To-do lists

When blogging about the book The 4-Hour Workweek, I decided to break out the topic of "To-Do" lists given the importance of daily goal setting.

Now, if you want to be completely confused, Google "to-do list" and be prepared for the overwhelming amount of content on the topic. Over the years, I've heard many approaches to this time management technique and found some things work for me and others don't. So rather than approach this from an absolute position, I'm going to share my experiences and thoughts on what works for me and why.

So, the obvious (perhaps?) statement that "To-Do" lists are a tool used as part of time management.

Applying Tim's ruthless approach to what you do choose to spend your time on is great advice, which we covered with Pareto's Law (focusing on the 20% that produces 80% of the results), Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time we've allocated to it, so be ruthless with your time allocation), and Outsourcing Life (if it can't be automated, outsource it to the lowest cost producer possible). This leaves us with actually doing stuff ourselves, and the need for the "To-Do" list.

Already some readers will be thinking "this looks like a derivative of the 4D framework" - Do it now, Do it later, Delegate it & Dump it. Yes it is. Come on, you don't think that Tim came up with every concept in that book by himself... did you? Steve Pavlina covers all of this from his personal view point as well including batching time (also part of Tim's writing) to cut down on wasting time.

So, back to the "To-Do" list.

I liked Tim's key point here a lot. Don't write a daily list that spans pages and guarantee's you will only finish a handful of tasks. Instead, pick one or two tasks that a absolutely critical (based on your prioritisation process we've covered) and knock those out of the ball-park.

British author Mark Forster covers this in-depth in his book "Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management". He argues that the traditional never-ending to-do lists virtually guarantees that some of your work will be left undone. His approach advocates getting all your work done, every day, and if you are unable to achieve it helps you diagnose where you are going wrong and what needs to change.

Why is this important? According to Wikipedia, Jared Sandberg wrote in the WSJ, task lists "aren't the key to productivity [that] they're cracked up to be". He reported an estimated "30% of listers spend more time managing their lists than [they do] completing what's on them". Tim talks about this in terms of "crutch" activities - procrastination techniques used to prolong the planned activity. In essence, the "To-Do" lists fall prey to Parkinson's Law! As with any activity, there's a point of diminishing returns, so the point is not to get caught up in the process, but to get the tasks done.

Over the years, I've tried a number of techniques to help me. I've settled for a combination of Tim's advice (at around 6pm each evening, pick two tasks you must do the next day) and the traditional 4D techniques which include scheduling things in the future (i.e. beyond tomorrow). I use both the MS Outlook task list for longer-range or less critical tasks, as well as scheduling the important items in my calendar. Using MS Outlook for email, calendar and task list just simplifies managing time by putting it altogether. For example, being able to flag an email as something to follow up on at a certain date and time then pops up the task reminder when it is due to be reviewed again. Simple.

The diarising of key tasks also helps me manage a challenge many of you will face working in a large organisation - your co-workers can see your availability via your calendaring system. Whilst this offers some terrific benefits, it also carries the downside that people think they can just schedule stuff if you have free time in your calendar.

By blocking out your time with tasks (and marking it private so the details aren't available), I've found people then either email or call me to ask when I'm going to have time available for the meeting. This in turn provides you with the opportunity to clarify the goal of the meeting and not doing it i.e. you might already have the answer to the question and can simply email it to them, or know the information needed to make a decision won't be available until a date in the future, etc.

I started this approach of putting tasks in my calendar in the first job I worked at because the company had an Activity Based Costing system for the application development teams working for various projects & business units. I found when it came to doing the monthly time sheets, I couldn't accurately remember everything I'd done and trying to keep a time sheet open all the time meant I spent more time on the time sheet than doing stuff. So booking everything in my calendar was a great middle ground and I've used it ever since.

Interestingly, Microsoft and SAP have taken this concept and productised it with their Duet product. A great idea for large organisations!

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posted by Lee Gale @ 4:54 PM,


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