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Last Updated on January 29, 2018

How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials

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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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