Is Your To-do List Really a To-do List?

By admin / September 29, 2010
By: Charlie Davidson
Category: Time Management

So what's the problem here? Is it that you are an individual who procrastinates or is lazy? It's unlikely that's the real problem. Most people are a little bit lazy. If one aspect of being lazy is the tendency to want to get things done efficiently with the least amount of effort, that's really not such a bad thing. Ok, so what is the actual problem here?

Did you know that often the biggest problem is that your "to-do list" is not really a to-do list? Get your list and scan it over right now. Are you immediately aware of the next action step that you can begin right away? If this is not readily apparent to you, then you probably have a "to-do list" that isn't really a to-do list. The reality is, most "to-do lists" (so-called) that people make are actually a combination of different items, which are:

To-dos (action steps) - these are the items which you look at and understand clearly just what it is you need to do to accomplish them. Here are some examples: "Call Frank and discuss how to improve the accounting system.", "brainstorm 10 ideas about how increase revenue. ", "compose an email to my top client to thank them for their business and loyalty", "mow the lawn".

Projects - these are items that by necessity need multiple specific action steps to complete and these need to be listed as separate distinct tasks. Sometimes you will know all the steps necessary to finish the project but other times you don't. An example of a project would be, "hire a new assistant". It's a project since completing it involves multiple steps, such as "place a wanted ad in the paper", "review resumes" and more.

Other stuff - this is everything else on your list, things you have written down you might need to do something about, but you just don't have a clear understanding what the action is you should take.

It's a really big problem if there are things on your list that aren't actually "to-dos". When you look at the list and you're not sure what to do about some of the items, you will actually start to fear looking at it, because you'll think it will be too hard sorting through all the issues. Or you might read through the list and just pick out the easy stuff to do, skipping over those items that you're not quite sure about. As this happens, the usefulness of the list will be reduced as you start avoiding items that are important. You do this mainly because you have not defined "first action steps" to take in order to accomplish the less simple tasks.

Now, in theory, you could figure out the specifics of what to do about each item as you get to it. However this is a dangerous approach because likely you will then end up procrastinating about out what to do for each item and this will lead to more procrastination in taking the action itself.

Therefore, you have to make sure that you only put items on your to-do list that you are crystal clear about what the action required is in order to complete them. So, you have to look at everything on your list and ask the following questions:

1. Do I know immediately exactly what I need to do next this with item, without having to think about it?

2. Do I know what the end result or outcome is that I want from this item?

3. Will this "to-do" take me less than eight hours (or a full day's work) to accomplish it? If the task will take longer than eight hours, then you should consider breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts. The 8 hour figure is not exact or specific but something to consider in order discovering what works for you.

4. Is this to-do really a specific action? As an example, "contact Denise about the sales report" is not as specific as "telephone Denise at 304-987-2984 for 15 minutes to complete the sales report." It may seem like a small thing, however saying "telephone" rather than "contact" means that you've thought about how to specifically complete the task. Then it will be psychologically much easier when it's time to get the task done. Also, as for putting the phone number in the to-do, when it's time to call Denise, it allows you to take the action faster, although this may not be necessary if Denise's number is easily accessible on your contacts list.

An additional example about actions being specific is that sometimes the next action is to think about an item or brainstorm about what to do. So, instead of writing, "Think about what do about such and such…", you need to write down a specific action another person could observe to confirm you have completed it, for example, "Think about and write down 5 ideas about what to do regarding such and such…" Now this is still essentially the same thing, but the added specificity is a powerful motivator since your mind will know clearly when the task is done. Any time you are able, try to make a to-do more specific; this will make it that much harder for you to resist it.

5. Is this to-do the very next thing I need to do? Sometimes you can't follow through on a certain to-do item because there is a particular action you need to do first. What you need to do is consider and write down the specific first thing that should be done.

As an example, one task on your list is to "call Bill re: the new proposal", however you don't have Bill's phone number. First, you have to call another person, Susan, in order to get Bill's number. So what is your very next action step then? "Call Susan to get Bill's phone number."

Now this may all seem simple and in theory you could figure out any "first action steps" for each item without specifically noting or writing them down. In practice though, it becomes really easy to procrastinate regarding your action items if you do not specify the "first action step" to take in order to actually achieve the goal.

6. Can I break the task down into smaller components? If the task on your to-do list appears too difficult, then you need to think, "What is the very first action that I need to do for this?" and then mark that down on your list. So, for example, say you wrote down as a to-do: "Write my new book."

Now here is the problem: Every time you see the item on your list you want to ignore it and not take any action; you're intimidated by how much is involved in doing it. This particular task is actually a project and in order to complete it, will require multiple, distinct, sequential to-dos. You have to look at the task, break it down and consider what would be the very "first action step" that can be done towards the goal of completing the overall project.

In this case, it might be "brainstorm a chapter list for the book" or perhaps, "go to the library to research reference material needed for the book." Whatever it is, this very "first action step" needs to be something small that can be done in less than 8 hours, or even better, less than 30 minutes.

7. Is this task really a to-do or is it something I am waiting on? Another reason why tasks don't seem to go away from your to-do list is that you're waiting for something you need that you don't currently have. Now, it is not a good idea to leave those types of items on your to-do list. Why? Once again, your mind will freeze up because of a list that is mixed with to-do items you can do now and those which don't have an immediate action that can be taken. Items like this need to be moved to a different list, which we will talk about more below.

8. Do I really want to do this task? On your to-do list, sometimes there may be an item on it you just never seem to get around to doing or even starting. The reason for this could simply be that the task is something you just don't really want to do.

You might get to it later, but it is not a high enough priority to properly take care of at the present moment. Now instead of just leaving it on your to-do list to bug you, the task should be moved to an "on hold" or "to do later" list, which includes items that you may do someday but you aren't committed to doing at the present moment.

Your to-do list needs to only have things that you can do NOW, not tasks that have components that you are waiting on in order to complete them or tasks you may want to do in the future. You need to keep a separate list for those particular items. Keep one list for things of which you are waiting for something. Put the other to-dos that you are not able to do now but may eventually want to get to on a separate list called "To do later" or "On hold".

Finally, once you have gone through the process of dividing the items on your main to-do list into other lists as described and reduced it down to only items you can actually do now, you'll then be able to determine clear "first action steps" and you'll feel much better! You will be much less intimidated by your list because you can look at each task and say, "yes, I can do that!" It just won't feel hard anymore.

Use the outlined method to clarify your to-do list and reduce it to only REAL "to-dos". You will feel decreased stress as you begin to get much more done.

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