Have you noticed some tasks seem to hang out on your to-do list week after week? Sometimes it feels like the list only gets longer, even when we are hustling. Why is it that some things get done, some things get stuck, and we generally struggle with overwhelm and a lack of accomplishment?
I’ll admit, I’ve spent quite a bit of time geeking out on personal productivity books, programs, podcasts, you name it when I could have been doing real productive work. But, it has paid off over and over again by greatly increasing my productivity overall. I’ll save you some of the hassles, so you can get back to crossing things off your list. Here are some of the most powerful tips I’ve found to help take control of your to-do list, so you are continually getting things done and making real progress.
First, let me point out that I tend to call it my “next actions” list, rather than my to-do list. It’s true we might have a crazy amount of tasks that need to be done. But when I get a second to look at my list, I want to see the next action I can act on right now. More on this in a sec.
Next, there are a few things that don’t belong on this list.
Be a gatekeeper with your time, and consider only the important or essential tasks when dumping them into your next actions list. Consider if anyone or anything else is impacted if you opt-out of a task, or if it's something that would just be nice to do.
Appointments or tasks that need to be done on a specific date or time belong in your calendar instead. You don’t want to sift through things you can’t do until next Tuesday.
If you have a big project or two (hopefully no more than 2 in action at once!) it can live on a project list.
Regular daily, weekly, or monthly routines don’t really belong here. (Check back soon, we are in the process of writing a blog on routines where we will be diving into getting intentional with the direction of your life.)
OK, so that still leaves a lot to be done, right? So, let’s manage it.
Break it down to the smallest simple task. The tasks that are hanging out too long are likely too big and daunting. You can’t tell what exactly you need to do first, so you skip over that one and procrastinate. Break it down to the smallest simple step and write that instead. Make it almost fail-proof. You’ve likely heard the advice “If you want to start working out, the first thing you need to do is put on your gym shoes.” We need a small action to take that gets the ball rolling. Even if that’s all you accomplish at that time, cross it off the list and add the next smallest step for next time. Some progress is better than procrastination.
Think outcomes over tasks. Know what your objective is. For example, your goal probably isn’t really to make 20 phone calls... Your goal might be to book 2 appointments. Focus on the outcome, not the task. And then, list the smallest simple task that moves you closer to that outcome. It might be to call a specific client first that you know is IN.
List actions by context. Sometimes we only get a small window to try to accomplish something. My actions list has 3 main columns: computer, home, phone. There are times I can sit in front of the computer and be productive, or I have a moment I can make a call, and I don’t want to waste that window skimming my list to find the one thing that fits. There are occasions I add a small section at the bottom of a column for things that I need to ‘discuss’, ‘decisions’ that need to be made, or an ‘errand’ I need to take care of when I’m out and about. When time allows, I have the discussion (usually with my husband or business partner), or I make the decision that needs to be made (try to make the best decision you can and don’t stall!). Then, I can add my smallest next action toward progress to my next actions list.
Include the next action or 2 for your project(s). You don’t want to list a project here - such as redesign my website, but you still need to take action if you want to get it done. Actions can even be fun - brain dump headlines, or brain dump what a potential client might be looking for when they click to my site and what thoughts and feelings I want to evoke while they’re there. Find inspiration where you can, which might cause the rest to flow more naturally.
Work to manage all the stuff. Stuff always finds its way in - emails, calls, mail, work or school projects, etc. Try to decide right away - is there any action needed on my part? Going back to being a gatekeeper with your time, only create actions when you truly need to accomplish the important or the essential.
It’s ok if your essentials don’t look like mine. We might all agree that paying bills is essential (maybe). But, even something that might be trivial to someone else can be essential to you if it adds enough value to your life. That’s ok. Don’t dismiss it. You might be able to do without something that is essential to someone else. It's more about value than the norm.
Whenever you have a window of time, you should be able to jump into action quickly. Keep your actions bite-sized and doable now. For things that you really want to put some time and focus into, try time-blocking or scheduling it in your calendar. But even then, avoid procrastination and wasted time by always knowing what your very next action is.
Check out these topics for more tips: