You know the ones I mean.
The day starts as you crawl out of bed, an hour later than you meant to. You overslept because you forgot to set the alarm clock. Duh!
You get ready and rush out of the front door and jump in the car only to realise you need petrol. If only you had remembered to fill up the night before.
You head over to the closest petrol station which is now going to add another fifteen minutes to your journey time.
Along the way you get a flat tyre.
Not such a disaster normally but when you go to get the spare you realise that it won’t be much use. Spare tyres are only useful when you get them repaired after your last puncture.
Guess it’s time to phone the AA. If only you had paid the renewal, you meant to, the friendly reminder is on your desk at the office waiting to be paid (along with his friends the car insurance renewal, the visa bill and your gym membership).
Okay, reading this you must think anyone having such a bad start to the day must have either severe short term memory loss or is just plain dumb.
In my case it was neither of these; I had slipped into being the ‘busy fool’.
I used to spend my days ploughing through hundreds of email every day, spending far too much time on the telephone and generally meeting other people’s needs rather than reaching my own goals.
When I did have some time to do some work it had no structure. I missed deadlines, forgot appointments, lacked productivity and my stress levels were through the roof!
I ‘worked’ twelve hours a day but never seemed to get much work completed and always seemed to forget something vital, either work related or something in my personal life.
But did I work hard? Yes, I worked my backside off! I just never seemed to get enough done. Put simply I was disorganised, lacked focus and because of this my productivity suffered.
Until I discovered a very simple trick that people have been doing for centuries . . .
I started using a ‘To-Do List’. This simple tactic has put structure in my day and kept me on track to getting the things that really matter done.
Let me show you how I stopped being the busy fool.
Bonus: Download this free template ‘to-do list’ to get started.
So Why Use a To-Do List?
Writing a list will help you set concrete goals. It will keep you focused on completing the tasks that you find important and will allow you to keep track of your productivity.
The temptation can be to create a wish list of things you would like to see achieved rather than a to-do list of things that you are actually going to do. Don’t fall into the trap of creating a monster list and understand the difference between something that should be classed as a project rather than a task.
A project is a group of tasks. A good example of a project would be ‘do the gardening’. Whereas mowing the lawn, pull out the weeds, prune the roses would be three tasks that would help you complete your project of ‘do the gardening’.
Break your projects into tasks and consider that many projects are not completed in just one day; it is acceptable to split a project into tasks spread over multiple days.
Basics of a To-Do List
Write a list of tasks. Order them by priority. Complete highest priority task and move on to the next one.
It is but to get the most out of a to-do list carry on reading and see how you can master this simple but effective technique.
Write Your List the Night Before
By writing your list the night before you are able to set yourself a goal for the following day and keep the first part of your day clear of questions like ‘what do I need to do today?’ This way you can hit the ground running when you start work. This is also the time you will probably be at your most productive.
When you write your list keep it under 7 items and prioritise the list in order of importance. Examine your list when you have finished, do they all need to be completed tomorrow? Don’t set yourself up to fail, only include achievable tasks that need to be done.
You don’t want to spend half the day completing semi-important tasks and leave a task that is vital until the end of the day, potentially running out of time.
You can write your list on a notepad, use sticky notes or even use a web app such as Evernote or Wunderlist. The method of recording the list is not important it is how you write the list and implement it that will lead to success.
To avoid the double learning curves of mastering how to use a to-do list and also conquering how to use a new web app at the same time I recommend you start with a pen and paper.
Bonus: Use this free download to get you started.
If you are a tech geek (like me) then you might be comfortable diving straight in with an app, the choice is yours.
Be Your Own Boss & Give Clear Instructions to Your Lazy Self
Try and get in the mind set of being your own boss. When putting your to-do list together imagine you are writing it for your other self and this person is your employee (and can often be lazy if not given clear instruction).
Use full sentences rather than quick notes. Be very clear in your instructions, go into detail and give specifics such as phone numbers, names and dates. Try and take as much of the mental effort of completing a task out of the equation as possible.
For example if I ask my other self to -
arrange travel & book hotel for meeting
My boss self knows which meeting, when the meeting is scheduled and which hotel he has in mind. So no need to write the details down as my other self can do the legwork, right? No, this is a mistake, save your other self that time and he will get twice as many tasks done from the list.
Try this instead -
Call train station on 0845 112233 and book return ticket to Birmingham main station travelling from Manchester Piccadilly. Book a single room for one night with an evening meal for the 10th August at the Hilton on 0121 603 1234.
All your other self has to do is pick up the phone and call. No need to find phone numbers, check dates or find suitable hotels as your boss self has already done this. Trust me; by writing everything down in advance your other self will be far more productive.
Remember your other ‘often lazy’ self does not get paid to think, your boss self is the brains of the operation and does all the thinking the day before. Preparation is key to being productive.
Another tip for being specific with tasks is to give a clear goal or target. Without a clear target you leave the task open to interpretation and make it difficult to quantify.
Make some progress on the decorating.
This could mean anything from entirely redecorating the house or simply just getting the paint brushes out.
It would be far better to add something along these lines.
Strip the walls and prepare all the woodwork for painting in the living room.
This gives a clear target and a quantifiable goal.
Getting the List Done
Your to-do list will help you to get organised and will also help improve your workflow. But what it won’t do is complete the work for you. Sometimes you may look at your list and struggle to get started. Here are a few tips on how you can get the ball rolling and avoid getting interrupted or distracted.
The first thing you need to do is tackle your most important task first. Remember if necessary you can break this up into smaller tasks if it helps. By completing your most important and often most difficult task first you are setting a tone for the rest of the day. Making a good start (or a bad one) often determines how the rest of the day will go.
Don’t live in your email inbox! Unless it is completely necessary to your current task then turn off your email client. There is really no need to keep checking your inbox it will only serve as a distraction from the task at hand. The same can be said for your mobile phone and even your internet browser. Ask yourself if you really need these tools (distractions) turned on to get your current task completed.
Set yourself a time to complete the task and try to keep to it. Giving yourself a time limit can really help with your motivation.
Learn to say no when your time is being eaten away meeting other people’s needs rather than your own. If you are constantly being distracted and asked for information or help by someone else then learn how to say no. This is a skill that you must learn if you want to be successful and improve your productivity.
Re-Evaluate Bumped Items
If you struggle to complete the list on a regular basis then it is time to revaluate and shorten your list. Only keep the items on the list that you find extremely important, anything that is not an absolute priority leave off the list until such time that you start to complete all the items on your list again.
If you find it impossible to take some tasks off your list and are unable to complete all of your tasks then consider asking for help or outsourcing some of your work.
To make your to-do list work then you need to remember a few basics.
- Planning in advance is key
- Remember the difference between projects and tasks
- List in order of priority and keep to an amount that you can complete
- Be specific in your instructions
- Avoid distractions
For me one of the most satisfying aspects of having a to-do list is being able to cross completed task off the list. This is both therapeutic and also helps keep me motivated.
By checking off your completed tasks it also gives you the ability to review your productivity at the end of the working day and help plan for the future.
I usually spend time examining what I managed to get done and what I failed to complete before I start writing my list for the following day.
Using a to-do list successfully is an extremely effective way of improving your efficiency, prioritizing your workflow and boosting productivity. It really is a valuable skill that is fairly easy to master that will help you make the most of your time.