Of course you do. Almost everyone in project management does.
What tends to differ is the form: a clean sheet from a memo pad, a running list in the back of a notebook, scraps of paper, sticky notes stuck everywhere, an app on your phone, your computer or your tablet… or all three, or even an astonishing feat of daily memorisation.
I am not going to tell you not to keep a to do list. It may be old fashioned, but it does have a value. The problem is that far too many people use their to do list as their only really time management, productivity, or personal effectiveness tool. And that can be dangerous.
Indeed, a to do list can be toxic. Rather than than helping you manage your time, it can start to manage you, leaving you stressed and feeling inadequate. You see, how often have you got to the end of the day and faced a dilemma:
Or do you stay late at work, finish your To Do list, and feel virtuous in having a clear desk first thing tomorrow?
If you do clear your To Do list, then you get home late, you’re tired, it’s hard to relax, so you get to bed and are already tired when you wake up. But here’s the thing: because you are ‘good’ at To Do lists, by the end of the next day, you still have a load of stuff on your new to Do list. So you stay late, again. And again. And before you know it, you are completely exhausted with staying late more often than not, resentful of your work, and easily stressed by the smallest things. This strategy is not sustainable.
So you try strategy B. At the end of the day, there is still lots to do, but you say f* it. Life is more important than work, so you go home. Unfortunately, you can’t relax properly in the evening because you are worried about all the things you have to do tomorrow – even before you start tomorrow’s work. And with all that going around in your head, you find it hard to sleep. So when you get up in the morning you are tired. And to make things worse, when you get to work, you have an hour’s backlog to clear, before you can even start on today’s work! Is s any wonder that, by the end of this day, you’ll still have stuff in your To Do list? And so it continues, with you getting more and more tired and further and further behind.
Where’s the problem? The problem is in your To Do list. It isn;’t that you have one though. It is how you are using it.
Here is how to tame your To Do list and make it work for you – rather than vice versa.
Step 1: Re-name your To Do list as your Could Do list. Recognise that everything on it is merely a candidate for how you could use your time, rather than a commitment to how you will use your time.
Step 2: At the end of each day, review your Could do list for things that will be most valuable for you to do tomorrow. But make sure that the total time you expect them to take will be less than the time you will have available to do them. If you have an eight hour working day, but you have two hours of meetings scheduled and need one hour of thinking and planning time, plus an hour to respond to the daily issues and emails that crop up, then you have four hours. If you find more than four hours of Could Do candidates, then prioritise ruthlessly and put some back on your could do list, perhaps for the next day. Transfer the real priority items to tomorrow’s Will Do list.
Your Will Do list is a closed list. When you have cleared it, you are free to plan the next day and go home.
Step 3: Periodically review your Could Do list for tasks that are no longer of enough value to merit your attention. Typically, these will have been hanging around for a week or two and you have been passing on them every day. Cross these off and transfer them to a new list on a new piece of paper: your Won’t Do list. When you have completed this list, file it carefully in the small round filing cabinet on the floor by the door.
Step 4: Lastly, recognise that some of your Could Do items may be hanging around, but they are far too important to place on a Won’t Do list. Usually, these are not single To Do items, but represent a whole cluster of tasks: a small project. And they are still there because you instinctively recognise them as a big chunk, and you have been putting them off time and again, through procrastination. So for each of these, take a new double page spread in your notebook. At the top of the first page, write ‘Project: …’ with the name of the Could Do item.
Below that, write a couple of sentences about what this project is really all about, and then, on three lines, write the numbers 1, 2, and 3. Against them, write the first three single tasks that you need to do. When you have done that, write in brackets an estimate of the time each will take (no more than an hour each, or you will need to split them up). And finally, look in your diary, and schedule each one into a specific time slot. When you have done those three things, you will know whether this is a project to pursue further, pass to someone else, or one to abort, or something to defer to a later date. Make your notes accordingly in your notebook.
To do lists can be toxic. So replace them with three new tools that work far better when you co-ordinate them properly:
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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