by Susan McCarthy
Your to do list can be a source of stress if you don't use it effectively. I don't think I'm alone in working through a series of simple tasks just so I can cross off a number of items on my list. And, yes, sometimes I'll do a task, add it to my to do list, and immediately cross it off (very satisfying).
Not very effective or productive and at the end of the day I wondered what I'd accomplished. It's also stressful to realize that priorities kept getting pushed to the side. Frustrated that nothing seemed to be getting done, I mish-mashed together a bunch of different techniques to make my list more doable.
Create a Master to Do List
List all the stuff you want to do on a master list. You can use pen and paper, type the list into a word processing document, or list one item on each sheet of those 1 ½” x 2” Post-It Notes. You’ll be breaking some of these list items into smaller tasks, so if you use pen and paper, you may end up rewriting an item to give yourself the space to break it into steps.
(If you are attracted to color and visual details, you may want to color code your list by highlighting the task. If you best process information you hear, talk out loud as you make your list. And, if you like handling things and moving around, consider using Post-It Notes.)
Task: Make a list of the things you want to accomplish this year, quarter, or month. Start with the upcoming 4-to-6-weeks so you can work through this process without getting bogged down.
Is It a Project or a Task?
Next, you’ll be looking at your list and considering what steps you have to take before you can check that item off your list.
Do you have something written on your to do list that you’ve been thinking of doing for a while but when you look at the item on your list you think, “I don’t have time for that?” I forever found myself writing things on my to-do list that could take 20 or 30 hours to complete – and yet it’s a mere three words on my list!
Really, that list item is a project – if I look at it more closely, I’d realize that I can break it down into smaller steps, or tasks. I may be a little loose with my definition of a project, particularly when talking about something on your personal to do list.
If I see, “read & take notes on Book,” on my to-do list, I’ll probably put off doing it. Or, I’ll start but after an hour set it to the side. The next time I look at my to do list, I’ll brush past that item because I know that it will take a while to work through. However, if I was a bit more specific and wrote, “read & take notes on chapter 1 of Book,” (listing each chapter as a separate task), I’d have a better chance of completing this project.
Some tasks may take a mere five or ten minutes (say, make a phone call or send an email), but it’s doing that task that opens you to the next step toward the project (meeting with someone over coffee to talk about a job).
If something is going to take you more than an hour, consider how you could break it down into briefer tasks.
Task #1: List the steps you need to take so to get an item off your to do list. These steps are tasks. You’re adding bullet points to your master list or adding more Post-It Notes and creating little stacks of tasks.
Task #2: Next to each step, jot down the approximate amount of time it will take to complete a task.
Note: Things that you do regularly aren’t the types of task items I’m talking about. Although taking a morning walk may help you burn calories and reach your goal of losing weight, this is part of a routine of actions. You don’t take one walk and check it off your master list. Routines can take up a lot of time and you never really complete a routine (you might for the day but then it’s at the top of your list the next day.)
Is It a Low- or High-Energy Task?
When I teach a group, work one-on-one, or even get together with a friend, it can take a lot of energy and I feel drained afterwards. (Yep, I'm an introvert.) For far too many years, I’d get home after teaching or having an in-depth conversation and try to jump into a task that required thinking and decision-making.
I’d push, feel frustrated that I wasn’t accomplishing what I thought I should be, and keep pushing. What I finally appreciated was that my interaction required high-energy and I needed to follow it with a low-energy activity.
If I’d been coaching someone through the decluttering process, I’d be better off following the interaction with reading a chapter in a book and typing up my notes than trying to focus and write an article. For you, the idea of sitting quietly, reading and taking notes may require a lot of energy so you can focus on the task.
This step requires some self-knowledge into what types of things make you feel energized and which things drain you. Depending on the situation, after 3-or-4-hours, I need a quiet break. If I push myself beyond that, I can end up cranky. This self-knowledge may make you realize that you’d rather read that work-related document in a bustling coffee shop than in a quiet room at home.
Task #3: Go through the list of tasks you wrote and label each task as a high-or-low-energy task (for you). (You could also add a medium-energy or neutral category.) You don’t have to rewrite your list, just add an “L” or “H” next to the item or in the corner of the Post-It Note.
When Do You Need This Done?
If you are a logical sort of person, you may it useful to prioritize your list into A, B, and C-level priorities. You’d then further break down each list, so you’d know which task for which project to do next. However, not every project (or task) comes with a built-in deadline.
Although this freedom from a deadline seems like it should be a good thing, you may realize that these are the tasks that don’t get worked on because they can always be done later. Give yourself a time limit and a reason why you want the task done by that hour or date.
If you have difficulty planning weeks or months in advance, focus on what needs to get done in the next couple of weeks. Remember, that big project with the deadline way out on the horizon consists of many, many small steps that you can focus on in the immediate future.
Task #4: Note a deadline for your projects. Use that date to figure out when each task needs to get done.
What Should I Do Today?
At night or first thing in the morning, look through your list and select the one task, that when done, will give you a sense of accomplishment. Unless you have a health issue that affects your energy level, this will likely be a task requiring high energy.
Next, select a second high-energy task and one low-energy task or two low-energy tasks. Your goal for the day is to definitely do the top task and then work your way to a second or third task if you have the time. If you can do more tasks, fantastic! Remember, this list doesn't include the day-to-day things that you need to do (laundry, errands, cooking).
The goal here isn't just to do more but to accomplish more. You'll likely experience less stress while being kinder to yourself as you notice that you're doing the things that are important to you.
Make a Better to Do List
If you’re busy all day, crossing things off your to do list, but feel as if you’re accomplishing nothing, then follow this plan to create a list of doable, specific tasks with attached deadlines. And, don’t forget to label tasks as high- or low-energy so you do the best tasks at the best time of day for you.
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