A recent survey by the professional networking site LinkedIn looked at how many people were able to complete things on their to do lists and from what industries. This survey noted that lawyers reported being the least able to finish all their tasks. Small business wasn’t broken out or asked as a category but we suspect that for the many-hatted, ultimately responsible-for-everything small business owner, the numbers are even worse.
So we thought we'd give you some help by rounding up the best advice on being more effective with your own personal to do list. There’s a lot here but if you only take away three points they are these:
- Keep your list possible – short, to the point, actionable.
- Make sure you do the most important thing on the list every day – just one thing.
- Cut things off the list ruthlessly.
Before we dive in: The most important thing with a to do list is to get things done. That means your list and your system have to work for you. So do not take this or any of the expert advice we link to as gospel. Use it as suggestions and as advice for helping you to get things done, not as the only one and true way to do things. Most of these experts differ here and there. You can too.
1. Use the right tool. For me that is a pen and an index card. If I don't write it down then I don't really remember it or commit to it. For others it will be an app on a smartphone or the tasks section in Outlook or something else. It doesn't matter except for one thing - that this is a tool you look at every day.
2. Focus. Does this task really need to go on a list? Why are you doing it? Does it really need to be done? Should it be a scheduled item on your calendar instead of on a to-do list. Be specific – that doesn’t mean be too detailed, it means being focused and crisp. Do not put ‘sort out anniversary’ on a list. Instead put ‘schedule anniversary dinner at XXX’ or ‘buy XXX as anniversary gift.’ If you aren’t precise enough you can invent excuses for not doing the task.
3. List control. Do not just keep one monolithic four page list – you will never ever get any satisfaction from seeing a change as you complete tasks. Feel free to make multiple lists - as long as they have a purpose. I keep a long term 'big' hard-to-do list and a shorter, next week or two list and a today list. Sometimes I'll add a temporary list (same idea as a shopping list). If you keep the purpose and focus in mind, having multiple lists can be a boon. But don't make lists for the sake of making lists. Think about if they work for you and if they add value.
4. Prioritize - or not. Two reasons. You need to focus on the most important tasks and if a task stays low-importance for too long then maybe it shouldn't be on the list. Someone else needs to do it or it needs to not be done. Are you not doing it because you shouldn't do it, or because you just don't want to? If it shouldn’t be done take it off. If you can’t or won’t do it but it needs to get done then delegate it.
The pareto principle (80-20 rule) is key - 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort - so every day figure out the most important thing to do, set aside the time and do it. You'll be 80% of the way through what you need already. Don't forget to take the value and return for what you are doing into account in prioritization as well as the deadline and time it takes - these are at least as important in terms of deciding what really is important.
5. Schedule. If tasks on your list need concentration or take more than 30 minutes consider scheduling them into your calendar as a way to make sure you have the time to complete them and commit to that time. And schedule the not doing things time as well while you are at it. If you are prone to distractions then just schedule time for internet research or breaks. That way you have an end for them and can avoid too much procrastination.
6. Break it down. If the item is too big to grasp, too complex to just get to work and complete, then break it down so that each task really is a task. But make it a real task. Don’t get caught in the planning trap where you spend too much time on writing out detailed lists of tasks and not enough doing them.
7. Document success. Part of the reason for a list is to cross things off it when completed - what a feeling of satisfaction! But take the time to do a bit more. Write a two sentence summary of what you did and add it to a running file of successes. Then you can refer to in the future for reports, reference what it took to solve particular problems or if you work for someone else, have a record in case you need it for later review
8. Habits. Set up a regular time to keep on top of your list to make sure you keep using it. We aren’t talking lots of time here – 10 minutes a day tops. One way is to put aside five or ten minutes at the start of the day, the end of the day or both. Use the beginning of the day to triage your list and set up what you are really going to do - to achieve - today. Use the end of the day to review what you achieved, cross it off and document success. Also use one of these times to remove things that you realize you are NOT going to do - even better, use it to review whether some of the tasks you have set yourself should ever be done. Are they worth doing and will they generate an adequate return for your time?
9. Set up to succeed. How many things are on your list to do today? Everyone agrees it should not be too many - you can have a background master list that is as long as you want as long as you keep the focus on the day. Some people say ten items is the maximum. Others say seven, or five, or three or even just one.
10. Affirmation. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and even some research to suggest that daily affirmations can really help you achieve long term goals. What does that mean? Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Is it to retire wealthy or so you can afford to visit your cousin in Singapore? Is it to be recognized as successful by your peers. Whatever it is, be concrete about it and put it at the top of your list every day. It will help to motivate and focus you on why you are doing these things. In fact some people suggest you should put a why you are doing this item next to every single thing on your to do list to help you triage, understand it better and focus on it.
More good advice from LinkedIn
Creating a To Do List
25 Online To Do List Tools
How to Make Your To Do List Doable
Conquering the To Do List