Image Courtesy – Corbis
P.S. – This post is inspired from an article on Fast Company which I highly recommend reading.
I am sure you are well acquainted with To-do lists. Whether its done thru pen-paper, on your computer using notepad or using some cloud apps like Evernote, its something which millions of people count on to make them more effective, more productive. This post is not about why have a to-do list, its about how to make one judiciously and hence the adjective “healthy”!
To start with an analogy, we all have food-habits, however subconscious it may be. And there are definite patterns. Try writing down everything you eat for a week and you will see what I mean. Now having a food-habit is not the key, the key is whether your habit is a “healthy” one or an “unhealthy” one!
In a similar fashion, there are “healthy” and “unhealthy” to-do lists too!
Do I have your attention now?
Anything which is easy to do is also NOT easy to do. Its very easy to exercise, to be honest, to be humble, to help people, to be disciplined, to have a positive outlook, to always be optimistic, but these things are also easy NOT to do. How easy it is to skip your exercise schedule(though its really OK to skip at times to avoid the monotony of it!) specially when the trade-off is that ever so tempting sleep? How easy it is to be dishonest when making a fast buck is the result? How easy it is to be proud, arrogant when you become rich? How easy it is to be self-centered, selfish and have a false sense that everything must revolve around your needs, your desires, your views, your betterment? Very easy if you ask me!
Likewise, having a to-do list is very easy and also very easy NOT to make. I may write a separate post as to WHY have a to-do list and how it can bolster your productivity and giving you a sense of being in control of your time, but for now this post is for those who are already into to-do lists and how to further optimize it.
- Use the medium which comes naturally to you and doesn’t feel forced : There are different and endless ways to make a to-do list. It can be the good old way of using pen-paper and then ticking off as you progress. It can be in the form of using Outlook/Google Tasks or choosing from a plethora of applications available for PC/MAC/Phone. It can be offline or on the cloud(on the web). The main thing is to use what you will remember to refer to. No point having an application if you wont remember to open that application. No point having it in your phone if you don’t even remember its there. For me personally pen-paper works best as its always in front of me on my desk. So there is no way I will overlook it. I have observed time and again that when I have a to-do list I feel more control of my day and at the end of the day have a sense of accomplishment than on days when I skip the list all-together and instead wander around my time feeling totally dejected and less worthy. Its really a work-flow thing. Its not about using the best application or the best paper quality of the best quality of pen, its about what you are comfortable with. If you travel a lot it may make sense to have it on the cloud using something like Evernote, so that where you are, you have your to-do lists with you. If you have a desk job an offline tool will work fine too! Try different tools and see which sticks!
- Make a definite list, not a book : At any point of time thousands of thoughts are running in our mind. There is always so much to do and so less time. So when making lists its very easy to get carried away and having a lists which goes into pages. This totally dilutes the process as more the things on your list, less the possibility of finishing all or even giving into procrastination because it feels so overwhelming. Conversely having just a single task is also counter-productive as once you finish that task you will still wander thinking how to make use of the remaining time. And very rarely a single task will take the entire day. So its very important to think through your to-do lists. Its nothing but planning your day out. So try to figure out the main tasks which are important(not necessarily urgent), approximate a time frame and then add another task. Ideally this should be done the previous night so that you can jump start your next day as you know what needs to be done. If for some reason you forget the previous night, devote 20-30 minutes in the morning and plan your day out. This is absolutely must. Devoting 30 mins chalking out your tasks – instead of constantly trying to find what needs to be done – will save significant time during the day and make you super productive! Also don’t confuse to-do list with goals which can be short-term, medium-term and long term. Ideally To-do list are for the day or maximum for the second day. More than that and you are much likely to fall off-track and procrastinate.
- Prioritize deeper : Once you have a number of tasks documented, you can further enhance your productivity by prioritizing among the tasks. Say for example its your anniversary and its your duty to make a reservation for dinner at your wife’s favorite restaurant. And if you know that they don’t take reservation until an hour before they open, don’t fret yourself. Simply mark it say #5 on your list. #1 can be sending the proposal to your client, #2 can be making the doctor’s appointment who is always traveling and so on. Say you have to pay your phone bill and today is the last day. Yes it must be on your to-do list, but you need not tackle it first thing in the morning. As long as you do it today even at the end of the day, its fine! Its human nature to attend to tasks which scream urgent but are not really urgent and important against tasks which scream important but may even be urgent. The lacuna is that things which are important but not urgent – the effect, the regret of not doing doesn’t appear until its too late. Things like having a healthy life-style. Yes its not necessary that I must go to gym today, I can start from tomorrow, but then tomorrow never comes and one day you get a wake up call in terms of….you know what I mean!
- Keep your energy graph in mind while making the to-do lists : This one will take some time to incorporate as you will have to really observe yourself and your day for a few days. Lets say your actual working hours are from 9-7. That is 10 hours. Whether you are aware of not, your energy level is not same each and every hour of those 10 hours. Its like the stock market, keeps going up and down. Usually morning 2-3 hours till lunch you are at peak. Then after Lunch the energy level literally falls off the cliff. And earlier in the evening towards tea-time there is a spike in the energy level and so on. So you can time block your tasks in various hours. For example you will do all your routine tasks like paying bills, booking movie tickets, administrative tasks, etc which doesn’t require much mental energy. And keep the high energy hours - when your mental engine is running at its peak - for tasks that require your to “create”. Tasks like meeting a client, formulating a business proposal and so on. Working hours will differ from person to person, depending on whether are in a job or self-employed on various different factors. But the energy graph applies to one and all.
Keep the above points in mind and I can guarantee that your to-do lists and your productivity will soon be on a new level. Also remember that its OK, if sometimes you are not able to tick-mark all tasks on any given day. Carry forward it to the next day and resume your momentum. But don’t make a habit of doing this as its similar to credit card debt. Once your debt reaches a tipping point, no matter how hard you try you will always seem to be paying your bills with no end in sight!
Let me know how you make your to-do lists, as I am constantly looking for ways to improvise mine!