A friend, momentarily flummoxed by the varied scale and relative importance of several tasks to be completed over a recent weekend, struggled to develop a schedule. I tried to be helpful and, as a result, our conversation soon led me to think more broadly about the well-known—and often dreaded—“To-Do” list.
I suspect that there are tens-of-thousands of articles and books on how to construct a useful To-Do list. (Google says there are 10.6 billion!) After reading dozens, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no one way to organize your time effectively. We are all so different—and the things we value are so different—that to simply proclaim one system the best is foolish. My interest in this question has become much more relevant as I put together a list of tasks to be completed each day before I transition out of the job I’ve occupied here at the National Trust for more than two decades.
Let me begin with a couple of big-picture thoughts. First, a significant step towards effectiveness and efficiency is to determine what you are going to stop doing. That’s a longer term project, but it is worth the effort. Second, understand that in the best of worlds, much of what you do today should be building blocks for weekly, quarterly, or life-time goals. No one scales Mount Everest in a day. Likewise, to achieve the larger things in life we want—writing a book, running a 10K, becoming a senior manager in your organization, starting your own business—requires that we take countless small steps to get there. Robert Glazer writes,
“While one person contemplates all that they have going on in their life that’s preventing them from accomplishing their goal, another person just starts working toward it. It’s hard to underestimate the value that these small “deposits” of energy have, even over just 90 days. While one person gets on Facebook for 30 minutes a day, another chooses to invest that same time writing a book. At the end of three months, the first person is much wiser about their friends’ vacations and the food people are eating whereas the other person has drafted the first 30-40 pages of their book. . . .[F]or just five days, track how you spend your time every hour of the day. I’ve done this and I was very surprised to see where it really went. I had been telling myself seemingly harmless white lies that were hindering my ability to get what I wanted most out of my life.”
With that context, here is the DJB Method® of creating the daily To-Do list (number 10.6 billion + 1).
- First, there is never enough time in the day, so plan accordingly — You cannot do 13 tasks a day, unless your list consists of brushing your teeth and lacing up your shoes. I’ve begun limiting my tasks to 3-5 (at most) per day. This was one challenge my friend—feeling overwhelmed with 8-9 tasks—faced. We talked through which ones had to be done that day (more on that in a moment), and which ones could simply go on a separate list with less stringent time requirements.
- Second, begin with the end in mind — A 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Ron Friedman suggests you take the first ten minutes of your day and ask yourself this question the moment you sit at your desk: “The day is over and I am leaving the office with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. What have I achieved?” Do you really think you’ll feel that sense of accomplishment if you’ve spent most of the day checking emails or listening to voice mails?
- Next, understand what matters the most, and know that all else is noise — President Eisenhower had a system (since duplicated by Stephen Covey) that put tasks in one of four categories or quadrants.
- Urgent and Important: Things that are important to do and need to be done now.
- Urgent and Not Important: Minor tasks that are time-sensitive. It feels good to check these off our lists, but they aren’t really critical.
- Important and Not Urgent: Things that need to be done but don’t have to be done immediately.
- Not Urgent and Not Important: These tasks are neither important nor time-sensitive.
- Tackle the “Urgent and Important” tasks first. Then before taking on other urgent tasks, focus on the “Important and Not Urgent” items. Do everything in your power to stay out of the “Not Urgent and Not Important” quadrant.
- Put your To-Do list on your calendar — If you keep a calendar or daily journal, figure out how long it will take to do the task and then schedule it. Leave a little space on your calendar for the unexpected. My experience is that calendars tend to get filled up with “Urgent and Not Important” items if you don’t set aside time for what matters to you.
- Keep a longer list of things to do, but review it on a regular basis — Go back to point #1. What happened to the other 4-5 things on my friend’s list? When I’m faced with that problem, I put them on my task list in Outlook (and because I tend to be a “belt-and-suspenders” type of guy, they also end up in my bullet journal). Next, I give them a timeframe for completion. Then I forget about them, because they are on my list. When setting up each day’s work, these items are where I turn for identifying my tasks. However, if I have rescheduled something three times, I stop and have a conversation with myself about the relative importance of that task. Is it a “Not Urgent and Not Important” task? Sometimes it becomes clear that I don’t really need to complete this one item, so I drop it. Other times I realize that I do need to complete a task (say, get the piano tuned), but I can wait and do that when April arrives and I’m both literally and figuratively cleaning out my home and mental closets.
- Finally, there is always more to do, so don’t beat yourself up if today doesn’t go quite according to plan — Life intervenes. Every single day. That’s especially true if you have children. Or you have a partner/parent who needs care. Or out-of-the-blue a great opportunity (or challenge) comes along that requires you to say Yes! As I’ve said before, don’t let the dirty dishes in the sink get in the way of paradise. Life’s a journey, not a destination. Treat it that way.
That’s it. Don’t plan to accomplish too much, but plan to accomplish the right things. So let’s do this…and have a good week.
More to come…