Why You Need a Longer To-Do List


We’re into April – and the Blog is approaching its sixth birthday. That’s something close to 300 posts and nearly 200,000 words.

Which three word combination has appeared most frequently? I’ve no way of telling, but I sincerely hope it’s ‘work/life balance.’ But there are three more little words that won’t be far behind: the ones that haunt all of us. Yep, I’m talking about the ‘to-do list.’

However you keep it – on your phone, in Evernote or on a pleasantly retro piece of paper – the to-do list dominates our lives.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the trap we all occasionally fall into – scoring a few quick wins at the bottom while the most important thing on it remains ominously un-ticked. Let’s also ignore the need to prioritise the damn thing and to make sure that ‘life’ is every bit as well represented as ‘work.’

Let’s just look at one thing: the sheer length of your to-do list. And let me now make the vast majority of you splutter on your cornflakes or hurl your coffee at the screen in annoyance.

Pink+panther+to+do+list_cf2486_4742018

Because I’m going to suggest that your to-do list should be longer.

And that if it was, you’d be even more productive…

Let me use a simple example: ‘plan next year.’ Another three little words that will have appeared on all our to-do lists at some point in the not-too-distant past.

But what does ‘plan next year’ really mean…

Once you go to work you realise that ‘plan next year’ contains a series of questions:

  • What do we want to achieve next year?
  • So what are the quarterly targets we need to reach to do this?
  • What does this mean for staffing levels?
  • Do we need to cut costs? Or raise more investment?
  • What advertising and marketing do we need to do?
  • And how are all these plans going to impact on the cash flow?

All these points clearly impact on your to-do list: but suddenly one big task – made even more difficult because it is so vague – can be broken down into a series of small, precise, achievable steps:

  • Decide key targets/goals for next year
  • Determine necessary quarterly targets
  • Review staffing levels in light of targets
  • Plan advertising & marketing strategy for next year
  • Prepare business plan and cash flow forecast
  • Make appointment with bank

There are days when the to-do list fills everyone with dread: but the dread comes not from the length of the list, but from filling it with things we have no chance of achieving. If ‘plan next year’ is on the list with a host of client work and ‘Nativity Play at 2:30’ then you haven’t a hope of doing it. You won’t even start it.

You do have a hope of determining your key goals for next year. Or working backwards to your quarterly targets. What you’ll do by breaking your to-do list down into smaller segments is achieve something – instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s in front of you.

There are two other reasons for breaking the list down. If you go home at the end of the day and ‘plan next year’ is still on your list it’s going to cause you pain. And it’s going to cause you more pain when you see it again the next morning. But if you go home with your key targets identified and crossed off the list… That’s an entirely different feeling.

Secondly, your to-do list isn’t a wish list: it is – or should be – something that reflects your overall plan for the year or the quarter. And that plan requires specific actions – ‘decide key targets’ – not vague pipedreams like ‘plan next year.’

None of this advice is revolutionary. You’ve almost certainly heard or read it before. After all, it’s only eating the elephant one bite at a time. But we all slip back into bad habits and trust me, this works. It may be counter-intuitive but making your to-do list longer means you’ll ultimately get big things done faster and achieve more. And that’s what we all want…

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