business or life.
Step Two: Prioritize what is left
I like to have three different lists. One is an immediate top priority. These are things that you want or need to accomplish in the next 7 business days. The next list is long-term priorities. These are still very important, but may not be critical. Give yourself a 15-30 day deadline on these tasks. The final list is what I call my wish list. These are tasks that I would love to accomplish, but they have little to do with keeping up with day-to-day progress. These may be tasks that could help make me more productive, organization, research, training, etc. The only list that I work off of is my 7-day list. As things get done or new deadlines come up, I move items up from my other lists. It is kind of like a cashier’s conveyor belt. I only check out the things that are right in front of me (on the 7-day list), which then makes room for more items to move up.
Step Three: Do the smallest tasks first
I used to think that the best option was to get the biggest items off my list first, then use any leftover time to accomplish the less time-consuming, simpler tasks. The problem is that this can lead to death by paper cuts. Sometimes the little things are just as important, but we put them off until they become emergencies. Plus, by keeping all of the tiny items on the list until last, it makes the list appear to not shrink as quickly, then we lose motivation and get discouraged. Now, I do all the little tasks first, things that will take 15 minutes or less, then I move on to the larger projects. That way, I can focus on the big things without a bunch of small pesky tasks running through my head. For example, I don’t read my emails or listen to my voicemails until I am ready to respond. I go through my emails, first deleting all the junk, than I go back through and read each remaining email one by one, responding right after I read the email, and then moving on to the next (same with my voice messages, listen to a call, return the call, next message, done!).
Follow these simple steps consistently and you will find that you gain back a lot of daily control. The trick is, and this is where I fail all the time, staying with the system. It only works if you use it. I find myself using it for a few days then falling right back into the trap of operating in emergency mode rather than maintaining the control needed for optimum productivity.