A recent LinkedIn survey studied 6500 professionals worldwide across 17 industries to understand how people tackle tasks for a given workday through the use of to-do lists. The result: Not everyone plans their day through a to-do list; those who do comprise 63 percent of all professionals surveyed. Further, only 11 percent admitted to being able to achieve all tasks they planned to do by the end of a given working day.
Tanuj Kapoor, manager – Talent management, in a leading retail brand, says “Sitting down first thing in the morning and making the list is the most difficult, especially when you are at maximum energy levels and want to just hit work!” However, once the list is in place, things are way simpler, he adds.
So, while the importance of a to-do list is universally acknowledged, how can one ensure its effectiveness in achieving work targets? A big challenge lies in its creation and the ability to follow it effectively.
Break it down. A list’s purpose is to keep you focused. However, if you get overwhelmed and panic by looking at the sheer volume of work to be done, it’s time to break the list down into smaller sections.
Getting overwhelmed will not get you going. Getting organised is the key. Rather than listing the complete project, which of course is the final goal, write down the smaller, individual aspects of the overall task. Visualisation is a great tool; when your list shows you exactly “where” to start and “how” to go about a big task, you would approach your day with more confidence in actually achieving the set targets.
Prioritise. Next, create an order of priority for task completion. According to Mindtools.com, a well known management and leadership training site, “Great time management means being effective as well as efficient. Managing time effectively, and achieving the things that you want to achieve, means spending your time on things that are important and not just urgent.”
Sure, everything needs to be done, but you need to decide “how” to tackle the list. This is important, as it will ultimately determine your efficiency. The popular ‘Urgent/Important Matrix’ is a useful tool for this. Place tasks under four sub-categories:
- Urgent, important – Deadlines, emergencies, submissions (To be done now)
- Important, not urgent – Planning, scheduling, research (To be scheduled)
- Not important, urgent – Requests from others (Can be rejected or assessed later)
- Not important, not urgent – Wasteful activities like excessive breaks, net surfing, etc. (To be minimised and avoided)
Eliminate procrastination from the list. Then there are those tasks we do not want to tackle, and these seem to linger forever in the to-do list. While it helps you stay focused by always having your tasks in sight, it kills the very purpose of the list if you don’t do anything about it. Tasks that are not immediately urgent run the risk of occupying the perennial slot under the “can be done later” category. Same is the case with tasks that seem tedious, or those you don’t particularly like. Or maybe you are being plain lazy about it.
Keep a daily check on the list. While you add new items, ensure that a given task is being accomplished in its stipulated time frame. Maintaining a “Start by” and an “End by” date for individual tasks proves extremely useful in keeping tab on the progress made.
Schedule work now, re-schedule distractions for later. LinkedIn’s survey showed that unplanned tasks like meetings, emails and phone calls are the primary cause of failing to complete all items on the to-do list. Such distractions not only break your train of thought, but also add extra minutes that you will require to shift focus back to the task at hand.
While it is difficult to completely avoid meetings and emails on a typical working day at office, you can work towards achieving single-minded focus on one task. It’s about breaking compulsive habits like checking mail every few minutes or answering every call on your phone; even meetings can be timed around your work schedule, with a defined start and end time to prevent loss of focus from work as well as the overall day plan.