Your “To Do List” Won’t Get You There

In today’s fast-paced world, we must achieve outstanding results with less time. We are constantly juggling time, quality, and cost; and trying to do so in a rapidly shifting environment. With the goal of uncompromised results, it is critical that we plan, set priorities, and act quickly and decisively, all of which require unparalleled time management.

We all keep “To Do Lists” somewhere…our phone, computer, planner, Post-It Note™, or cocktail napkin. Lists make sure we don’t forget the things we need to do. Unfortunately, those To Do Lists don’t provide the proper framework for maximizing productivity. Over the years I have combined certain time management best practices that have worked for me. And maybe they will work for you.

The study of time management goes back at least 5,000 years in the building of the pyramids. The Pharaohs wanted to be associated with the gods and needed a means to be worshipped, buried, and most of all, remembered for eternity. Why not a pyramid or stairway to the heavens? Well, how fast can it be built and how many people do we need? Enter the mathematicians and time management.

Since then, and every small or large industrial revolution since, people have studied ways to maximize output and minimize cost. One of the more recent time management gurus is Stephen Covey and his seminal work, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Although he’s no longer with us, his institute keeps his spirit alive. Certain elements of this article are based on Covey’s research.

I would like to point out there exists a hierarchy when it comes to time management. There are programs, projects, tasks, and activities. I won’t bore you with the definitions, but this short article focuses solely on individual tasks and DOES NOT address task interdependencies, constraint theory, or expected outcomes. Let’s get started so you can get on the road to doubling your output.

5 Steps to Double Productivity

  1. List those tasks you need to complete next week
  2. Prioritize those tasks in a classic 2X2 matrix
  3. Add those prioritized tasks directly into your calendar
  4. Adjust your schedule at the end of each day
  5. Repeat Steps 1 thru 3 at the end of each work week

1. List those tasks you need to complete next week

Start by listing all the tasks you need to complete for the following week (I like to do this on Friday, before I go home). The reason why I focus on just one week is that nothing helps you prioritize things (as well as creates a sense of urgency) better than setting deadlines. We will talk more about that in Step 2. Make a list of everything that you must accomplish for the week in order to achieve optimum results. Determine which 20% of activities will yield 80% of the results, bringing you closest to your goals. Eliminate those tasks on your list that remain at the bottom and realistically will never get done. Get your legal pad and get going. It’s that simple!

2. Prioritize those tasks in the classic 2X2 matrix

Here is where Covey comes in. His genius is based on an understanding of human nature. For some reason that is beyond my understanding, most people want to start on the easiest and least important tasks. Enter the world of the procrastinator. Afraid to tackle the tough stuff. Don’t fall for it. Instead, determine the level of importance and urgency for each task, taking into consideration how certain tasks affect others, and the consequences for failing to complete them. Use a simple ranking system to begin planning by categorizing each task into one of four buckets. Tasks that are…

  • A. Important, Urgent
  • B. Important, Not Urgent
  • C. Not Important, Urgent
  • D. Not Important, Not Urgent

I like dividing a sheet of paper into four quadrants and listing my tasks. This visualizes the world you want to live in. Feel free to move the tasks around as you think more about them. This is a highly iterative process. Estimate how much time it will take you to complete the tasks. Remember, you have to fit them into your calendar with all the other commitments you have, e.g., meetings, calls, research, lunch, etc.

Pro Tip 1: If possible, delegate “C’s”.

Pro Tip 2: If possible, eliminate “D’s”.

3. Add those prioritized tasks directly into your calendar

Now you can create your schedule for the following week. Enter each task directly into your calendar for Monday through Friday (or whatever your workweek may be), in order of “A’s” first and “D’s” last (always taking into account due dates). Don’t forget to include the required time duration for each task. I like using 30 minute increments so I have a little buffer. Whatever works for you. Don’t forget to give yourself 10 minutes every hour to breathe and stretch your legs. We aren’t robots. Now your entire schedule is built for the subsequent week. You’re almost there.

4. Adjust your schedule at the end of each day

After you come in to work Monday morning, re-energized from the weekend, you are ready to take on the workweek. As you complete each task, move the next one up in your calendar. If you need more time, push the next task out. Now, here is an important point. Before the close of business on Monday, review what you accomplished, and adjust your weekly schedule accordingly. Don’t worry if you find yourself moving things around, this is typical. Things happen that are out of your control. It’s normal. Keep pushing forward. It feels good, doesn’t it? At the end of each workday, repeat this step.

Pro Tip 3: You will know you are maximizing output each week when most of your time is spent on Category “B” tasks.

5. Repeat Steps 1 thru 3 at the end of each workweek

Once you reach close of business Friday, repeat steps 1 through 3 for the subsequent week. Congratulations! You now have a new, simple, and effective process for maximizing your output.

Conclusion

I’m the last person in the world to tell someone how to do their job; however, I believe these 5 steps can be thought of as working smarter, not harder. If you are anything like me, in less than one month you will be cranking tasks out at twice the rate you did before. Better yet, you are getting the important stuff done ahead of deadlines! You will be viewed as a superstar in your office. Suddenly your boss is giving you the exciting, mission-critical projects. Those are the projects that keep her up at night. You will be rewarded!

Now you have time to build your own pyramids!

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