The to-do list can be an indispensable tool when used to mindfully manage your time. But used indiscriminately, you become its servant. To get control of your priorities, you actually need three lists and a calendar. List #1 is for important but non-time-sensitive projects. List #2 is for items that need to be completed today. The third list is a not-to-do list, to remind you of things you’ve consciously decided aren’t worth your time. The calendar is for blocking out time to accomplish important matters on schedule. With your long-term goals in mind, decide which tasks really have to get done — and get done by you. Then, put them on your list — and more importantly, on your calendar. The things that don’t need to get done, or done by you, can go on your “not doing” list. Once you get control of your priorities, and recognize that time is a finite resource, you’ll feel liberated to focus on what really matters to you.
The to-do list can be an indispensable tool when used to mindfully manage your time. But used indiscriminately, you become its servant. The first step in making your list work for you is to be clear on what job you’re “hiring” it to do. Most of us fail to do this, and so our lists are crammed with urgent priorities we must get done immediately (send revised slides to client), important tasks we’re afraid of forgetting because they have no specific due date (book a vacation), and basic tasks that we add to the list because it makes us feel good to check something off (order more pens — done!). Then day after day, we check off the basic items, get the urgent things done (which we probably would have done even were they not on a list) and procrastinate on the other items.
To avoid this problem, I use three lists and a calendar. Each has its own specific function. Specifically, List #1 is for important but non-time-sensitive projects. List #2 is for items that need to be completed today. If I can’t complete the task immediately as it arises, I will record it knowing that I am committing to completing everything on that list before leaving the office for the day. The third list is a not-to-do list, to remind me of things I’ve consciously decided aren’t worth my time. Writing these down keeps them from sneaking back onto my to-do list.
The calendar is for blocking out time to accomplish important matters on schedule. For example, instead of putting an item like “write speech” on my to-do list, I put it on my calendar, blocking out the necessary prep time to get it done. I do this as soon as I book the speech. Then there’s no chance that I’ll notice the day before, “Oops, I’m supposed to give that speech tomorrow!” And putting it on the calendar right way means that if I don’t actually have time to write the speech, I can see that at the outset and (regretfully) decline the opportunity. I consider that block of time an unbreakable appointment .
Identifying — and scheduling — your priorities
Time is a finite resource, but people rarely budget their time with anywhere near the rigor they apply to their finances. It is important to take a strategic approach to determining how you spend your time if you want to be sure you will achieve your highest priorities.
Taking the time to develop a clear mission — your personal purpose — and a vision of what success looks like is essential if you are to be judicious about determining what is important enough to get on your list in the first place.
Start by looking at what’s already on your to-do list. Ask yourself how each task does or does not contribute to accomplishing your goals — your vision of success. Does it really need to be done? If so, does it have to be done by you? If the answer to either of those is no, these items can be ditched or delegated and come off your list.
Next, create your not-to-do list. Once you accept that you have more to do than time to do it all, that is actually a liberating concept. This realization forces you to acknowledge there are lower priority items that you will likely never complete. Delete those non-essentials, put them on your not-to-do list, and commit to letting them go. This will prevent you from wasting precious time continually re-evaluating whether you might get to them that could be better invested in actually completing your work.
As new tasks arise, determine if they meet your criteria for inclusion — contributing to your mission and fulfilling your vision of success. If the answer is no (and you won’t get fired or otherwise hurt for not doing them), it should go on your not-to-do list. Items that are neither important nor urgent also belong on your not-to-do list.
Once your list is pruned and prioritized, estimate how long you expect each task will take to complete. You will want to address all important items, urgent or not. Consider putting important items that are not time-sensitive on your calendar if they will take significant time to complete.
Most people find it energizing to cross items off their list and why wouldn’t they? Accomplishing tasks causes your brain to release dopamine, which is also known as the “feel-good neurotransmitter.” If getting started is a challenge for you, look for a task that will be quick to complete and, as the Nike ads famously say, just do it. Accomplishing several simple tasks can build a sense of momentum and keep you moving forward. For more complex projects, create a list of the critical success factors you will need to complete them and tackle them one at a time. Breaking a large undertaking into small, bite-sized tasks can help reduce overwhelm and the resistance that often goes along with that feeling.
This exercise should be energizing and inspiring, releasing you from feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or resentful. Clear the decks to make the time and space you need to get to what you really want to accomplish.
Does gaining more control over how you spend your time feel both urgent and important? If so, put an appointment on your calendar to review and prioritize your to-do list according to these criteria. Today.