In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about managing an overwhelming to-do list.
Hello and welcome to episode 66 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.
This week it’s all about regaining control of your day and the tasks you have to complete so you get your important work done and can actually have some time to yourself each day.
Before I get into this week’s question though, I’d just like to remind you to enrol in my FREE beginners guide to creating your own COD system. This course will give you the framework to develop a simple system that is easy to maintain and will boost your productivity by keeping you focused on the things that are important and will help you to eliminate the unimportant things—the things that do not take you closer to your North Star—ie, your purpose. So get yourself enrolled. It’s free and will only take you around 40 minutes to complete.
Okay, onto this week’s question and that means handing you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.
This week’s question comes from Michael. Michael asks: Hi Carl, I have so many tasks every day on my to-do list that I do not know where to start. Is there anything I can do that will help me to make better decisions?
Thank you, Michael, for your question. Now I know this problem is a very common problem indeed. Often we rush to collect everything that comes across our mind whether that is an event, a task or an idea and we dump them all into our to-do list’s inbox. To be honest, that’s actually a very good place to start. Collecting everything is a good thing—after all, it is the first step of COD (collect, organise and do). Now if we are not organising those items at least every day or two, things are going to mount up, and when we look at an overflowing inbox our minds begin to dread looking there and then the whole system begins to fall apart.
So it is important you organise the stuff you collect every day. But, when you do organise you need to be thinking strategically. If you just randomly date things just to get them out of your inbox and so you know they will pop up in your today list one day in the future you are going to have a few problems. The first problem of course is you will have a list of to-dos in your today view that don’t really need doing that day. When that happens we tend to stop prioritising our today list. The purpose of your today list is that anything on there really does need your attention that day. It could be a simple reminder task to review a project that after seeing it, you decide to put off for another week. That’s okay, the important thing is when a task appears on your today list it has to appear there because you want to see it on that specific day. If you do not need to see it that day, then it should not be on your today list.
And that brings me to another problem I often see. That is one of trust. If you do not trust you will see a task when you need to see a task you will date everything—randomly— and that causes a long list of tasks on a today list you do not need to see. It’s a trust issue.
Now not trusting your system can be because you have just started with a productivity system and it will take time to trust it. It could be caused by constantly switching to-do list managers so you are not sure if everything migrated across properly from your previous to-do list manager or it could be because you are not doing a full weekly review—which is the most common reason.
Now there are two types of weekly reviews. There’s a normal, take it slowly with a nice cup of tea and some great music weekly review and then there’s the secret weekly review that people like me who coach people to become better organised and more productive don’t like to tell you about. But, because I am feeling VERY generous today, and will tell you… But only this once so listen carefully…
The secret weekly review is called the “skimmed weekly review”. The skimmed weekly review only takes around fifteen to twenty minutes, as opposed to the full forty-five to sixty minutes a normal weekly review takes, and what you do is go through all your projects and areas of focus quickly just checking that the tasks you have there are still relevant and have the correct dates on them. With a full weekly review, you go through each project and area of focus carefully and compare your tasks with your calendar to make sure your dated to-dos fall on the right days and at the right times.
I don’t recommend you do the skimmed weekly review often, but sometimes if you are on a business trip or you are particularly busy then it can be useful just to keep yourself up to date and moving forward.
If you do worry about not seeing your tasks when you need to see them then review how you do your weekly review. Make sure you have your calendar open when you do it and compare your daily task lists for each day against your calendar. If one day next week you have back to back meetings all day, then you need to reduce the number of tasks on your list for that day. If you have a very quiet day where you can focus on your work for a long period of time, then you can allocate a few more to-dos for that day.
So, hopefully, if you have a good weekly review behind you, you should find that your daily tasks list for each day reflects how busy you are for each day next week.
Next step to reducing your daily to-do list and to help make better decisions on what you should be working on is to use the 2+8 Prioritisation system. I’ve covered this many time before so I won’t go into details here. I will put a link in the show notes to a video I did on it a few months ago.
Now basically the 2+8 Prioritisation system asks you to choose two tasks that you really must get done that day. And that barring an emergency you WILL make sure you get them done.
Then you have 8 other tasks you have chosen the night before that would have the biggest positive impact on your work or goals if you complete them the next day. That’s it.
This means when you start the day you already know what exactly you want to accomplish that day. And you will put all your focus and attention on those ten tasks and in particular, the two objective tasks that you have chosen MUST get done that day.
Now the reason why you do this the night before instead of on the morning of the day itself is so when you start the day you already know exactly what it is you should be doing. There’s no chance you will waste any time thinking about what to do, or get yourself lost in a sea of tasks you might like to get done. You have ten tasks and you will do everything you can to get them completed by the end of the day.
Of course there will be interruptions and more tasks coming in throughout the day, that’s normal day to day life. As they come in you need to assess their urgency and decide if you need to do them that day or not. But your focus for the day is the 2+8 tasks you have already chosen to complete that day. The whole point is if you get those ten tasks complete you will feel you have had a productive day.
I should point out here that your 2+8 tasks do not include any routine housekeeping tasks you have to do every day. For example, I do not include my daily admin tasks in my 2+8 Prioritisation system. My daily routines take around 30 minutes each day and I have those 30 minutes scheduled on my calendar at 9:30 pm every day to complete. I do not need to see those tasks until 9:30 pm and so they are out of view until that time. How you do that will depend on the to-do list manager you are using, but it is worth figuring out because when your list only shows two tasks when you look at it in the morning you will feel a lot less overwhelmed and stressed.
Another bit of advice I can give you Michael is to get into the habit of asking yourself a simple question when you sit down to organise your day. That question is one I have already alluded to and that is:
What tasks can I complete tomorrow that will have the biggest positive impact on my projects and goals?
It’s a powerful question and will lead you to make the right decisions about what you should be working on. Make sure you include your goals in there somewhere. If you are not including your goals you will not make any progress on your goals. So make sure somewhere in those ten tasks you have at least one goal task.
Having your goals on your daily priorities list is the best way to make sure you are always heading towards your North Star. The place you want to be in ten or twenty-five years time. Of course, this will change as you travel towards it, it always does. Some things we want to achieve today become less important as time goes by, and that’s perfectly okay. The important thing is you are always travelling towards the destination you want to go, not the destinations others would like to drag you.
The biggest problem today is not the work we have to do, with all the technology and automation available to us that can easily be dealt with. It’s the expectations we place on ourselves. Our perceived capacity for work is bigger than the time we have available each day. So we either rush to get work done and end up with a lower standard of work than we are capable of, or we spend far too much time doing work and not enough time getting the valuable rest we need to be able to perform at our best every day. This causes a super-stressed state which does not do us any good physically or mentally. You need to get more realistic about what you can do in a day.
One way to do this is to monitor how long it takes you to do a piece of work you regularly have to do. For example, I know to write my weekly blog post takes around 90 minutes and to edit it takes roughly 30 to 40 minutes. To record my weekly YouTube videos takes about 2 hours and the editing takes about a further 2 hours. This means I can schedule blocks of time to do this work each week. Once these blocks are on my calendar, I can relax knowing I have the time available to do the work. And remember, the golden rule of calendars… What goes on your calendar gets done.
Well, I hope that answers your question for you, Michael. Don’t forget if you have a question you would like me to answer on this show, then get in touch either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via Twitter or Facebook.
Thank you for listening and it just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.