How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials
Do your days seem to be crazy busy and your to-do list filled up with an endless supply of tasks? Is your calendar full and your work day a non-stop rush from one thing to another?
If so, you may have too much on your plate. It’s time to step back, take a few minutes, and pare down that to-do list to just the bare essentials.
Imagine, for a moment, that you have only a few things on your list for today. Imagine the peace that comes from that simple little fact. Now imagine your workday, a day of simplicity, of focus, of powerful accomplishments. Imagine that instead of doing 10 little things that don’t matter much, you do one thing that will really have an impact on your business, on who you are, on your future.
Now make it happen. It’s possible, this workday of peace, this Zen-like productivity. But it will take focus and energy, and a little bit of hard-headedness. Here’s a guide for doing that.
- Focus on your goals. To know what is essential, you must first know what you are trying to achieve. If you have no goals, you have no way of knowing if a task is essential for accomplishing those goals. Take a few minutes to review your goals (or write them for the first time). Where do you want to be in 10 years? What one big thing can you do to get there this year? What can you do in the next few months? And what can you do this week? By having these goals, you are providing yourself with a roadmap. Focus on just one goal at a time for now, until that is achieved, and then focus on the next.
- Know your value. If you do not value yourself, you will not value your time. And then you will say yes to every request, and your to-do list will always be overflowing. Take a few minutes to think about your skills, and what you are worth. Think about how much you want your time to be worth. And now, don’t accept any work that is not worth your time and value.
- Most bang for your buck. Look at your to-do list: which tasks on there really, really matter? Which ones will make you the most money, get you the most recognition, and pay off for you the most in the long run? Put a star next to those tasks. If you don’t have any of those tasks on your list, consider coming up with a few. These are what you should focus on.
- Eliminate the rest. Now that you know which tasks really, really matter … see what you can eliminate of the rest. Some of them can actually be crossed off immediately. A few other strategies for eliminating tasks from your list are below.
- Clear your mornings. Set aside a big block of time every morning (the whole morning if possible) to work on your starred tasks — the ones that really matter. This is the quiet time when you can be really productive. Once afternoon hits, things are likely to pick up, and your important tasks can be pushed back. Clear you calendar in the mornings, don’t schedule anything then, turn off your phone and email, clear off your desk, and see how much you can get done.
- Choose three things. If your list has 20 things on it, just choose three for today. But you want to do five or seven? Be ruthless. Prioritize, and only choose three. Write those three on a separate piece of paper, and that’s your to-do list for today. Be sure that at least one of them leads to your short-term goal for this week. The other two should definitely be starred tasks — those really, really important ones.
- Stop meetings. Meetings are almost always a waste of your time. If you control them, eliminate them. Have people report stuff through email. Collaborate using online tools. Or have one-on-one meetings, for 5-10 minutes each, if necessary, and batch them together in a one-hour chunk in the afternoon. If you don’t control them, show your boss why you shouldn’t be in a meeting, and how much you can accomplish if you didn’t have to go — make a pitch your boss can’t refuse.
- Delegate. Take another look at your to-do list … is there stuff on there that you don’t need to be doing? Forward them on to someone else, either higher up on the food chain than you or lower, or at the same level. It doesn’t matter. As long as it’s not you. Know what needs to be done by you, and what doesn’t.
- Default to no. Instead of taking on every request that comes your way, learn to say no. Only accept those tasks that really must be done by you, that are worth your time, and that will give you the most benefit in the long run. Say no to all the rest, as hard as that may be. Or delay — tell them to ask you again next week. Often the request will go away.
- Shunt tasks to a folder. Have other small tasks that you need to do today that aren’t on your three-task to-do list for today? Put those tasks in a separate folder, or on another list, and put it away in a drawer. Set aside an hour or so later in the day, and batch process those small tasks. Phone calls, quick memos, paperwork, whatever — you can do these all real fast, all at once. It’s better than scattering them throughout the day.
- Single-task. When you’re going to focus on one of your three important tasks for today, really focus. Eliminate all distractions, including the Internet and email and phones and clutter on your desk. Don’t allow anything to interrupt. Same thing if you’re going to have a one-on-one meeting with someone (as mentioned above) or batch process your smaller tasks — do one at a time. Multi-tasking will just stress you out and make you less productive. Multi-tasking is really only effective on a larger scale — doing multiple projects over the course of a month, say, instead of multiple tasks at once.
- Set one time for email. This is probably the hardest task for most of us. Email is something we’re used to doing throughout the day. But really, for most people, email doesn’t need to be answered right away. Manage the expectations of those you communicate with — let them know that you only do email once a day, and they won’t expect an immediate answer. If this is impossible for you, at the very least, limit your email to chunks, instead of doing it throughout the day. Do it 2 or 3 times a day, or once an hour for 5 minutes, but not throughout the hour. And do not do it during your quiet time in the morning — that’s for starred tasks only.
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