The humble to do list is one of the most important “tools” in your arsenal as a Project Manager. In this article, you’ll pick up 5 to do list tips to help you maximise your productivity through effective task list management.
You will want to ensure that you are using your task list or to do list effectively to maximise your success. In fact, it’s one of our key suggestions to optimise your personal workload management.
Now… this probably isn’t the first time that you’ve come across a to do list tips article – am I right? But the biggest downfall is often that you probably haven’t taken action to take the various to do list tips on board. So for each tip, take our suggested action plan and I’m calling you out to make change… let’s make this happen.
To Do List Tip 1: Capture
You need to be able to accurately capture the task or the to do item. Whilst this seems like an obvious step, you need to keep track of incoming work from meetings, phone calls, corridor conversations, risk registers, your own head, emails, instant messengers. The list is long and the opportunity for missing something is plentiful.
If you can’t capture what needs to be done, you will find it tougher to keep track, prioritise and actually make sure it gets done. You’ll find this more mentally strenuous and you may struggle to turn off in case you forget something.
We’re also blessed with many tools (or cursed depending on how you feel about it). So make sure you align to use one tool to record or collate all of your next steps and to do items. Check out our blog on the different to do list tools that you could use.
But, it’s a fine line – don’t spent too much time writing and managing (and rewriting) your to do’s if it’s just quicker to crack on and do it. Sending someone an attachment – just do it. Scheduling an appointment – just do it. Don’t overthink this.
Action plan – Decide 1 place where you will keep a master to do list. Or, shortlist 3 or 4 different tools and commit to doing a 1 week trial of each.
To Do List Tip 2: Prioritise
Failing to prioritise your to do list will mean that you focus on the easy and quick wins.
This doesn’t need to be complex. For a super simple prioritisation, review and pick the top 3 items (just 3). This will force you to mentally make a priority call. Then put a star or asterisk by them to signal their importance visually.
If you want to be more scientific, you can use Importance and Urgency ratings. I’d recommend that it doesn’t need to be more complicated than “high” or “low”. You can then split your to do’s into 4 groups:
4 Priority Groups
- High importance, high urgency – top priority, do these first!
- Low importance, high urgency – don’t get bitten in the bottom by these.
- High importance, low urgency – you need to do these and put a deadline on them.
- Low importance, low urgency – ask if and why do you need to do these?
Group 3 from the above list (important tasks with no impending deadline, no urgency) is probably one of the challenges. The low urgency of them means it’s always easy to move this out to tomorrow, next week or even forever. But they are important to do. Put a deadline on them to encourage you to prioritise them.
Group 4 (not important and not urgent) are the ones that you need to watch out for. They are just wasting your time and distracting you from doing the right work. I would recommend that you ask if you could just wipe them off your list right now – or at least kick them into the long grass of the future to stop thinking about them right now (and to stop you being distracted by them).
Action plan – What are the top 3 items on your list right now? Keep these front of mind by adding a symbol like a star or asterisk at the start.
To Do List Tip 3: Make Progress Towards Goals
The mental boost from completing something should not be forgotten here. By ticking items off the list, you release dopamine into your body which make you feel good. This in turn becomes addictive and subconsciously drives you to do more work.
That need to tick items off the list is so addictive, some tasks that are already done are added… just so they can be ticked off.
So the challenge is how to maintain a steady flow of doing valuable work and authentically ticking the high priority items off the list. Don’t be caught by the trap of feeling good by ticking off the low importance, low urgency tasks. Doing the prioritisation from to do list tip #2 (above) will help you here. Just make sure your tasks, particularly your important tasks, are not too big – or they’ll seem like a mountain to climb.
You may have heard the old adage – how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So you’ll want to make sure that your to do list does not include “eat elephant” or it just won’t happen. (Also, please don’t actually eat elephants).
Make sure your big tasks are broken down into more manageable steps. This will make it easier to get started. They won’t seem so scary and will help you satisfy that insatiable and addictive need for ticking.
Action plan – Which items on your to do list need to be broken down further? Take each of these and add 3-6 steps that will be easier to take on.
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To Do List Tip 4: Keep Them Visible and Accessible
You also need to keep good visibility of the items in your to do list. You can keep an eye on what’s next and make sure that you don’t miss any deadlines.
There are lots of ways to do this using the variety of tools at your disposal.
Dinesh Nidamanuru is an experienced IT Project Manager and is a PRINCE2 Practitioner who has shared some of his to do list tips with me. Dinesh transforms his to do lists into tasks in Outlook to ensure he can easily follow up. He also uses OneNote to keep track of notes and actions from meetings. This makes it quick to refer back to at a later stage.
Personally, I like to keep a regular check of where things are at the end of the day. I find this a good time as I’m up to speed with everything. I prioritise what needs to be done tomorrow as well as adding any new items to the list.
Action plan – When will be best to review your task list? Set a daily reminder on your phone or computer to ensure you keep this alive.
To Do List Tip 5: Find the Time
I hope it goes without saying that all of these to do list tips are futile if you’re not actually doing the work on your list.
But how and when to find the time to do this?
First and foremost, it’s a mindset change. You don’t need to “find the time”, you need to “make the time”.
Another tip that Dinesh is happy to share with you to help do just this is to schedule tasks you’re your calendar. This is a fantastic strategy as it helps you carve out the time you need to actually do the work.
When you’re scheduling those important tasks that will require more brainwork, be sure to find a time when you’re at your most productive. If you’re a morning person, find time first thing and you’ll “catch that worm”. If you’re more of a night owl, save it for later and you’ll be more focused, more productive and end with a better result.
Action plan – Schedule time in your calendar. Right now. 15 minutes. Use that time to define which of your tasks will need specific time to be worked on. Go on – put a 15 minute appointment into your calendar to kick start this…. I dare you!
Turn Your To Do List into Your “Done List”
You already know how important it is to get on top of your to do list. So to make a step change to your personal productivity, you have to upgrade how you manage your tasks.
If you’re serious about accelerating your productivity, commit to the to do list tips and action plan that we’ve laid out today:
- Capture. Decide 1 place where you will keep a master to do list. Or, shortlist 3 or 4 different tools and commit to doing a 1 week trial of each.
- Prioritise. What are the top 3 items on your list right now? Keep these front of mind by adding a symbol like a star or asterisk at the start.
- Make Progress Towards Goals. Which items on your to do list need to be broken down further? Take each of these and add 3-6 steps that will be easier to take on.
- Keep Them Visible and Accessible. When will be best to review your task list? Set a daily reminder on your phone or computer to ensure you keep this alive.
- Find the Time. Schedule time in your calendar. Right now. 15 minutes. Use that time to define which of your tasks will need specific time to be worked on. Go on – put a 15 minute appointment into your calendar to kick start this…. I dare you!
Comment below to let me know how you’ve got on or if you’ve got other to do list tips to share.
About the Author
Oliver Banks is an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s worked on a number of different types and sizes of projects over the past 13 years. He blends classic project management techniques from PRINCE2, PMBOK and Lean Six Sigma with a dose of pragmatism and business reality to ensure retail projects are led, managed and delivered successfully.