Mastering the Art of the To-Do List
The to-do list: Essential tool? Necessary evil? Waste of time?
Whatever your relationship with the to-do list, chances are you’ve found your list overwhelming more than once. You’ve likely cursed its length or done a happy dance when you managed to cross off every last item.
If messing with or avoiding your to-to list is keeping you from crossing items off that list, this post is for you.
Choose your tool
Fess up: Do you spend more time looking for tips and tools and techniques for doing a thing than you spend doing the actual thing?
Let’s stop that, shall we?
If you’re the old fashioned sort, you’ll need nothing more than paper and a pen. Whether you choose a notebook you carry around every day, a series of Post-Its you stick to the walls for big-picture visual clarity, a stack of notecards (so you can only see one item at a time) or any specific system, select a tool that fits with the way you work best.
If you’re technology-minded, there are more apps, add-ons, and applications than you could possibly review. Luckily, plenty of sites have already done the job of combing through the available tools and curating lists of the best of the best. Set a timer and give yourself no more than 20 minutes to comb through those lists and choose a tool that feels right.
Don’t: Get stuck in the endless loop of trying and comparing options. It’s easy to use analysis paralysis as an excuse for not moving forward.
Do: Choose one option and promise to stick with it for at least two weeks to test it out. A simple tool used well is better than a ton of fancy options around waiting for action.
Find your cadence
For this step, you'll need to understand your ideal zone of focus.
Are you a big-picture type who can see the entire next month laid out in front of you, tracking multiple projects (and their infinite steps and components) all at once? Or do you need to keep a smaller frame around the tasks ahead, thinking in terms of daily, or even hourly, time segments?
There is no right or wrong way in general, but there will be a right or wrong way for you. If you have a consistent system yet frequently end the day without completing your list (and feeling like a failure), your system probably isn’t ideal for you.
Whether you need to lay out the entire month ahead of time or you function best when you start each day (or even each morning and afternoon) with a new list, choosing a cadence and establishing a consistent routine will go a long way toward helping you become a to-do list master.
Don’t: Try to force yourself into a pattern that doesn’t fit with your life or workflow.
Do: Experiment with different combinations to see what works best for you.
Keep it real
No matter what system you choose, it will be necessary to get realistic about what you are actually able to accomplish and when you are able to accomplish it.
For some small business owners, a page-long to-do list filled with complex-multi step projects may be more than possible. For others, forcing yourself to choose and focus on three smaller items at a time will be the key to success.
Whatever your personal habits, creating a to-do list that is impossibly long or too complex is a form of self-sabotage. Instead, try to look at each segment of time with a realistic viewpoint and choose a number of items that you confidently feel you can accomplish.
Don’t: Try to fit an unrealistic number of items on your list.
Do: Be ruthlessly realistic about your abilities to complete your list. At the end of a long day, you’ll feel much better if you’ve completed all the items on a very short list than if you’ve barely scratched the surface of a long one.
As a small business owner, your work hours may change from day to day. If you’re a work-at-home parent with small children, the amount you can accomplish while the kids are awake will be much different than a small business owner with older kids and an out of the home office.
Take a good look at your available work hours and create your list to flow with that availability instead of fighting against it. If your best work hours are in the evening, you may want to consider creating a shorter daytime list of less complex projects and a larger list for once the kids are in bed and you’re able to really get down to business.
Similarly, some people do well with separating their day into distinct chunks, taking care of email and phone calls first thing in the morning and saving their larger or more focused tasks for the afternoon hours. Alternately, you may work best with larger blocks of focus, creating a to-do list that leaves one day of the week for clearing your inbox and responding to mail, another for writing and social media, and another for business needs like finances and accounting.
Whatever your situation, your ideal to-do list will help you create and maintain those work habits—ultimately leading you to become a more productive business owner, finally getting ahead of the endless list of things to do and putting you back in control of your business.
Don’t: Try to make someone else’s system work for you out of the box.
Do: Adapt any system you use to fit your personal requirements and ideal conditions.
Don’t forget the done list
Remaining motivated in the face of the endless list of things that must be done can be a challenge. Chin up, grasshopper, there is hope ahead.
When I wrote the above Facebook status, I had no idea that The Done List was a real thing.
Here’s the deal: even though you can’t quite step away from the planning and execution of your to-do list, you quite regularly accomplish far more in a day than just those tasks.
Keeping a running list of tasks you complete, small and unexpected wins or progress made can provide a much-needed boost when your energy or enthusiasm begins to wane (or when your morning caffeine high wears off).
Aside from acting as a pat on the back for work well done, your done list can also be a helpful tool in understanding the impact of patterns, habits or conditions that positively or negatively impact your productivity, all of which can help you complete your to-do list in the future.
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