Avoiding Death by To-Do List

Jan 24, 2019

By Jason W. Womack M.Ed,, M.A.

The Holidays are a distant memory and the New Year is well under way. For too many of us, feeling anxious and overwhelmed has become the new normal. But you can get a handle on your to-do list and start working—and living—at your best.

Most of your dread doesn’t come from the work itself—it comes from how you think about the work. The psychological weight of unfinished tasks and unmade decisions is huge. There is a constant feeling of pressure to do more with less. You can’t change that reality, but you can make peace with it.

The following essential good habits will help you make this your most productive year yet:

  • Purge and unsubscribe. Get rid of everything you can and reduce what might be coming in. Unsubscribe from e-mail newsletters, magazines, book-of-the-month clubs, perhaps even the ad-hoc committees you’ve joined recently. Try the “unsubscription” for three months. At the end of those 12 weeks, you can re-up if you want to.
  • Block out your time and prioritize. If you spend your day making giant to-do lists or flagging “urgent” e-mails, you’ll never get any real work done. Instead look at your day and figure out where you have blocks of time to really focus and engage on what needs to be done. Time blocking and prioritization are two important keys to daily productivity. Look at your to-do list, figure out where you have blocks of time to act on those items, and then prioritize. I keep my defined “work” actions to 15 to 30 minutes each. These are the chunks of time I can use to stay focused, minimize interruptions, and work effectively. Ask yourself this: How much time do I really spend each day clicking through e-mails and making my to-do list? Most likely, a lot.
  • Change how you manage e-mail. Don’t look at your e-mail unless you have a block of time to devote to prioritizing and responding to them. Rather than simply flagging e-mails that require action your e-mail, use subject lines to organize them so that you’ll easily be able return to less urgent e-mails later on. For example, you might put “Follow-up Call” in the subject line of an e-mail about a meeting you just had with a client.
  • Take technology shortcuts. One of my clients wasted hours each week organizing her e-mails into the 300 folders she had in the left-hand column of her Microsoft Outlook. And those hours didn’t include the time she knew she’d have to spend catching up—putting most of her 7,000 inbox e-mails in those folders! After she learned how to use a few specific features (rules and search folders) of Microsoft Outlook she now spends less than an hour a week filing her messages. While an e-mail system is what worked for her, practically every kind of software you use daily has tricks and shortcuts that once implemented could save you a lot of time. Sit down with someone who can teach you more about these systems. The more you fully understand the tools you use the easier it will be to learn even more about their features and how to use them to your advantage.
  • Overcome inertia. Ever watch a freight train start to move? That first forward jolt takes the most energy; keeping the train rolling is much easier. Do some small tasks to get rolling, then pace yourself. Once you get started tackling something small and manageable, you almost always realize, “Hey, this isn’t so tough after all.” Soon you find that you’re making real progress—and it feels good.
  • Kick your BlackBerry out of bed. Another client listed “Check e-mail on Blackberry (in bed)” as part of his daily morning routine. Note that he didn’t do anything about those e-mails while still in bed. He waited until he was commuting to work on the train to start taking action. Then he rushed through his morning worrying about the e-mails he had read in bed. Together, he and I designed a five-day experiment during which he would leave his mobile device in another room while he slept. He would shower, dress, eat breakfast, and then check e-mail on the train. Initially, he expressed concern that he might miss the “thinking about what I have to think about” time he had built in to the early part of the day, but he was willing to give the experiment a try. When I called him the following week, he had good news. He was less stressed and was using his morning more productively. The change in his routine gave him a higher quality of life with less stress and increased productivity—one he didn’t know was possible without falling behind in his work.
  • Always be prepared for “bonus time.” Bring small chunks of work with you wherever you go. Then, while waiting for a meeting to start or for a delayed flight to depart—unexpected blocks of “bonus time”—you’ll be able to reply to an e-mail or make a phone call. In other instances, you might have enough time to review materials for another meeting or project you are working on. If you’re prepared, you can also confirm appointments, draft responses, or map out a project outline.
  • Reduce meeting time. If people at your organization normally allot 60 minutes for meetings, start allotting only 45 minutes. Usually, we fill the time we expect to fill. You’ll find that what you get done in 60 minutes you can also achieve in 45 minutes. The shorter time frame really gets you focused. All that extra time will really add up and provide you with more time to work toward your goals.
  • Figure out what distracts you. What keeps you from staying focused? Is it the constant ding of e-mails popping up in your inbox? The employees or colleagues who need “just a minute” of your time? Once you determine what distracts you, you can begin to make subtle changes so that you wind up getting more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality.
  • Identify the verbs that need attention. Organize your to-do list by verbs in order to manage your productivity in terms of action, delegation, and progress. Actions such Call, Draft, Review, and Invite are things that you can do, generally in one sitting, that have the potential to move the project forward one step at a time. If your to-do list has “big” verbs—by which I mean verbs that are mentally demanding or longer term in nature such as plan, discuss, create, or implement—replace them with action steps to just get started.
  • Learn to delegate clearly. Come to terms with the fact that you can’t get it all done yourself. Identify exactly what needs to be done and by when. Over-communicate and, if you need to, track what you have given to whom. Check back weekly with your “waiting on…” inventory and follow up with people who you think may wind up falling behind. After all, if the people you delegate to aren’t productive, you won’t be productive either.
  • Hold yourself accountable. At the end of each day, 20 or so workdays, write down (on a 3x5 notecard) basic things about each day: Who you met with. What you completed. Where you went. What you learned. At the end of the month, you can use this “inventory of engagement” to identify what you want/need to do more (or less) of. This activity is a great way to hold yourself accountable and make sure you’re really doing the things that help you make the most of your time.
  • Implement a weekly debrief. Take time after every five-day period to stop, look around, and assess where you are in relation to where you thought you would be. Look at three key areas: 1. What new ideas have emerged? 2. What decisions need to be made? 3. How do I track this information? This exercise allows you to course-correct if necessary. It gives you an opportunity to ask yourself: Does this still make sense? And if not, what does?”
  • Forecast your future. Open your calendar to 180 days from today. There, write three to four paragraphs describing what you’ll have done, where you’ll have been, and what will have happened in your professional/personal life by then. It’s useful to do this kind of “forecasting” from time to time. By spending ten or so minutes thinking about the next six months, you’ll be better prepared to achieve your goals.

About the Author(s)

Jason W. Womack M.Ed,, M.A., has worked with leaders and executives for over 16 years in the business and education sectors. His new book is Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley, 2012). For more information, visit: www.womackcompany.com