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How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List

How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List


    To do lists are vital to ensuring that we have a way to keep tabs on all of the “stuff” we’ve got going on in our lives. One of the problems with to do lists is that we tend to throw a lot on them and have a difficult time breaking it down into manageable and – better still – meaningful chunks. We tend to tackle it in the order it appears or based what we do on the deadlines that have been set for each item. Not everyone is going to be able to easily break the habit of focusing on time over task, but there are methods you can use to better connect with what’s really important to you on your to do list to make sure you’re not just checking off boxes. Instead, you’ll be checking off the right boxes.

    One of the best ways I’ve found to cultivate a better to do list is through the use of more meaningful contexts.

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    What is a Context?

    A context (in the realm of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology) is described as follows:

    “A context describes the tool, location or person that is required to be able to complete an action.” – via Evomend.net


    That essentially means you can attach a context to a task that can be based on where you need to be or what you have available to you at particular moments so that you can work on said task. But tasks like “Reply to email X” and “Go shopping for anniversary gift” somewhat lend themselves to place-based contexts without you really having to think about it.

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    So what I suggest is that you attach deeper meaning to those tasks by connecting those tasks to trait-based or emotion-based contexts.

    For example, “Reply to email X” may be an email you have to send thanking someone for coming through for you on a particular project or endeavor. So rather than tag that task with a context like “Email” or “Computer”, use “Gratitude” instead. Not only does it put you in a better mindset to send that specific email, but it also connects all of the tasks that are based on gratitude together when you search for that context (or “tag”, depending on what task management software you are using).

    Sample Trait-Based and Emotion-Based Contexts

    • Knowledge: When you are doing research for a project or learning about something.
    • Love: When you are doing a task associated with romance or fostering a romantic or family relationship.
    • Passion: When you have a burning passion for the to do list item, then this is a great context to use to stay focused on what it is you are truly passionate about (you can filter the passionate items from the ones that aren’t tagged as such).
    • Practice: When you are working towards getting better at something, using this context can help you track those things – as well as how much time and energy you are spending on them.
    • Willpower: Use this context when you really need to tap into your sense of willpower to power through a task.
    • Kindness: When you are doing something just to be kind, then this context can be very useful.

    There are plenty of other contexts you can use that can help you connect more deeply with what would normally be a list of boxes you need to check off – attaching them to these boxes won’t just give them a deeper meaning…they may actually play a much bigger part in your productivity.

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    By adding a deeper meaning to your tasks, they will become more important. That, in turn, will drive you to get more done. When you remove the known logical contexts from the equation (Home, Work, Computer, Phone) and replace them with something more “holistic” like the examples I mentioned above, there’s less of a coaxing involved to keep you moving forward.

    After all, we all know where we physically need to be to get certain things done. The trick to compelling you to do them involves tapping into the “why” you are doing them – and that’s where emotion-based contexts come into play.

    Give it a try – even with just one context to start. I bet you’ll find that a deeper meaning to your to do list will mean a deeper connection to what really matters to more than just what’s on that to do list. It’ll mean a deeper connection to what really matters to you.

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    Photo: Businessman Holding Plates with Smiles via Shutterstock

    More by this author

    Mike Vardy

    A productivity specialist who shows you how to define your day, funnel your focus, and make every moment matter.

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    Last Updated on April 23, 2019

    How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

    How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

    Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

    While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

    For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

    While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

    I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

    Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

    Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

    Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

    The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

    Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

    What Is a Stretch Goal?

    A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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    In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

    For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

    This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

    It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

    The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

    The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

    I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

    Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

    1. Get Outside of Your Head

    If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

    If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

    I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

    Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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    2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

    When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

    I see this in so many areas of life:

    When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

    In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

    “Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

    Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

    3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

    When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

    The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

    For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

    We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

    From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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    When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

    Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

    4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

    S.M.A.R.T.

    is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

    While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

    Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

    For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

    By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

    5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

    I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

    The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

    When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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    One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

    Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

    I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

    A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

    As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

    From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

    The Bottom Line

    These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

    For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

    Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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