In life’s challenges, it is important to maintain a smart, workable and always up-to-date to-do list.
While things on the list may change daily, I am able to use it to train myself to stay focused when things seem out of control.
In fact, the health of my to-do list often reflects the health of my productivity.
On good days, my list guides my decisions with quality and helps me deal with unexpected events in terms of priority and efficiency.
On bad days, it becomes the most likely factor for me to quickly reassess the state of my team and make a decision to change.
Of course you can go into detail about what works best for you and how you manage tasks, but there is no doubt that it is very beneficial to get your task list out of your head and write it down.
Of course this doesn’t mean a haphazard running list of a busy day (and even then it can probably still be life-changing). Try to think of your to-do list as a responsible problem-solving plan, with an eye toward your immediate efforts and goals of focus.
Dissecting the to-do list #
The initial purpose of a to-do list is to list the tasks you can and should accomplish. That is, you don’t really know what a to-do list is until you realize how many items on your to-do list shouldn’t actually be on there, or conversely, how many items that aren’t on there should be on there.
The best and most effective lists generally have these characteristics.
● It is doable
● It can be completed within a certain time frame
● It is a valuable process that points to a clear goal
● You are the best person to complete it
Looking through your own to-do list, do you see some potential trouble? Notice a few entries that turn you off? Have some mysterious tasks that seem like you don’t know where to start? Don’t worry. We’ll fix it right away.
Break it down into concrete steps “Next Steps” #
In the book Getting Things Done, David Allen introduces the concept of “next steps,” which he explains as concrete, visible next steps you need to take that are clearly purpose-driven and actually point to completion from the present.
For example, a typical old-fashioned task list might be “prepare for Tom’s farewell party,” “clean out the garage,” or “fix the car. But, as Alan says, these can continue to be broken down into smaller items because they all require more than one step to complete. In fact, learning to differentiate between tasks and the smaller items they contain is an important step in improving the quality of your task list and your ability to take action during completion.
So, in the example of Tom’s party above, our first step was to find out exactly when Tom left, but before we could get that information, we needed to call his landlord, Sue, to get the details. But before we call Sue, we need to think back to where we wrote down her new work phone number last week. (Project managers call these related tasks “dependencies,” as you already know.)
Suddenly, our attention shifted from the huge, overwhelming “party plan” to the easy-to-follow “find Sue’s work phone number”. Of course, this was only one task in a long line of tasks, and we were still far from completing the “party plan,” but we had a good idea of what we were going to do next. This is called “next action”, and now you can write this task in the to-do list.
By often breaking down projects into next steps of varying sizes – and it’s okay to have multiple next steps for a project – we can quickly and easily figure out what we should do next.
Let’s get specific #
Breaking your list down into specific actions – so that that only requires very simple execution – can also be very beneficial.
Most importantly, it ensures that you are clear on the keys to the task and allows you to predict how the evaluation will go and what it will look like when you actually start doing it. This means that you can easily visualize everything – the activities, the various tools you’ll need, even the choice of work location – in concrete clarity, not just a bunch of nonsense written on paper.
It’s all in how you express it
The best trick to break down your work into the most concrete and simple steps you can imagine is to write your tasks in the form of “Do something about a goal”, which means not writing the goal as “annual report”, but more precisely The first thing to do is to “download the third quarter financial statements from the server”. Instead of “contact Anil”, write “email Anil on Monday to plan monthly disco party”. Make the task specific and cut it down to one action at a time that you can complete in one sitting. Of course the extent to which you can do it in one fell swoop is up to you, but I never plan a task that will take more than 10 minutes (your busy schedule may lead to smaller task divisions).
An example of how a particularly large task, “Prepare a major presentation,” is improved by breaking down the task to the first step, “Come up with 4 topics for the presentation. The first one was impossible to start with, while the second one provided us with something we were familiar with to get us started. We know how to type, and we definitely know how to come up with 4 ideas. This way, quite simply, a big project can be completed.
Using the right verbs #
Notice how we break down those big nouns into smaller verbs. That needs to be carefully thought out. If you use the list you originally prepared for your presentation, you might keep preparing your speech until, suddenly, a subjective voice in your head says, “Oh, that’s fine, that’s a complete speech, you can stop now. But it is also possible to draw the boundaries of your task with a string of actions that explain more clearly; with a clear beginning and end. That way you can follow the plan step by step and you know what to do next, rather than defining the task in a vague term that would be unsure of how to start.
This art of concrete, functional modular talk work not only helps with planning, but also helps you to make your work environment as stress-free and approachable as possible. Knowing that every item on your task list is a job you are familiar with and can even be completed by lunch can be highly motivating. This just requires you to make sure that you break down, cut, and pack all your work into units that you can tackle in one sitting.
Your job is mostly about how you do it #
As long as you properly split your tasks into the right size and properly differentiate the naming, your work will be very easy. You have the ability and responsibility to define your work properly before you start your task plan. Failure to do this first step sets you up for failure later. In other words, your job is not that difficult, and saying you are busy is not an excuse, the real reason is that you did not take the time to organize the work into a realistic list of tasks. This is very important in your actual work, and the kind of results you get in the end really depends on whether you did the right thing at the right time.