The to do list is perhaps the simplest of the work organization tools, and if used well it can be very effective. Unfortunately, due to its simplicity, it is often used without attention and risks creating more problems than it solves.
Let’s see what are the most common mistakes that transform a to do list from a tool into an obstacle.
The first problem is that often the list does not contain deadlines, we only make a list that is not very useful: deadlines are the fundamental element for managing priorities correctly and not putting off activities. Let’s face it, most of us tend to postpone what we don’t love, the lack of a deadline takes away the impetus for action.
The second aspect that can damage the to do list is its length. There are two negative effects: first of all, endless lists distract attention instead of helping us focus. Especially if you are not good at hierarchizing, you risk losing sight of important things, “scattered” in the midst of many activities.
In addition, they are demotivating: too many things to do mean an unrealistic plan, which leads to discouragement. By failing to complete the tasks day after day, we begin to accept this inability and worsen our tendency to procrastinate.
2 Things to avoid: mixing things and creating variations
The mix of activities also damages effectiveness: we cannot put in the same list actions that require 3 minutes to be carried out and projects that instead need weeks of work.
In the same way, activities belonging to different projects, which have no connection to each other and cause jumps in context to be carried out in series, should not end up in the same list.There is also the risk due to what the psychologist Barry Schwartz has defined the “paradox of choice”.
The more options we have, the less we are able to decide between them and the more anxiety we feel accordingly. A second consequence of having too much variability in the activity lists is that you spend more time doing things: when you are paralyzed by indecision you waste precious time. This damages your productivity.
This is called decision fatigue. It is a state where you are less able to make good decisions because you are mentally exhausted from making decisions during the day. In other words, your cognitive resources have been exhausted.
This phenomenon is important to understand because it has a disastrous effect on our ability to decide how to allocate our time among competing options. We become less rational, less focused and less able to control our impulses.
As a result, we are more likely to choose activities that offer immediate gratification than those that are probably better for us, but require more effort.
The function of purpose
Another great danger for the to do list is the lack of definition of the purpose: activities without a specific purpose are psychologically difficult to take charge.
The lack of definition creates the same type of problem: you cannot have a “create a website” task. Behind this sentence are dozens of things that you need to do to complete the activity. It is a project disguised as an activity. Attention also to the context of the individual activities.
If there is no appropriate information, how will you be able to estimate the value, the urgency of the activities, how long will it take to carry them out, and finally choose and execute?
The basic rule of the list that works
In addition to not making these mistakes, in order to have a really efficient tool it is important to add the start date in addition to the due date of the task.
This information allows you to focus on a limited number of activities among the many that need to be completed: those that must be started today, not in the future. The start date depends on different considerations: having certain information available, for example, but also the amount of time it takes to complete it.
This will also help to estimate the activity from the point of view of the commitment necessary to carry it out.
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You can use a double list system: the general associated with the daily. In practice, you must have a list of activities with the 2 “key” dates and extract from this day by day the activities to focus on. It is important to respect the rules and not take shortcuts: it is useless to move from the general list to the daily list new tasks, if you have not completed those that are already there.
To avoid carrying out low priority actions because they are the least boring ones, you can create the list with the 3 + 2 rule: three large tasks, which require a couple of hours to be carried out, and 2 small ones, of 30 minutes or less.
Limiting the number of activities to be brought to the “daily activities” list reduces work in progress and forces you to stay focused. It is a type of planning that goes well with the Tomato Technique, which involves working for periods of time of 25 minutes followed by 5 breaks in order to easily complete activities that require hours.
A different type of this same model provides the formula 1 + 3 + 5, where the selection brings together 1 large, 2 medium and 5 small activities (things for a few minutes, such as paying a bill, soliciting a supplier etc). It is suitable when there are many micro-activities in the “global” list, and it also helps to focus: you can only choose a “big” activity for the day, you will necessarily have to carefully evaluate which one to choose.
A particular typology is that of project lists, which arise from the breakdown of complex projects into small tasks. For example, creating a website means carrying out a series of activities ranging from choosing the internet address to defining the graphics, from studying the navigation scheme to writing the contents; most of these activities will in turn be broken down into smaller shares.
A special board, the Kanban
Kanban, the Japanese word meaning “tag”, is a method of organizing work that is part of the family of Agile (agile) methods . Work to show activities as they develop, using a board organized in columns.
The first column contains the activities to be done ( To do ) the second one those started ( In progress ) the third those completed ( Done ). Each activity is briefly described on a post it and posted in the first column. Each post it will be moved from column to column based on the progress of the activity.
The Kanban board has the great advantage of visualizing the situation and therefore allowing you to understand at a glance how the activities are going, for example if too many are in progress . The color of the post-it notes can help to prioritize things to do, or to organize them by project, further helping the legibility of the information.
The matrix system
This simple organization of activities stems from Eisenhower’s famous dial matrix. Based on importance and urgency, 4 quadrants are created: important and urgent; important and not urgent; not important and urgent; not important and not urgent.
Obviously, unimportant and non-urgent things will be taken care of when there is nothing better to do, while it is essential to make sure that important things never become urgent, because it would mean that we dealt with them too late.
David Allen’s Gettings Things Done method
The method is based on “bringing out of your head” all the things you know you have to do the moment they come to your mind. Carefully move to ordered lists, activities such as arranging a visit to the dentist, buying a colleague’s birthday present, completing the boss’s report in time, remembering not to make commitments for the evening when your daughter has the piano essay, they will not make “background noise”.
This will decrease the feeling of stress and the poor focusing ability.
The perfect list
These are the things you need to do to have a list of activities that can help you organize your commitments perfectly:
- isolates the activities of the present from those of the future;
- define why: what is the result you want from completing that activity?
- break the task activity. Remember the saying: “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time “!
- assign an expiration date to each activity. It must be realistic, an impossible only generates frustration;
- limits the number of activities in progress;
- categorizes activities by project, or by type;
- clear the list of unnecessary activities;
- desires cannot be on the list;
- estimate each activity;
- make each task emotionally relevant by using a verb: “birthday cake for Paola” is much less powerful than “buy a birthday cake for Paola”;
- mark what activities other people need to get done.
Like any system, the list must be kept efficient over time, dedicating the necessary care to it. Very useful, the weekly review allows you to check if certain priorities are still valid, if new projects are to be inserted, if others are correctly unpacked in tasks, if the deadlines are current.
Once you have created your system, appropriate to your way of working and your character, it is important to be constant: trying new things is always useful, but trying something new should not distract you from keeping the system you are using efficient.