How to Turn the To Do List into a Done List

20170820 - Turning a To Do List into a Done List!

I find that I am often talking myself up on busy days: “One day at a time, one hour at a time, one task at a time.” The to do list might be mighty long, so I make sure to focus on the priorities, the urgent and the important, and what impacts the jobs of others first. To help me in my focus, I am a big believer in using a structured to do list.

You might be familiar with the 3M Post-it Notes ad campaign that shares writing something down makes a task more likely to be done. This is exactly why a to do list is important! It keeps everything in one place, and you’re unlikely to lose something in a stack of papers, and you can quickly jot something down if it comes to mind in the middle of a task. When I look at my list at the end of a day and see check marks and cross outs, I feel a satisfaction that keeps me buoyed even as I am tired at the end of a busy day.

Here is my 12-step plan to turn a to do list into a done list!

  1. Keep it in a spreadsheet. I’ve tried by hand an in word documents and task management apps and tools, but the key to my success is keeping my to do list in a spreadsheet format. It allows me to customize everything to my needs, and it keeps things simple versus using someone else’s structure in an app. The key is to find what works for you – this works for me! I’d spend what seemed like forever transposing lists from a nearly complete one by hand to a new list a couple days later. I tried Word also, but it didn’t give me the flexibility with formatting and sizing that i wanted. I tend to think in spreadsheets, so it was a logical direction for me.
  2. The project or component of a project. If you are working on multiple projects, I suggest multiple lists to keep things clean instead of combining all in one. If you only have a few tasks or less than a half page, it makes sense to consolidate so there are fewer pages!  I have four major projects ongoing across two different groups. One page is for three of my projects in my primary focus area. Because I am at a pivotal stage pulling together for a submission, I have a second list with all of the to do items for the submission aspect of the project, separate from everything else in this focus area. It requires its own focus, and would make my original list too long to look at. The whole point is to NOT overwhelm – dividing it up by project or project component helps eliminate that feeling!
  3. The point of contact (“POC”). It should be clear who owes information, needs to be in the loop, or who you need to find for answers or questions. On some of my action items I need to get input from two or three different people. I started dividing this item up so I could mark more as complete instead of feeling I had this one task that could never get done – often out of my control, but one of the three people was someone I couldn’t connect with. So by having three repeating action items for “get Q2 performance data” from Jane, Alex, and Chris, when Jane doesn’t get back to me I still got to cross off having completed activities with Alex and Chris.
  4. The task. You can’t know what to do without including what you need to do! I make this a short description but as informative as possible. It is also a singular to do item, even if it means separate line items for the same POC (similar to keeping my POC separate). This helps me stay motivated as I can take items off the list one at a time instead of being dependent on someone else’s timing to complete several different and sometimes unrelated tasks.
  5. The due date. This is my favorite add to my to do list format! I am immensely more organized now, and can follow through better on deadlines than unlike any other time before. They are reminders on phone call follow ups, they are commitments to myself and others, and the due dates are the drivers to keep me focused. The adage is what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done, but I believe what doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done. The due dates help me plan my days and weeks better. Most importantly, it helps me better communicate my priorities to my boss and others, because the priorities are clear right in front of me and easy to reference. If a different task takes precedence, I know that, especially with the next item, I can make sure to keep balance in my life by asking what need to be de-prioritized.
  6. The anticipated time to complete. This directly correlates with the due date, and is the favorite number two add to my to do list routine! If a typical working day is 8 hours, I only plan 6 hours worth of work. Similarly, if I am working 10 hours, I only plan for 7.5 hours. How and why do I do this? By assigning an anticipated time to complete to all of my tasks, I can build my schedule around meetings and other commitments to give adequate attention and focus to each task. I find phone calls work best in the early afternoon, so I know that on Tuesday if I have five phone calls, I’ll need to block out 30-50 minutes Tuesday afternoon to do that. If I need a two hour window to focus uninterrupted on writing a report, I can schedule that into my calendar and block the window off. The calendar thus becomes an extension of my to do list. If I only have hour long breaks between my meetings, it will be tough to get a two hour block of writing done, so I know I will either need to adjust my goal or come in early or stay a little late to get what I need.
  7. Sort by due date. This is key – putting items together in the un-strategic order in which items come to mind or pop up during the day does little to help focus the work I’ve done in items #5 and #6. Excel has a sort function that takes the labor out of doing this! Depending on what kind of day is in front of me, I may sort deeper – like by POC, or time needed to complete the task. If I have an empty morning, I’ll sort by date and then longest time to complete because I can focus my energy on the big stuff.
  8. Highlight the priorities over the next two to three days. This creates the illusion of a shorter list. I use a light gray to help my eyes focus – I don’t use a color because I tend to print in black and white to save money on ink, and the color isn’t that meaningful anyhow. I tend to make my tables with blue fill and white, bold text at the top to give a different focus when I look at the paper even though it will print in grayscale.
  9. Print the list and update as you go. This allows the list to be a little more portable. I like printing this because I enjoy the physical crossing off of a task when complete, and it also helps me track what is done or what only had some action taken. I cross out a full line when something is complete, and place a checkmark if I took action that day.
  10. Don’t forget to add new items as they come up and as you complete and follow ups become clear. This starts out as a handwritten item, and when I tackle item #11 in this list I make sure to add the items typed. Leaving on other post its or not writing down is a sure way to get things missed. If it is on this sheet at any time, it gets done – if not… I’m in trouble.
  11. Re-type every two to three days or when the sheet is not easily legible. This helps stay organized. Sometimes I’ll have priorities change and need to bump something further down – if I’m not retyping, that priority gets lost. The re-type is quick and easy because I throw a couple cells of information in and sort – the hard work is done for me.
  12. Keep the long term items in their own section, but with the same sheet. Tracking long term items can help you stay focused on the big picture and stay on schedule. However, if you keep adding them to the primary list, you’ll never feel like you are getting anything done. Keep these items, those that don’t need action for two or more weeks, at the bottom of the page. You’ll in due time add them to the list, but it just serves as a reminder for later, without risk of losing a note stuck to your monitor.


Here is a rough example of what my finished product looks like at the end of putting all of the above steps together, if I only had six items I was tracking (ha!):

20170820 to do list done list graphic

Remind yourself how much you’ve accomplished. If you haven’t accomplished as much as you had hoped, take solace in tomorrow being another day and what you were able to accomplish. If nothing was accomplished, take it as a learning opportunity and reflect on what can be improved going forward. Every day and every re-write of the to do list is a chance to get better.

Today, Sunday, is my day of rest from my day job (which, thankfully, I fully enjoy). We’ve gone on a hike and done some house work and relaxing. I know my to do list is waiting for me at the office, ready to be crossed off with my accomplishments of the day. As much as I focus on getting work done, I need to remind myself it is also important to take some time off to refresh. Getting out of the mindset of work (believe it or not, writing about this to do list is fun for me!) lets me be more creative, escape with books and nature and family and friends, and get excited about other areas of my life. Because I pay attention to my to do list, keep it organized and updated, and remind myself of even the little accomplishments, I get more done in the office and have more time to have fun at home and even with co-workers. My weekends aren’t filled up with thoughts of work, except for getting ready to dominate another week on Sunday night!

What are you using for a to do list? Is it helpful or will you try a new format? Do you like old school, apps, or something like me in the middle?

16 Reasons Why Planning a Wedding is an Exercise in Project Management

20170807 - 16 Reasons Wedding Planning is like PM

Wedding planning came naturally to me, probably because I had years of experience developing the tools needed to be successful. I’ve been managing projects and teams since college at WPI, where team projects are a significant component of the curriculum. It made for a great transition to the working world, where EVERYTHING was seemingly project based. I moved from engineering, to construction, to real estate, and all along the way there were teams to be on and teams and projects to manage.  

And then, he asked the question. Of course, the answer was yes! My then boyfriend became my then fiance and now, for the past seven months and forever going forward, my husband. Planning the wedding was actually pretty fun even if there were some stressful times.

If planning or project management does not come naturally to you, I can understand that being a bride can be terrifying. This is especially so if you don’t hire a professional wedding planner. There are a lot of people to keep happy, funding to manage with a budget that is never what you really need or want, family politics instead of office or company politics, competing priorities, a million logistics to manage, and all this is on top of needing excellent communication skills.

    1. Leadership. Who else runs the show besides the bride for a wedding? It takes leadership to convey the vision, bring everyone together, and drive for success with a great start to the marriage. As the bride or groom, you are the leader and setting the tone with expectations and the grand vision for everyone in your wedding (see #4!). And this naturally brings us to…
    2. Setting goals. Remembering that the point of a wedding is to celebrate the joining of two hearts can help you focus on the why when times get stressful. Your goals may revolve around some of the other project management similarities below, or they may relate strictly to why you are doing this with your love. My husband and I wanted to have the most fun wedding – beautiful but not pretentious, simple but without lacking elegance. Oh, and on a budget!
    3. Communication. This is the penultimate skill needed in wedding planning! No one knows where to go, what to do, and how to behave unless you communicate your intent and needs. My awesome photographer was generous with praise for all of my communication leading up the wedding day (“can you teach other brides how to do this!?”). Who were the key contacts? What about back ups? Where do you need to be when? Similar to writing in elementary school, it is as simple as the 5 W’s and H, and telling it to the appropriate audience in the right manner. I liked email over text because it was easy to find – just search instead of scroll a million times (and no group texts!)
    4. Putting the team together. You don’t always have the ability to choose EVERYONE as part of a team when a project manager, but with a wedding you do get to select only the best people in your life and the vendors who can execute your vision! The wedding party, the person who presides over the ceremony, and the DJ are all your choice! However, freedom comes with great responsibility – who you select can make or break the planning and execution. Choose wisely! We were fortunate to get great recommendations and vendors who understood us. Our caterer felt like “our people” and the level of service was even better than we could have asked for. One of the leaders of our catering company was even helping me to bustle my dress before dinner!
    5. Establishing and sticking to a budget. My husband and I were focused on doing as much as we could for as little as possible; it was all about value for us. In fact, our theme was “ballin’ on a budget”! My parents were generous enough to help us shoulder the bulk of the costs and we had monthly budget update meetings. I would email them spreadsheets every time there was an update (back to communication!) and we would even hook up the computer via HDMI cable to the TV and have “budget presentations” to show progress. It helped us make decisions together, especially with the guest list.
    6. Negotiation.  This can be handy when working on a tight budget and dealing with family members. Asking for discounts or working through customization of packages and availability will be key. Sometimes, you may have to balance the guest list. “Sure, your co-worker can come, but this means that we are over the limit for the room. Who shouldn’t come instead?”.
    7. Logistics management. The day of takes significant planning and coordination before you get there! How are you getting to the venue? Where will you sleep after the reception? How will dinner or drinks be served? For every vendor hired and person involved, you need to think about how they are going to do their jobs and meet your vision. We had looked into alternate transportation options in case our January wedding in Massachusetts came with a side of snow – it would reduce the stress on everyone to get where they needed without worrying about their car sliding off the side of the road!
    8. Scheduling. Everything needs to be scheduled or it doesn’t happen! Understanding timelines and lead times and when the payments are due to make certain things happen are important. The day of needs to be carefully coordinated, and if you are already a project manager, you know everything will take longer than you think it will! Scheduling relates heavily to logistics management above.  I had created timelines for every vendor and “subgroup” of the wedding party – the bridesmaids are doing X at 10:00 am and the groomsmen are doing Y at 11:30am, the moms are with the bridesmaids, etc. It made for a much smoother day with fewer questions, especially repeating the task with vendors – who greatly appreciated being in the loop together!
    9. Coordination amongst teams. Your vendors and each of your families need some guidance on how to work together. They all have likely not worked with each other before, and you have to establish and facilitate how they work together and get their jobs done seamlessly and without affecting the other vendors negatively. Our venue event manager was a great coordinator and reached out to everyone. Since our DJ was dedicated into making sure we were on board with all of the music and timing, it was great that our event manager and the house manager had time to talk with him and work through decision making when we were in the middle of greeting guests at dinner.
    10. Managing differences. Maybe family politics does extend to politics – does your brother feel passionately about issues your partner’s cousin feels the exact opposite about, but just as passionately? You’ll need to figure out this management before they get to the bachelor party and work out getting the tuxes together! This is a huge communication piece, as well as expectation setting. We knew that picking the right guests to sit at tables together would be important to making the night fun for everyone. I set up the guest list in Excel for easy swapping and RSVP tracking and there was plenty of good times for both old friends and new friends.
    11. Organization. Whether you have a hard copy binder, or store everything in the cloud, you HAVE to stay organized with both wedding planning and project management. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but your documents, budget, and plans must be in a position to be understood if someone else picked up for us. My husband always had access to our guest list and budget and the logistics plans through Google Sheets (not an endorsement, just what I used!) – he never had to look beyond one file to understand where we were if there was a question and I wasn’t around.
    12. Risk management. For your outdoor wedding, you booked a tent in case of rain. This is risk management in practice – contingency plans, insurance policies, and checking in with the higher ups (whether a VP or mom and dad!) – all are a part of risk management. We’re trying to make sure things go smoothly and put in all the protections to make that possible. One way we managed our risk was to keep everything in a close proximity – the furthest distance was between the hotel and the church – one mile!
    13. Managing stress. There may be a lot on your plate, but freaking out or getting overwhelmed are not the solutions. It may be raising a hand to ask for help or taking some time out for sleep or a workout, whichever makes you happier. Stress only makes a situation worse – and stresses other people out. Keep your cool, and things will go fine. Sometimes you have to manage the stress of others too. My maid of honor was incredible at keeping everyone organized and calm – the other bridesmaids talked about how much easier she made their lives with color coded email reminders of what to bring and where to be, when.
    14. Task management. You didn’t pick your team or bridesmaids to sit there and say yes to all your ideas – you picked them to help you get the job done! This is practiced as delegation if you are passing your own tasks to someone else. Even if it is a task “out of your scope”, you need to make sure those willing (or being paid) to help are getting done what they need to, when they need to. My mom was a superstar helping out on the creative side of things, but we worked together on timelines to make sure we could balance all of our tasks and not be up to 5am before the wedding.
    15. Balancing priorities. I have a full-time job, and was also working full-time while wedding planning. While I do have a flexible employer, I have a lot to get done off hours because I have a demanding role and I do respect my employer. A few calls or emails at lunch and after work can get the job done, but I also know I could put off the honeymoon planning until we had the caterer booked. You don’t have to do it all once – nor should you!
    16. Patience. I don’t think this one needs explanation to either project managers or brides and grooms planning weddings! Take a breath – in, out – and it will be okay. Is it a battle worth fighting? We ended up fighting for supermarket flowers versus a typical florist because we loved the artistry of the woman who would be working on the wedding – and it paid off!  We saved over $2,000 versus a much simpler set of flowers of other vendors.

I’m not convinced that an employer would want to know about your wedding planning skills (unless you are going into events or wedding planning!), but development of project management skills via wedding planning can be directly applicable to what you are doing in the workplace! It might be a great example to use in an interview if you don’t have a work example to share.

I loved wedding planning and felt I did a great job for my and my husband’s wedding. At times I laughed because it felt similar to work in bringing teams together toward common goals and planning for a flawless execution. When more than a dozen guests told us it was one of the best weddings they had ever been to, it was gratifying to hear that all the hard work paid off not only for me, but for those in attendance. Now I need to continue to execute at work everyday!

Are you a project manager planning a wedding? Do you think the comparison is true for you too? Or does it relate to your career skills at all? Did everyone else love wedding planning?