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How to Create a To-Do List that Makes You Smile

How to Create a To-Do List that Makes You Smile

It’s 6:00 am. You have just woken up and are ready to take a shower. After the showering, it’s time to eat breakfast, catch the news by reading the morning paper, and then start your work.

You are feeling wonderful, relaxed, and happy. You have very high expectations for the day and you want to be as productive as possible.

Fast forward to 2 pm the same day. You are working in a rush and you barely had a chance to take a lunch break.

You start to feel a bit stressed and tired because of the busy schedule. Besides, it seems that you have to go back to certain tasks and fix them, because you didn’t have time to focus on them properly.

The day which started so fine has turned into a stressful one. You just jump from one task to another – as quickly as possible – without doing anything properly.

You wish you’d find a reset button, so that you could start your day from all over – with a different strategy.

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Being too optimistic can be a burden

What you probably experienced was this: you planned your day the night before and you felt you were on top of your tasks.

However, things started to go wrong when you kept adding tasks after each other to your list and finally your task list was many miles long. Your list also contained tasks which were pretty much impossible to get done in one day.

The other point which contributed to your hectic and stressful day was not understanding how much time completing a particular task would take and when to execute the task. If you had this information, it would have been easier to figure out the right timing for executing the task.

Finally, there really wasn’t any flexibility in your plans. You forgot to add a buffer between tasks and understand that certain tasks are much larger than what they seem outside.

But you know what – these reasons alone weren’t the main reason for your stress and busyness …

Do you really know what you are supposed to do?

How much time did you actually spent on planning your day – was it just 5 minutes while the television set was distracting you?

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If so, then this was probably the biggest reason why your day became so stressful.

When you plan your days, you should truly understand the tasks you are about to do – and what it takes to accomplish them. This is necessary especially with important tasks, because you are able to make progress with the tasks that matter the most.

The lack of time spent on planning will also be shown as too many big tasks stuffed to your daily list. If you haven’t broken down the task into smaller pieces, it’s probable that you are not going to get them done during the day. This in turn makes you to beat yourself for not completing your task list.

Finally, don’t treat creating a task list just like some secondary thing that you try to do as quickly as possible. In fact, when you pay more attention to your next day’s task list, the more likely is the list going to be realistic and less stressful for you.

Components of a good task list

When I talk about a good task list; I consider these characteristics to be part of it:

  • Balanced: the task list contains both important and less important tasks. Let’s face it: although we all would like to work on just important tasks ( e.g. goal related ones), we have to take care of the less important tasks as well (like running errands, taking care of your household or other everyday stuff).
  • Enough flexibility: What happens when you have planned a task, but you are unable to take care of it? Do you have a plan B in place? If not, try to figure out the alternative action you can take in these scenarios.
  • Time for transitions: Understand that transition times also eat your time. Make sure that when you plan your task list, this time is also included in your plans. Adding some extra buffer between tasks will make your list more flexible and realistic.
  • Not too many tasks for one day: Giving you an exact figure on how many tasks you should have on your daily list is difficult. It depends of your situation but I’m willing to say that anything between 5-10 tasks should be enough for a day. Understand that certain tasks are very quick to take care of so it’s easier to include more tasks on certain days. Just make sure that there are also important tasks on the list so that you are able to move on with your bigger projects.
  • Shield of protection: Build a shield of protection around your task list, so that as few tasks as possible can land to your list and that the number of items on your list won’t increase during the day. In the first case, try to eliminate the sources for your tasks. This is done by reducing your commitments and limiting the projects you have. The fact is that the more commitments (or projects) you have, the more likely they are going to end up as tasks for your daily list. In the second case, make your list a closed one. I learned this concept by reading a book by Mark Forster. In order to create a closed task list, all you have to do is to draw a line under the last task on the list. When you have done this, you are not allowed to add any new tasks to your list during the day. This ensures that the number of tasks is actually decreasing as the day goes on.

Now, let’s create a to-do list that makes you smile

To make a list that you can actually accomplish the next day, do the following:

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  1. Eliminate the tasks. Go through your commitments and decide if you really need each one. For instance, I was an active member of our local computer club in my hometown, but then I realized that I don’t have enough time for that activity anymore. Although I’m still a member of the club, I don’t participate in its activities anymore. This has eliminated the tasks related to that commitment.
  2. Take your time to plan the list. Don’t rush creating your task list – spend some time on the planning phase. If required, “isolate yourself” for the planning part by going to a separate room in your home (or even going outside your home). This way you can actually think the tasks thorough before you enter them onto your list. Try to spend at least 15 minutes with your list when you plan it.
  3. Move important tasks to the beginning. When planning your day, make sure that the important tasks are at the beginning of your list. This ensures that you get those tasks done as quickly as possible. For instance, as a blogger, I make sure I have the content creation tasks at the beginning of my list. As soon as I wake up, I attack those tasks immediately and they get done before I go to work.
  4. Track the recurring tasks. You might have recurring tasks on your list, but do you know how much time they take to accomplish? If you don’t, make sure you do some time tracking to figure it out. This helps you to plan your day better, as you know how much time a task takes and if there is a certain time slot in your daily schedule, when the task could be executed.
  5. Batch the similar tasks. Look at your list and realize if there are similar tasks that you can batch-process. This way you can get certain tasks off your list faster and easier.
  6. Define the tasks in more detail. Don’t just include a task like “Build a website” on your list; make sure you have broken the task to smaller pieces. The smaller the tasks are, the easier it is to take accomplish them.
  7. Do some prep work in advance. Make sure that you prepare for certain tasks in advance. For instance, I write the outlines for my guests post on Sundays, so that it’s easier (and faster) for me to start writing the actual posts when I wake up. With a little bit of prep work, I speed things up and make sure tasks get done when the right day comes.
  8. Automate the maintenance. Naturally you could use a pen and paper approach to your task list, but try to take advantage of technology too. In fact, try to find a tool that takes care of the maintenance of your task list for you. My preferred tool is Nozbe, but there are other task management applications that you can try too.

Know your task types and your schedule

Finally, when you plan your day, ask yourself these questions:

  • What else do I have on the schedule?
  • Is the task a gatekeeper?
  • Do I have icebergs on my list?
  • Is the task distraction-proof?

The first questions refer to your personal schedule. For instance, if you are travelling, make sure that your list reflects to this fact. Don’t try to “overstuff” your list with too many tasks, since it’s more likely you get only a fraction of them done.

The second question asks if the task is blocking other tasks to be executed. Every once in a while we might have a task, which has to be taken care of first. After you have done that, only then you can take care of the sequential tasks. When you focus on creating your task list in a focused manner, you’ll be able to spot the gatekeepers easily.

The third question asks if your task is actually much bigger than what it seems. Sometimes when you start working on a task, you’ll soon realize that it’s much bigger than what you initially thought (compare them to icebergs, where only the tip of the iceberg is above the sea level, but the majority of the ice is below the water).

Once again, when you focus enough on your task list during the creation phase, it’s easier to spot these “icebergs” and split the tasks into smaller, much more manageable chunks.

The final question asks if the task is distraction-proof. The fact is that not all the tasks are created equal: some tolerate more distraction, while others require your full attention.

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For instance, I can check my Twitter stream or do simple blog maintenance even when I’m around my family. These tasks are distraction-proof and I can take care of them – even if I don’t have my full attention on them.

In Conclusion

If you still have a hard time of achieving your daily tasks, make sure that you analyze the reasons why this happened. If anything, do not beat yourself up for not finishing your task list.

No one is perfect and we can learn from our mistakes.

It takes a bit practice to create a “smiling” task list. However, once you learn to put all the pieces together, things are going to look much better :)

Over to you: How do you create an effective task list?

Featured photo credit: young woman via Gettyimages

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Last Updated on February 18, 2019

How to Motivate Employees and Boost Team Productivity

How to Motivate Employees and Boost Team Productivity

These days, in a world with cognitive, AI, and extraordinary advances, we have failed at the most basic stimulus: motivation. Why do I say so? Just take a look at these statistics:

58 percent of managers said they didn’t receive any management training as per a CareerBuilder.com survey. Only 12% of employees leave their jobs because of more money. Research indicates that around 80% of employees leave their jobs due to “lack of appreciation”. Due to fear of failing, more than half of American workers don’t take their paid vacations. 53% of Americans are unhappy at work (not engaged). And 1 in 3 are working in a field they don’t like.[1]

Archaic people management and HR structures are the root cause.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

So how to motivate employees and boost team productivity?

Here are 3 key things that you can do to motivate your employees and boost team productivity:

1. Run Your Team/Group/Company like a Lean Startup

The Lean Startup phenomena by Eric Ries has been socialized across millions all over the globe. In a nutshell, it is a methodology for developing businesses and products, which aims to shorten product development cycles and rapidly discover if a proposed business model is viable; this is achieved by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning.[2]

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Encourage Your Employees

When you empower your employees (or family members) to do what they deem to be best for a particular roadblock, idea, or improvement, you create magic. You create genuine trust. You enable innovation. The result is happy, inspired employees who feel they have a say in the grand cosmic stage at work.

Note that increasing the competency level of employees and coaching and mentoring them along the way is key. You yourself, need to do the same. Nourish your brain – and get a mentor that will keep you at the edge of your game.

Offer Rewards

Motivation is also intrinsic. The startups I have worked at offered instant rewards — not just fat checks or equity increments, but Oscar-style nominations.

The non-monetary rewards were actually more coveted, and grandiose: lunch with the CEO, tickets to an Obama fund-raiser, horse-back riding with a world-class equestrian.

Compare this to a dodgy, corporate, white-cubicle dinosaur that had a “yearly performance review” where both parties dread the conversation. In a world of instant WhatsApp messages, having a conversation about performance, likes and dislikes cannot just happen annually in 60 minutes. Employees need to be rooted in the belief that their manager genuinely cares about them.

Give Autonomy

Another key attribute is autonomy. Most employees start brushing their resumes and cruising LinkedIn when their hands are tied in their current positions: approval forms, long meetings, escalations, and more meetings. In the world of agile and scrum masters, deliberating for the sake of deliberating is poison. You will choke the very employees that giddily accepted the job initially to “change the world”.

Within a reasonable realm of assessment and deep-dives, trust your employees to do the heavy lifting. Give them access to the knowledge, people and resources that help them directly make the choices that will shape the future of your team, and your company.

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Eliminate yourself as the bottleneck – and interject yourself as a benevolent, servant leader that is the symbol of high-performing organizations.

2. Apply the 90/90/1 Rule

I recently saw a video by Deepak Sharma (a leadership adviser) about productivity and this principle stuck with me. Here’s what it’s about:

Devote the First 90 Minutes of Your Day to Important Project

For the next 90 days, devote the first 90 minutes of your day to your most important project—nothing else. Do this for yourself and your employees.

We usually get sucked into the most wasteful, operational activities in the morning which robs our focus, and steers us into an unwanted rabbit hole. So mute your notifications, avoid the temptation to check your exploding inbox, and scroll your Instagram feed later. Instead, focus on that ONE thing that will provide real value to you, your team, or your business/company/home.

Apply this rule to yourself – and your team. Your team will thank you. Note: If you’re feeling really stretched for time, you can always hack the rule by testing out a “45/45/1” version.

A To Do Scheduling System

Another version of this is to use the Kanban concept, developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota. Kanban is a scheduling system employing boards and cards.

The most basic version is a canvas with “To-do”, “Doing”, and “Done” boards (or columns). Each activity or task is a “card” that moves from one column to the other. I use Trello (a Kanban-inspired app) that is a key system for my personal and professional life. It allows me to understand my workload, their priority, and due dates.

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I use importance and effort metrics (scores) for each task to understand what is truly necessary in my life to work on. It negates the FIFO (first-in, first out) paradox that has plagued millions of people. Instead, it allows me to take stock of what is on my plate, and then bite on what truly will move the needle for me, my team, my life, and my company.

With a limited appetite (at least for some), would you eat the veggies, fries, mashed potatoes and leave the sizzling steak? No, you wouldn’t (unless you are a vegan and ended up in the wrong restaurant).

Approach your work with a weighted vengeance – and encourage your team to do the same.

3. Align Passion and Skills to Purpose

The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, and gives you a sense of meaning, joy and passion.

“The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” — Richard Leider

An ace team-member once told me that while she enjoys working for the company we both used to work at, she really hated anything to do with technology. She was more of a “people” person, and did not want to sit behind a desk sifting through lines of code.

What struck me was that she was in that role for more than a decade and had just spoken up. The good thing is she spoke up. She expressed her desire and interests. And it allowed her to get into a role of her liking within 30 days.

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Ask If They like What They’re Doing

If you, or a team member is frustrated, demotivated, or not performing at their best – one of the questions you should ask is whether they like what they are doing. Then genuinely try to help them get to the role they should be in (whether in the same team/company or not).

There’s a reason why 53% of Americans (and perhaps more or same across the globe) are unhappy at work. A butcher cannot be an ace salad maker. Pursue your passion – and help pave the way for your team. Unlock your potential and theirs. You will command and lead a supercharged team.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs

The Bottom Line

Sometimes, passion has to be ignited. It is dormant, clouded by busy-ness, buried by wrong career choices, and plagued by non-supportive eco-systems. Some will climb out of it, but we as society — and in the case of business teams — incumbent upon the manager/CEO/leader to foster, grow, and nurture the employee.

Teach her the ropes. Show her the path. Advise him as you would yourself. Let them lead, and make mistakes. Do not fear them, rather make them the leader you would want to become.

For your not-so-great team members, understand that it is not personal, it is just not a good fit. Help them move on to the pastures they would be fit to graze on. Hence, hire slow (and fire fast).

Your team is a reflection of you. Boosting their confidence and helping them achieve the impossible is motivation. Focus on that, and you will have a productive team that you and your company will be proud of.

More Resources About Team Management

Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

Reference

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