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How to Get More From Your Task List with Layout Hacks

How to Get More From Your Task List with Layout Hacks

    If you’ve read my articles for any length of time, you know I’m an advocate of using paper task lists for your day-to-day task management needs. On a larger scale, such as for ubiquitous capture and weekly planning, I rely on technology, but I then use that large-scale system to form a daily task list on paper. This keeps me focused and burning through the tasks in rapid succession.

    However, there was a time when I was using paper task lists and receiving no benefit at all from it. In fact, I may have been getting even less done than when I relied on the computer to manage my daily tasks.

    At that point in time, my lists were long, written in small print to fit everything on one page. And I don’t know how paper size is measured in the United States, but I’m talking about an A4 sheet of paper.

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    No wonder I got nothing done. I had days and days worth of tasks on one page. There was no direction of attention nor anything to assist in focusing on only that day’s tasks. Just a blob of everything I needed to do.

    If your task list looks like this, like most people’s do, you’re not really writing up task lists. These are more like a mind sweep or capture, because you’ve captured everything you need to do in one place, but haven’t yet processed it in the various appropriate ways to create lists that actually help you in getting stuff done.

    So, here are the rules that I implemented to take that sheet of paper that sucked me dry of motivation and focus and turn it into something that helps you get stuff done.

    It’s Probably Too Big

    If you’ve gone and taken a piece of paper out of your printer or you’ve used a notebook that’s fairly large (say, pages the size of a standard letter), your piece of paper is too big. You need to be limited to make good decisions. You need something about a quarter of that size. A small notebook is perfect for the job.

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    When you’ve got a big piece of paper, you’re tempted to fill it up. That’s really where the root problem lies with many people and their inability to craft effective task lists: they see a space, and they want to fill it up. Sure, it’s instinctual. Humans, for some reason or another, want to fill every space and niche and vacuum they can find. Look at the Internet – it’s one of the biggest spaces filled with junk for the sake of filling it.

    The first step is to restrict yourself. This gives you limited space and scope to work with, which means you immediately put more thought and consideration into the development of your list. You think things through and only list the things that need to be done.

    One Day at a Time

    Often, people will try and make one task list that covers several days, or worse, just create a task list that attempts to cover everything, no matter what the timeframe for it is. You only want to cover one day.

    You’ve got software like Things to help you capture and sort tasks on a larger scale, but the whole point of having a small sheet of paper in front of you, in tangible form, is to help you focus on a daily basis. You need to refine your list to cover only the necessities of each day, the most important tasks that are going to move your projects further in real ways. These are high-yield tasks for the day, which are usually comprised of many smaller, seemingly low-yield, tasks.

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    Never try to squeeze your week into one list. Heck, don’t even try for two days. You’re going to blow it. The task list will serve you best when you use it as a tool to keep you highly focused for one day at a time, and by including tasks for subsequent days, you lose the advantage of keeping highly focused. You might be tempted to jump to that more interesting task three days down the track!

    Prioritize Every List

    Even with less space and less timeframe going into each task list, you will probably still have quite a few tasks to juggle and will need to identify the most important tasks for the day so you can tackle them first, or otherwise plan your day so that they get done. Of course, you want to get everything on that list done and you shouldn’t include more than you can handle if you want to have any hope of feeling motivated when the time to write your next list comes around. But prioritizing helps you focus further and know which tasks can be postponed (if necessary) to complete others.

    If you don’t prioritize, you risk spending all day on a project that, it turns out, was far less urgent than the task just underneath it on the list.

    The best way I’ve found to do this is to choose three tasks and three tasks alone and place a star or asterisk next to them, just to the left (keep a margin when you start jotting your list down so that you don’t find yourself cramming your asterisks into corners!).

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    Do not exceed three asterisks. It totally defeats the purpose. You just want to know your three, most urgent, most high-yield tasks for that day.

    And if you can manage to get under three asterisks, even better. You’ve got great focus!

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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