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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!):
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?