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Revamping the traditional to-do list

Nov 13, 2020

It is a truth universally known that a bad to-do list can have a detrimental effect on productivity. Seán McLoughney shares his tips to help you transform how you plan and schedule your key activities.

“Do you use a to-do list to help plan your time and be more efficient?”

This is the opening question I ask at my time management workshops. Most people enthusiastically indicate that they do use a to-do list. Those who do not use them will often apologise for their apparent lack of planning skills. However, my next question always leads to an interesting discussion: “How effective is your to-do list?” I find that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In fact, you can waste a significant amount of time writing to-do lists with little benefit gained.

Traditional to-do lists fail for many reasons; they are unstructured, contain too many items, are rarely prioritised correctly, and can be overwhelming. They also fail because people are unable, or unwilling, to manage themselves and their reactions to the behaviour of others. Further, most people do not estimate correctly the length of time each task will take. It is not surprising, then, that the completion of these lists rarely happens as planned.

The ‘Make it Happen, Always’ approach

You can transform your underperforming to-do list using a ‘Make it Happen, Always’ approach. This method is designed to give you a set of tools and techniques that will change the way you plan your schedule, adding consistency and collaboration to the way you work. Your to-do list tells you what you already know; this approach is a blueprint for your successful completion of the tasks that are of real value to you.

A great place to start is by planning and scheduling important activities to ensure that the right tasks get done consistently, as well as protecting your time so that the important things do not get dropped.

Begin your plan by reviewing your list of tasks and then prioritise them based on importance and impending deadlines. Developing the skill of prioritising will allow you to consistently work on important jobs and tasks rather than fuelling a non-productive ‘always too busy’ culture.

Next, schedule these important tasks into your diary so that you can have a complete overview of all your daily activities. Factor in how long each task will take, and assign a start and an estimated finish time – similar to the way you would schedule a meeting. This will allow you to establish how many activities you can realistically complete each day. Estimating the time each task will take is an essential part of time management.

As this scheduling habit becomes embedded in your way of working, you will then start to schedule your week and month. Using your diary in this way will allow you to stay ahead of deadlines and anticipate any potential bottlenecks.

What to avoid

Avoid filling each day with tasks, meetings and other activities. Always leave time for some unexpected crisis or important last-minute task. This wriggle room will give you the scope to reorganise your schedule if something unexpected lands on your desk without compromising an important task already scheduled. I tend to front-load my day with activities and leave the wriggle room for later in the afternoon.

Time management is a core business skill that must be learned to deliver high performance and drive a business forward. It is time to move away from the traditional underperforming to-do lists and start using a new approach to transform the way you plan and schedule your key activities.

Seán McLoughney is the founder of LearningCurve and author of Time Management.