The To Do list is a ubiquitous feature of project management and, increasingly, of life in general. The productivity movement has a lot to answer for (not all of it great), but the success of books and programmes like Getting Things Done suggest they are tapping into a need in our collective subconscious.
They are, undoubtedly, an essential tool for organising your work, indeed your life, and for maintaining your productivity. However, the never-ending to-do list can also be a source of extreme overwhelm, not to mention anxiety and a sense of burnout. Over the years, I’ve used all sorts of tools and systems to help me stay on top of my workload and make sure nothing slips through the gaps. It is a Sisyphean task, for sure. Here though, are my three top tips for staying on top of your to-do list.
Incidentally, none of the links in this post are affiliated – I don’t earn a penny from mentioning them. I just think they’re great, and so I’m sharing them!
- Our brains work differently – so use the tool that suits your brain.
There are lots of different task management tools out there – but they should all do pretty much the same thing: help you to stay on top of the things you need to do. Personally, I’m a big fan of Todoist, whereas my partner prefers the way Asana lays things out. I don’t think it’s right to necessarily say that one is better than the other – but one is definitely better for me than the other. It’s worth trying a few and seeing which works for you. Be careful not to be blinded by science and technology though. A good tool should allow you to simply and easily manage your tasks in a way that makes sense to you. That’s it. And that means a pen and paper are perfectly sufficient (and if you like hard copy, these To Do List pads get a lot of use in the Everyday Project Manager office). If that’s what works for you: use it.
- Not all tasks are born equal – prioritise and schedule.
Don’t make the mistake of treating every single task on your to-do list as being equally important. There will be some tasks that absolutely have to be done today. Use the dual tests of importance and urgency to prioritise and schedule your to-do list. For each task, ask yourself, “is the task important to the delivery of the project?”, and, “does it need to be done today?” If the answer to both questions is yes, then it should go straight to the top of your to-do list.
We can also take a leaf out of the project planning rulebook here. We know when we create a plan that the tasks must be scheduled. So why is it that our to-do lists tend to treat everything as a single list of things to do. Far better to assign your tasks to days of the week (I would even go so far as to assign them time in your diary if they’re particularly important. Not everything on your list needs to be done today, so push it out to a day where there is time to do it. And don’t just fall in the habit of knocking it on to tomorrow. A friend of mine once even suggested challenging yourself to push tasks out as far as possible – when’s the latest this needs to be done? I feel this might risk leaving every task until the last minute, but it’s a good exercise nevertheless in understanding urgency.
- Be realistic about how much you can do.
I fall foul of this one all the time, but nevertheless it is worth pointing out that if you have 37 items on your ‘Today’ list, you are not at all likely to achieve them all. If we take the working day to be about eight hours (typically) during which time you will also need to do the day-to-day stuff, as well as take occasional breaks and allow that you will not be productive 100% of the time, then what does a realistic number of tasks look like. Eight maybe? Ten at a push? Certainly, if you have more than ten tasks to do today I would suggest you are unlikely to complete them all. So you might as well be realistic about that and push out the ones that can be pushed out. You’re not going to do them today anyway, so grasp the nettle now, schedule the tasks for another day and put yourself back in control of your now-achievable to-do list!
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