by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Do you spend your day doing one thing after another, crossing items off your to-do list, only to find yourself crawling into bed and wondering what you actually got done?
I was laying in bed, night after night, with my brain spinning, wondering how I could be so busy and yet feel unproductive. It felt that no matter what I did, I should have done something else.
I was busily unproductive.
The Danger of the To-Do List
A big problem with to-do lists is that all those tasks jumble together. You look at the list (that probably has more than three tasks listed, otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered to write it down) and decide to do those tasks that look like they’ll be the easiest to do.
Easiest to do probably doesn’t mean the most important to do.
Chances are that you added tasks to your list when you thought about them and then you didn’t review what had to be done, and in what order, before jumping in with the goal of crossing things off the list.
Also, your to-do list probably doesn’t include everything you have to and want to do, which means that you can’t really look at your list and decide what are the most productive things you should do.
Build a Better To-Do List
In his classic book on productivity, Getting Things Done, David Allen has you get a grasp of everything you need to do by – listing everything you need to do in an activity he calls a brain dump.
By “everything,” he means everything, from brief phone calls to larger multi-step projects. Don’t worry about the order you list things as you add it all to your list using pen and paper or typing it into a word document.
Sort Your To-Do List
You know how when organizing you want to sort similar items together, so you have a better sense of what you have? Well, you want to do that with the tasks on your to-do list as well.
At this point you want to group similar activities as you rewrite your list. You’ll be creating several lists labeled, for example, “errands,” “phone calls,” “appointments,” “home,” “kids,” “work,” “vacation,” etc.
Are there specific due dates associated with any of these tasks? List them.
When you think of something else that you need to get done, list it on the appropriate to-do list.
Review Your To-Do List
If you’ve ever made a to-do list and then set it to the side, you’re losing the second most important aspect of the to-do list (the first being, write it all down) – review your list.
Now, you may be used to reviewing your daily to-do list, but that’s usually filled with the tasks you want to do right away, ignoring the long-term and ‘maybe’ projects on your list. Once a day (or once a week, depending on how often you plan what you want to do), review those sorted-by-theme to-do lists.
You want to ask the Getting Things Done question – What’s my next action? – for each thing you have listed that isn’t itself the action. “Schedule a physical” is only a next action if you know your doctor’s phone number. If “schedule a physical” really means that you need to find a doctor, then your next action may be asking friends and family if they’d recommend their doctor.
It’s those next actions that get transferred onto your daily to-do list because it’s clear what you’re going to do.
Do the Important Stuff
If every day you accomplish nothing more than the tasks that get you through the day (and likely must be repeated the next day or next week), you’ll feel that dissatisfied sense of being busily unproductive.
You also want to identify one-to-three larger projects that involve multiple steps – declutter your house, write a memoir, plan a vacation, etc. When you work on a next-action related to a goal, you’ll feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Yes, that project might require 30 or 100 hours to complete and working on it for a few minutes a day might not feel like a big deal, but all those next steps carry you to your destination.
It’s working toward the things that are important and meaningful to you that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment when you climb into bed each night.
I help people focus on what's important to them by guiding them through clearing clutter and distractions from their lives. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; courses; speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.