Bin Your To Do List! (and other ways to be more organised)

There are always days when we feel like we’re spinning so many plates we’re on the verge of one falling…

Days when we seem to be constantly putting out fires…

Times when we get to the end of the working day and feel we’ve got nothing worthwhile done…yet haven’t stopped all day!

Days when the To Do List is so long it’s difficult to muster up motivation to even look at it!

Moments where we wished we’d said no to a task, but instead just nodded acceptance and then found ourselves stuck with it and it’s taken up way too much time…

So how do you retain a sense of control in those moments? How can you feel more organised and less tense about what you’ve got to get done? How can you feel like you’re in charge of your work…rather than it being in charge of you?

First of all, stop reacting to the loudest voice!

We’ve all got one – a colleague, a manager, a customer – who makes every request sound so earth shatteringly crucial, is so dramatic about what they need from us, that we sometimes drop everything we’re doing just to pacify the screamy shouty person in front of us!

Of course it’s tempting to react to the loudest voice first (perhaps it’s human nature to avert a perceived ‘threat’) – and doubtless that’s exactly what they’d like you to do – but just because a request is delivered loudly doesn’t mean it should rise to the top of your action pile.

Just because something is someone else’s main priority doesn’t make it yours – although admittedly if it’s tactically the right thing to do for an influential person and it’s a fast task that won’t divert you away from more crucial activities for long, then it may be worth doing from a ‘political’ perspective.

Even so, prioritising your workload and the time you allocate to specific tasks is crucial to being both effective professionally and organised personally.

So when someone is asking you to get something done for them and you’re not sure whether it should go to the top of your action pile or not, don’t just nod acceptance, ask questions and negotiate in real time.

Firstly – when someone needs a task done, ask them the time and date by when they ideally need it completed. Don’t simply accept a task without working out whether the time you have available to complete the job is actually viable. Don’t react with an immediate yes, when you haven’t had a chance to consider whether you can actually fit it in. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for problems further down the line. Even a quick fire ‘Can you just do…’ request can throw your whole day out of kilter if you let it.

So, before agreeing, ask – what’s the required deadline? How flexible is that? And if you can’t do it in that time, propose an alternative completion date or time that is realistic for you. Clarifying the parameters within which you’re working can help you retain control of your existing and proposed additional workload.

If it’s viable, but only with some adjustments on your part, be upfront about what is and isn’t possible, ‘I can do that, provided…’ and negotiate what can and can’t be done if needed.

If necessary, ask your line manager to help you prioritise all the tasks on your worklist, so that they appreciate what will and won’t get done if additional workload is taken on. This is especially relevant if it’s someone outside your department or team asking for your input and will help identify whether the additional tasks are relevant, realistic and required.

Often though, we need to prioritise our own workload, so how do we do that effectively so that we’re focusing on the stuff that truly matters at work and not the peripheral ’busy stuff’ that sometimes fills our day?

Understanding the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ is a key factor.

Urgent is something time-oriented; whereas important is something that you are there to actually do; important tasks relate directly to your reason for being in the role you’re in; they may be linked to your key performance indicators and are tied to your ‘greater purpose’. Important tasks answer the question ‘What am I here for?’

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.

Categorising work by how important and how urgent it is, allows us to prioritise the tasks we’ve got to do. Using a priority matrix, rather than the traditional To Do List, allows you to see how your workload can be put into a constructive order in which to tackle the jobs at hand. Take a look at Stephen Covey’s prioritisation matrix:

Covey’s matrix suggests first of all, tackle tasks that are both important and urgent; secondly, schedule and complete tasks that are important but less urgent; then consider tasks that are urgent but less important (although ideally these should be delegated); finally – tasks which, in all honesty are neither hugely important nor particularly urgent…should be deleted!

Using a matrix means you can bin your To DO List!

Too often we just keep adding tasks onto the end of the list but fail to prioritise those tasks in terms of importance and urgency. Visually this can leave you with a list as long as your arm, as well as the energy sapping feeling that you’re getting absolutely nowhere with a seemingly never-ending list of tasks.

Instead, invest in a small whiteboard and on Monday morning draw your matrix on it and add in your tasks, writing each one into the four boxes as defined. Having a visual grid of all your actions makes it much easier to allocate time in your working week to complete the tasks at hand. Then you can wipe clean the activity as you get it done. It also means it’s easier to move actions across into different boxes as they increase or decrease in importance or deadline.

To really drive things forward, eat the frog!

Author Brian Tracy suggests that if the first thing you do each morning is eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that’s it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day. Eating the frog first – that is, getting the most challenging task of the day completed first thing – can have the biggest positive impact on your day. Once you’ve got the most impactful task out of the way, you’ll be ready to tackle anything. That conversation you’ve been avoiding…that phone call you’ve been dreading…that report you’ve been putting off… Get stuck in and tackle that first!

Freeing yourself from having that painful task hanging over your head, allows you to better plan the remaining activities you need to complete. It’s amazing how much clearer your thinking can be when an ominous task has been tackled.

Finally, remember to keep an eye on how you’re feeling. Time and stress are cyclists on the same tandem – bad management of one pushes the other out of control.

Keep an eye on your emotions – be mindful of when you are starting to feel things are more than you can cope with. There’s a fine line between feeling a healthy pressure that motivates you and the sudden change to a weight of expectation that overwhelms you.

Regularly review what you’re doing well – your healthy time management practices and keep them up; identify any areas you know need improving and ask for help or guidance if needed; speak up and voice concerns; discuss challenges and try to come up with some solutions – ask colleagues for their input too.

The underlying key principle of time management – decide what needs doing most, then focus all your energy doing it – is simple…it’s just not easy. Time management is a discipline we may need to work at, but it’s something we can all benefit from getting under control.