To Do Lists

Between your job, your exercise program, your friends, your hobbies, and pretty much everything else you want to get done, achieving your goals and nailing your deadlines is often harder than it should be. Heck, for some people just creating an efficient to-do list is a major achievement, and that is where today’s podcast comes in.

Hello cubicle counters, open space scorekeepers, corner office organizers, home den designers, and coffee shop systematizers. My name is Brock Armstrong, and I am… not the Workplace Hero. There is a good reason that the website for the podcast is workplacehero.me and not .com. I want you to be reminded that this podcast is for and about you, every time you visit. And yeah… the .com domain was already taken.

Before we get started, a little housekeeping. Did you know that there are near verbatim transcripts of all the podcasts over at www.workplacehero.me? It’s true. I know that the majority of you are listening to this podcast while you are on the bus, in your car, at the gym or otherwise not near a pen and paper – so to take the onus off of you having to try to remember the important points, I am making it easy. The only thing you need to remember from this episode is www.workplacehero.me/todo. Slick eh?

Ok, here we go!

Between your job, your exercise program, your friends, your hobbies, and pretty much everything else you want to get done, achieving your goals and nailing your deadlines is often harder than it should be. Heck, for some people just creating an efficient to-do list is a major achievement, and that is where today’s podcast comes in.

According to an article on Forbes.com, one tool many entrepreneurs use to get organized and improve focus is the To Do list. While it can be a helpful, they estimate that about 85% of the population is using the To Do list in a completely ineffective manner. They are using their To Do list as a measure for self-worth…and this can be a mistake.

They go one to say that many people incorrectly associate self-worth with checking things off their To Do list. They think: “If I can complete a lot of things in one day, it must mean I’ve done a good job and, therefore, I’m a good enough person. Right?” Well… yeah… we all want validation. Here’s the problem with this – it means that you’re likely going to waste your time on low impact, easy to complete tasks just to feel good about what you’ve accomplished.

How many of you have spent time on something that was easy and quick, but not very strategic? Was this because you were avoiding the harder, more impactful thing? We waste time on menial chores and tasks just to have a sense of accomplishment. Over time, this makes us much less effective at our jobs.

This is the part when I direct you back to the podcast episode I did about “Doing the Hard Stuff First”. Just go to www.workplacehero.com/hardstuff to listen to that episode.

Another mistake that the article on Forbes.com points out is that we have a tendency to create a very long To Do list that we can never complete in a single day. And then we feel bad about never getting to everything on our list. If you do this, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Forbes refers to this as “Using the To Do list as a form of torture.”

So, it is clear that we need to avoid setting our To Do list up as either a way to measure our productivity or a way to beat ourselves up. So, how do we do that?

Before I get into the suggestions of the experts, I am going to tell you my recipe for success.

First thing is that I use the Notes app that comes preinstalled on all Mac computers. The reason I use this is because it is simple, clean and most importantly it syncs across all my devices. Yeah, I am one of those guys who has an iPhone, iPad, iMac and a MacBook Pro. Hey! What can I say? I work in digital media.

The reason syncing across all devices is important is twofold. I find my stress level is much lower if I can add an item to my To Do list at the moment I think of it (even if it is the middle of the night… maybe ever especially if it is the middle of the night) and I also like to be able to knock things off the list as soon as it is complete and then check what is next up. This is all a “peace of mind” thing for me.

Some research suggests writing information by hand helps us remember it better, but if you’re like me and you last picked up a pen in 1995, don’t worry: There are tons of apps and gadgets out there for you to explore.

Next – A key ingredient to my To Do list is that it is always more than one list! By that, I mean that I have a list for today, tomorrow, the next day and so on. It is not just a never ending single list of crap that needs to get done. It is a strategic, day by day, list of what needs to get done, when it needs to get done, on the day that suits it the best. That doesn’t mean that items don’t get moved around but I try to make each day achievable.

Because I work mostly for myself right now, I even take it a step further and have certain days for certain tasks. Mondays mornings is for my coaching business, Tuesday afternoons are for video editing, Wednesdays are coding and writing days, Thursdays are catch-up or catch-all days, Fridays are podcast days. And yes, the weekends do get included on my To Do list but generally they only have items like “Go to the Gym” and “Beer with Ken” or occasionally “Finish the freakin project!” I am not a slave to that outline, but I find it helps to have a general idea of what the priority is for each day.

The next ingredient in my To Do list recipe is that I add pretty much everything I need or want to do on that day. It isn’t just a dreaded list of jobs I need to get done, but it is also a joyful list of fun things I am going to do and tasks I am somewhat ambivalent about.

For example, my To Do list for today:

  • Respond to email & Social Media
  • Go the gym 10:00 am
  • Do homework (I am brushing up on my French)
  • Download new client video files
  • Coaching call with Meghan 2:00 pm
  • Write the outline of “To Do List” episode Workplace Hero
  • Watch the Habs vs. Canucks game
  • No food after 7:00 pm

By including things watching a hockey game or reminding myself that I want to do a short fast (by not eating between dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow) I have my tasks, my work, my play and my goals all in one easy to find spot.

I won’t go too deep into this because it deserves it own episode but by including daily goals on my To Do list, I find my ability to achieve them skyrockets. When I see “Go to the gym” or “No food after dinner” every time I look at my To Do list, it simply increases my resolve to make that happen. Just make sure you word it in a positive way. As they say over at reachout.com “It might not seem like much, but self-talk is a really important part of our self-esteem and confidence. By working on getting more positive self-talk, you’re more likely to get things done and feel more in control of stuff that’s going on in your life.”

The next ingredient in this To Do list recipe is to assign an order to the list. Start the list with at least two items that absolutely must get done today, so you don’t end up reorganizing your spice rack instead of finishing a project that is due tomorrow. Even if the rest of the list gets shifted to other days, the do-or-die tasks don’t get missed.

Now many of my tasks are things that I do out of habit at particular times of the day (like answering email with my first cup of coffee – which can lead to some seriously hilarious typos), so those are easy to assign an order to. Other things like meetings or specific gym times get a time of day listed next to them. I have experimented with assigning a time of day to all of the items and that just made me mad. I like the flow of being able to reorder on the fly depending on my mood, how much time I have left in the day or which item I just plain feel like attacking at any given point. You can experiment with this one on your own. A CEO friend of mine has his day broken down into 15 minute chunks with a task assigned to each chunk. To me, that sounds like hell but he says that it keeps him sane. Each to his own, right?

The next ingredient to my To Do list is that I have at least a week’s worth of To Do days on the go at any one time. This means that I can add items ad-hoc to not only to today and tomorrow but even into next week. When I get an email confirming a meeting next Tue, I add it to that day immediately. Done! No need to think about that again. If I wake up in the middle of the night thinking “I need to book a dentist appointment next week” or “I want to try that new Poke place down the street”, I don’t have to add it to a day that is already overwhelmed. I can choose a day with less on it or a day that makes the most sense.

The final ingredient is that I also keep a To Done list. Yep, a To Done list. All that means is that when all the items are checked off my list for the day, I cut and paste that day into a document called, you guessed it, To Done. I started doing this when I was working remotely for a coffee company. Because there were employees all other North America, we had weekly check-ins with our managers, and I would often find myself stumped by the question: “So what have you been working on?” Nothing more alarming than getting asked the question and only being able to reply “Um… stuff”. But having the To Done list meant I could confidently say “Well on Monday I competently customized competitive schemas, Tuesday I progressively architected emerging virtualization, and Wednesday I credibly reintermediated our emerging web-readiness. Shall I continue?”

Even though I don’t work for that company anymore and am rarely surprised with that question, I still keep a To Done list mostly for my own edification. But it does also come in handy when it is invoice time, and I have that terrible feeling that I may be forgetting to invoice for a task. Which is not cool at all.

So that is my recipe. You can take it or leave it. I only outlined it as an example not as the MASTER LIST TO RULE ALL LISTS. Like everything else in life, you need to experiment and find what works best for you.

Before I get to your homework, here are the five suggestions that Forbes offered to optimize your To Do lists. You’ll notice immediately that a few of their suggestions are directly opposed to my methods:

  1. Keep it simple. Your To Do list should have NO MORE THAN THREE THINGS on it for a given day.
  2. Write your To Do list the night before. This helps you start your day with clarity. You know exactly which item you need to complete by 10 am the next morning.
  3. Tackle the first item on your list first thing in the morning when you are fresh. You need to get the biggest, most important task completed before moving on to anything else.
  4. If you have a hard time limiting your To Do list to a maximum of three items, or your mind keeps wandering off thinking about all the other things you “need to do”. Take five minutes, no more, and write down every single thing you can think of that you need to do in the next week. This can be personal or professional. Write it all down just to get it out of your head. Then put that list away. This is NOT your To Do list. This is a data dump, and what they call a psychic release.
  5. Sometimes, a small To Do becomes a huge energy suck because we’ve put it off for so long that it truly bothers us (like a stain on your carpet, cleaning off your desk at work, doing that ROI analysis, or buying that late wedding present). In this case, it IS one of the three most important things for you to do that day because releasing all the anxiety you have built up will move you forward more than anything else will.

One item that I saw again and again in my research was the idea that goals such as “work on research paper” can be too vague and intimidating, meaning we’ll be too afraid to start tackling them. One way to reduce the fear factor and make goals seem more manageable is to break projects into smaller tasks. Instead of “work on research paper,” try something more specific, such as “write the first half of chapter three” on Monday and “write the second half of chapter three” on Tuesday. I do this with the scripts for this podcast. I never aim to finish it in one sitting. Today is the outline and tomorrow is the meat. I sometimes add a third day on for polishing it up, and occasionally I get in the groove and can check off a To Do item a couple of days early. That fricken RULES!

Ok. Now your homework. If you don’t have a To Do list – it is time to make one. Again, don’t aim to create the perfect list on your first try but you do need to start somewhere. Follow my guide or find another one online and get it rocking. If you do already have a To Do list going, this is a perfect time to make some adjustments to it. There is always room for improvement, right? You might want to add durations to your To Do items (something that I tried but hated) or try adding in more light things like “lunch with mom” or items you would like to start doing but can’t quite pull the trigger on like “leg day at the gym” or “turn off all electronics at 8:00 pm”.

One last thing, don’t forget to add “make To Do list” to your To Do list. I know that seems silly, but I have been bitten by that one more than once. It is a very off-putting feeling for a guy like me to suddenly not know what he is supposed to be doing next Wednesday! I break in to a cold sweat just thinking about that…

**

Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated and recorded by me Brock Armstrong with editing help from Eleanor Cohen. Podcast logo by Ken Cunningham and music by my old band, The Irregular Heartbeats. Today Heroic idea came from the Forbes article “Five Best To-Do List Tips” by Vanessa Loder with some extra oomph from the Greatist.com’s article “How to Actually Get Sh!t Done With a To-Do List” by Shana Lebowitz. Shownotes and transcription of this podcast can be found at www.workplacehero.me/todo

4 Replies to “To Do Lists”

  1. I’ve been making list for years but now I now how to make them better and more doable thus make me more successful YAY thanks a million!

  2. The suggestion about planning no more than 3 things to do on a given day has dramatically improved my work satisfaction in the past week! Many days I spend 6-7 hours in team meetings which leaves very little time for independent productive work, so having just 3 things on my list has helped me focus and feel accomplished at the end of the day. I used to have an endless to-do list that was overwhelming and I found myself spending more time rearranging the priorities on it than actually using it to get anything done. This is a life-changer, thank you!

    1. That is awesome to hear! Thank you for letting us know. More proof that a one-size-fits-all style To Do list is a complete myth.

  3. I love “To-Done” lists. I used to keep a list in a notebook, but I’m currently using the paid version of Rescue Time for this. I include personal things in there too – like getting out for a walk, doing the laundry or getting the grocery shopping done.

    Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve been beating myself up a lot less about what I’m not getting done. And when I’m not spending enough time on the business stuff, I have proof staring me in the face so I can get back to it.

    Thanks for a great post. 🙂

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