Time to read: 4:09 minutes
‘To-do’ lists are helpful, to a certain point…
A ‘to-do’ list is handy for capturing action items that come our way. Keeping a ‘to-do’ list nearby creates a gap between the requests people make and the next action we take.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl
When a request comes our way we capture it on our ‘to-do’ list and return to what we were focusing on. By putting something on a ‘to-do’ list we tell ourselves: “this thing will eventually get done, but now is not the right time”.
“The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.”
– Bob Hawke
However, ‘to-do’ lists have a dark side: they get long and overwhelming. Eventually, our ‘to-do’ lists become a dense array of activities. In an attempt to get our list back to a manageable state, we frantically do one activity after another and lose sight of the results that we actually WANT – the results that actually matter.
At this point you could step back, analyze each item on your ‘to-do’ list and prioritize it. But I have a different idea…
Declare ‘to-do’ list bankruptcy!
By allowing ourselves to let go of our current ‘to-do’ list we have an opportunity to create a meaningful ‘to-do’ list.
If you’re willing to give this a shot – bring out a blank piece of paper and answer the questions listed below. Simply write down whatever comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind – write down some something stupid or obvious, and continue onto the next question.
Step 1: Adjust Your Mindset
- Pretend that everything you NEED do today is optional. There will be consequences for failing to do certain things BUT the choice to accept those consequence is yours. Be grateful for things you’ve already accomplished and learn to see each new thing as a bonus to your life. With this new ‘mindset’ you stop thinking: “I should do this” or “I need to do this”, and you start thinking: “I have the opportunity to do this” or “I want to do this”. This perspective change allows you to see more opportunities and options when answering the questions listed below.
Step 2: List
- DAILY: “What appointments do I have today?”
- WEEKLY: “What do I need to prepare for this week?”
- LONG-TERM: “What long-term results am I committed to?”
- PREVIOUS: “What recent result(s) can I build upon?”
- PROJECTS: “What result, if achieved, would accelerate progress?”
- PEOPLE: “Who do I need to contact to make these results happen?”
- PREVIOUS: “What issues are outstanding/unresolved?”
- PROJECTS: “What issues, if not resolved, will slow down progress?”
- PEOPLE: “Who do I need to contact in order to address these issues?”
Step 3: Combine
- Which items have similar end results/outcomes? – Merge these items together
“See if you can cobble together a ‘Perfect 10’ option that combines the best features of multiple alternatives.”
– Decisive by Chip & Dan Heath
- ‘What items can I batch together and complete at the same time?’ – Group these items together
i.e.: same context – computer admin work, phone calls, errands, etc.
Step 4: Eliminate
- “If I had a schedule conflict and was only able to do half of the items on this list, which items would I defer to tomorrow?”
Cross-out half of the items that are deemed not essential at this point and time. Now, look at your new list ask the same question – cross-out half of the remaining items. In the end you will have 25% of your original list.
Step 5: Prioritize
- For each item not crossed out, ask: “What effect will completing this item have on my life or the lives of others?”
Start by making a small line next to the least significant item on your list that is not crossed out. Then, on the right side of each item, draw a line representing the impact the result will have on your life or the lives of others, relative to the least significant item on your list.
We now have a list of outcomes and issues that we can focus on. The list has been merged, trimmed and prioritized. The most important item, the item we should focus on next, has longest line next to it.
A list of outcomes, issues and batches is digestible. This list is meaningful because we’ve taken a proactive approach to it.
The NEW ‘to-do’ list is meaningful for another reason: a phenomenon in behavior psychology called the ‘availability heuristic’. The availability heuristic states that the more ideas we are able to generate, to more important we believe a list is. The brain is effectively saying: “if I came up with all these ideas – then I must be experienced in this area, therefore it must be important”. Translation: when we re-generate a ‘to-do’ list by going through the steps listed above, our new list will automatically seem meaningful to us, even if it isn’t the perfect list.
To prevent falling back into the ‘to-do’ list activity trap we must continually ask ourselves the following question when faced with new action items:
“Is this the best use of my time?”
“If it’s not a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”
– Essentialism by Greg Mckeown
Asking this question stops us from simply accepting every action item that comes our way. To take on a new task that day it needs to be more important than ALL the other items on your list. With this in mind we will learn to push back OR delegate several tasks that come our way.
Remember: It’s OK to throw out your ‘to-do’ list and start over again.
Starting over helps you to escape the endless activites of a long ‘to-do’ list and allows you to re-focus on what you really want to achieve!
Get your PDF to-do list checklist here.