To-Do List Makeover

FILED IN: Business

To-Do List Makeover 

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I’ve always been a list person – from Christmas lists to grocery lists, I find that there is no better way to stay organized, keep track of all the things on my plate, and prioritize on the fly. But at some point along the way, the To-Do list became a dreaded thing in my life – the thought of physically writing down/iPhone listing all the things I needed to get done seemed incredibly overwhelming. So the To-Do list and I broke up for a while.


But then an interesting thing started happening – I found myself jotting down a few key tasks I wanted to get done for the day on a post-it note on my desk. It wasn’t the full list of everything in the universe that was in my brain, but just the key things I knew needed to get done while sitting at my desk over the course of the next several hours. I started noticing myself doing this and working more efficiently. The list wasn’t everything, but just what I could do in that time and space. I started analyzing this behavior (because as a Consultant & behavioral neuroscience academic, this is just the type of dorky thing that I do). I realized that by changing a few key behaviors about my old to-do list, I had created a brand-new way to think about prioritizing that was all about context and value, rather than a running list of open items with no structure.


So here’s what works for me now – I can’t promise it will give you more free time or lessen your workload, but I can promise that it will help you to think more efficiently about where you spend your energy – and where you don’t.


Setting the Stage


Let’s start by recognizing where we are – both physically and mentally – because if we are being honest, you aren’t working on your website redesign if you’re still sitting at your desk at 5pm on the Friday before a long weekend (or if you are, please call me because I would love to know more about your incredible discipline and focus).


This leads me to context – if you aren’t in the right place to get something done, it’s not going to happen. It’s as simple as that. It’s a lot harder for me to write about mindfulness and taking time to reflect when I am commuting to work on a packed train at 6:45 am. It’s also hard for me to work on my dog’s leash manners when I am at work – do you see where I am going here? If you aren’t in the right place to do something, don’t try to do it. You’ll spend energy unnecessarily without actually accomplishing anything.


Next up, is available time. This isn’t where I tell you how to make more of it because I’m convinced that’s next to impossible. But think for a minute about the time you do have available – are you being smart about how you use it?


Is 10 minutes enough time to put together a pitch deck for a new client? Not for me – so I know that I’m not going to start that task until I have enough time blocked to really make meaningful progress on the work that needs to get done. I like to repurpose that 10-minutes to grab an iced coffee before buckling down for another few hours of work or taking a quick walk outside to get some fresh air and reenergize before a busy afternoon.


Our last scene-setter is all about you, and what you’re bringing to the table. I’m talking about energy, people – and I don’t mean the color of your aura prior to diving into a creative task, but rather your mindset prior to tackling an item on your list. There is no right or wrong energy for a task – it’s all about what you need to be successful. I like to think about studying in college as a great example of this – some people were able to study in their dorm room an hour before a final, others went in not having studied at all, and then others, like me, had to lock themselves in the library with loads of snacks for hours on end. It’s all about what works for you. When you are evaluating your list of tasks, be mindful of the type of energy you are bringing to the table so you are making the most of your efforts.


Now that we have talked about setting up, its’ time to bring in priorities – or as I like to think about it, our strategy for how we tackle the items on our list.


Make a list of all outstanding commitments – that can mean delivering a revised contract to a client or proofreading your younger sisters resume. Both are things that you have committed to doing – professionally and personally – so they both belong on the list in my opinion. This goes for confirming a date for a scheduled shoot, content I have laid out loosely in my brain for the next month of my blog… Yup, it’s scary to bring all of those tasks out. But guess what friends – this is your real-life-to-do list here, not your list of favorite things to do.


Once you’ve got that bad boy ready to roll, it’s on to the really fun part – assessing each task and building your strategy. I know that sounds time consuming, but this should be a quick 3-minute exercise that will transform your list:


Question 1 – What is the value of getting this done?

Question 2 – What is the risk if I don’t get this done?


Using the previous example, sending an updated proposal to a client means being one-step closer to a signed contract. Failure to send an updated proposal means I am keeping the client waiting, breaking the commitment that I made, and at risk for them walking. This logic tells me that I should probably make sure I get that updated proposal out there.


These two questions are my absolute best friends – I evaluate all the work I do through this lens, recognizing where I am spending energy without receiving any value in return. We can only do so much – and this exercise helps me make the most of the time I do have available. I try to limit my to-do list to 3-5 things a day, but this number will vary depending on who you are, the nature of your work, what else is going on in your life… you get the point.


Everyone’s brain works differently, but my hope is that sharing this approach will encourage you to think about your list of things to do in a new way and enable you to manage your time more effectively. And hopefully steal 10-minutes here and there to grab an iced coffee and stretch your legs.

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