Sunday, June 16, 2013

Taming the To-Do List: Time + Setting Priorities

In April, I wrote about how I use to-do lists, and I mentioned that to-do lists can be a challenge for me because I tend to fill them up with more tasks than I can realistically get done in a given period (but I fool myself into thinking that I can get them done, because I also underestimate the time it will take me to complete each task).  Since then, I've changed the way I use to-do lists, and my lists now are much more realistic and focused on the important tasks that I can actually get done.  I want to share my method of how I tamed my to-do list with you here, in hopes that it will give you some ideas for your own life.

  1. Recognize why you can't accomplish everything on your list.  I couldn't accomplish everything on my to-do list because I had too many tasks on my list and not enough time to do them in.  I ended up in that situation because I thought that I would be able to accomplish more in less time, and that just wasn't possible.
  2. Let go of the damaging beliefs.  I had to let go of the belief that I could accomplish everything.  This has not been an easy thing to accept!  When I was younger, it seemed like I could always get everything done, but that is no longer the case.  I don't know if it's because I'm doing more, the tasks I need to do are larger, or I'm slower than I used to be.  Probably all of those reasons!
  3. Create rough estimates of how long tasks will take.  Rather than trying to estimate times down to the hour or the minute (which would be difficult), I group tasks into those that will take me most of a day to complete, and those that I should be able to complete in an hour or so.  (When doing this, I try to overestimate more than I underestimate; if I'm not sure how long something will take, I just assume that it will take most of the day.)  Any tasks that need more than one day get broken down into smaller tasks.  I assign the longer tasks one unit and the shorter ones half a unit.  Remember these units, because they'll be important later on.
  4. Set priorities.  This is the most important step because it helps me to see clearly what tasks I should focus on first.  To help me rank tasks by priority, I give each task points based on different criteria.  These criteria vary, but for a monthly to-do list, for example, I'll give 1 point for important tasks, 1 point for tasks with a deadline, 1 point for tasks that absolutely must be done this month, and 1 point for tasks that are directly connected to one of my quarterly goals.  Tasks with a higher total number of points are the highest-priority tasks on my list.
  5. Use the results of steps 3 and 4 to complete your to-do list.  Each to-do list I make is for a specific period - a month, a week, a day.  Remember the units from step 3?  This is where they come in.  I decide how many units I will be able to complete in that period.  So far, I have been working with one unit per day (so 30 units a month, or 7 a week).  Starting with the highest priority tasks from step 4, I keep adding items to my to-do list until I've reached my total number of units for that period. Usually, there are a few important tasks left over that don't fit in.  It feels hard to leave those out, but I know that I probably wouldn't have time for them anyway.

These steps may sound complicated, but the most important things to remember are to (a) be more realistic about the time you'll need to complete each task, and (b) rank your tasks by priority and add the most important tasks to your list first.  The details are simply my method of working with those two ideas.  Depending on how many tasks you have or how organized you like to be, you may not need as many steps as I do.  Now that I have the system set up, creating a to-do list for the day, week, or month is simpler than ever.  Although you may need to put in more time at the beginning to figure out what works for you, you'll probably save time in the end.

What methods do you use to tame your to-do list?  Do you use either of the two methods that I described here (being realistic with time or setting priorities)?  Or do you do something else altogether?

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