by Susan McCarthy
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When you get up in the morning, does your to do list start scrolling through you mind? Even as you go through your morning routine, are you thinking about all the tasks that you have to do for the day?
A to do list is your guide for what you want to get done during a day, but it isn’t a schedule. Chances are that you tend to overestimate what you can get done during your day. (I know I can’t be alone in this expectation.)
Unfortunately, reciting your list over and over can leave you feeling stressed as all those tasks continue to clamor for your attention. The following simple system for taming your to do list may help you get through more tasks – but, more important, it will allow you get control of the responsibilities on your list so you can accomplish the most important things first.
It’s too easy to get lured by false productivity, which is all about getting the greatest number of tasks checked off your list without any consideration about which tasks are more valuable to do.
You don’t want to get to the day’s end and realize that you were busy all day, but you feel as if nothing was accomplished. So, let’s control those squirrel-thoughts.
Write Down Your List to Take Control of It
David Allen, productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done, recommends writing down everything you want to get done instead of relying on your memory. His premise is that you should use your mind for problem-solving and creative thinking instead of as a warehouse of mental lists. Why waste energy on remembering and reminding yourself of what you want to get done during the day?
So, either in the evening, or first thing in the morning, write down all the tasks you want to accomplish during the day. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get to everything, but you can be hopeful.
Rank the Order of Your Tasks
Some days I find that the tasks on my to do list fall into a natural order of “do this first, then do that group of tasks, and finally finish up with this task.” Maybe some things are attached to deadlines or appointments, so it’s clear that those tasks are important to get done and when I need to do them,
But, other days, things aren’t quite so clear. Those are the days when I can find myself skittering from one task to the next. At some point, just to feel as if I’m getting things done, I’ll go with some of the quicker and easier tasks on my list. These might not be the most important things to get done, but I’ll just want to feel as if something as getting done. Not the best technique.
If everything on your to do list seems equally important), you can artificially order your tasks. Do this intentionally, at the start of the day, as opposed to thinking that you’ll just figure things out as you go through your day.
I do that all the time. I know what I want to do during the day, but I don’t take the time to figure out what I should work on first, second, third, etc. What usually happens is that I bounce around from activity-to-activity, sometimes even halting one task midway through it to go do something else.
Manipulate the Order of Tasks on Your List
I found that staring at my list and trying to number the order that I wanted to do everything didn’t always work for me. Having all the tasks listed in a block on a single piece of paper made them all seem equally important. The chances of me randomly doing tasks, even ignoring the way I’d ranked them earlier in the day, became likelier the later in the day it was because I’d hit that point where I simply wanted to check more things off the list, whether or not they were important to do.
One thing that I started doing was listing individual tasks or groups of related tasks (say, several errands) on individual Post-it notes. I use the smaller sticky notes that are approximately 1 ½” x 2” (and sometimes I cut them in half). It was easier to physically rearrange the sticky notes than to reimagine the order of tasks listed on a single sheet of paper.
If you find that you have difficulty ranking the importance of your different duties, consider writing individual actions on sticky notes and then physically manipulating the order of the notes. I find it much easier to see what I wanted to do and in what order, when I can move physical things around.
Simplify Your To Do List
If trying to arrange the order of your tasks at the start of the day is still an overwhelming prospect (you wish you could figure out how to do everything all at once), look at your list and choose the one thing that you’ll work on at the moment. Not later in the day or after you finish x, y, and z. Focus on the one task that you’ll do to completion.
If everything is equally important, then it doesn’t matter which task you give priority status. Really. If each task is equally essential to complete, then pick one and stick with it. Don’t waste time debating if one action is clamoring for attention louder than another action. Close your eyes and poke a finger at your list if you can’t decide.
Do that one task until it’s done. Then, and only then, look at your list and pick the next activity. This is the simplest way to tackle your to do list, even if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
And, if one task stands out as more important than the others, still, focus on that one task and pretend the rest of the list doesn’t exist until you complete that one thing.
Tame Your To Do’s
If you’re only going to takeaway one bit of advice from this article, it’s to write down your to do list instead of allowing it to float around in you mind.
Next, prioritize your actions, either by numbering the tasks on your list or writing your list on Post-It notes that you can physically manipulate and put in the order you’ll do the tasks. (One of my favorite techniques. I don’t use it every day, but when I feel overwhelmed by the swirl of activities, it is useful to shuffle sticky notes into an order for my day.)
And, if everything on your list is nagging you, pick one thing, do it, and then move onto the next. If you don’t finish everything, carry those tasks over to the next day. Remember, when you rank the order of tasks by importance, the things that don’t get done will be the things that are least important to do (even if they would be the quickest to complete).
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