organisation and preparedness

how to smash through your to-do list with style and have a more productive day

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Coffee cup, diary, sticky notes, pencil, pin, clip and keyboard on wooden table

Some people just seem to have it all together.

They always arrive on time, pressed, shined and ready to go.

They achieve higher heights, go the extra mile and still have time for a chat at the water cooler.

They move through their busy schedule with the grace and equanimity that the rest of us only experience while watching a BBC period drama.

How the heck do they do it?

The thing is, while the rest of us are running around on reaction mode like frazzled ants before a monsoonal shower, those other type of people are proactively managing their time.

HOW TO BE A ZEN FOCUSED PRODUCTIVITY MASTER

man meditating on a rock

Do you spend your days trying to multi-task like an octopus on speed and not having much to show for it at the end of the day?

Those people who manage to get everything done without so much as a frazzled eyebrow hair?

They stay focused on one task at a time.

The problem with focus is, it’s not that easy. Especially because we live in the age of distraction.

Hang on, I’ll be back, my phone just pinged me a message…

…anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, focus.

Focus is important because…I really need to remember to buy cream tomorrow, and something for the kid’s morning tea…

How do productive people deal with these distractions?

Firstly, they get rid of as many as they can.

Phone on silent.

A ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door.

It’s hard to turn your brain off though.

The best way to deal with all those things you suddenly remember you need to do is to write them down on a brain dump list straight away (see tools below) and then get back to what you what you were doing.

That way you’re being proactive with your time not bouncing around reacting to tasks.

You’re not trying to remember everything either.  Keeping track in our head of all the tasks we need to remember is not only counter productive, it’s stressful and likely to be forgotten.

Here’s what David Allen, author and master of Getting Things Done* has to say:

A list of stuff you need to remember is not a to-do list. It’s not a plan of action.

It’s an ‘I’ve-got-this-stuff-covered-so-stop-stressing-brain’ kind of list.

Brain appeased, we need to turn this list into something actionable, so we actually get these things done.

CREATE THIS HABIT: WRITE YOUR DAILY TO-DO LIST EACH NIGHT

Start the day off on the right foot and hit the ground running by planning your day the night before.

That way, you can get straight into it when you bounce out of bed in the morning.

(Or crawl out of bed scowling all the way to the tea pot, if you’re like me.)

Grab your favourite task management tool (check out the list of tools below), and spend a few minutes writing out what you have to do tomorrow. Refer to your calendar or diary and your brain dump list to jog your memory.

Have you written out your to-do list? Does it look a little like this?

To Do List example

Whoa!

Do you make the mistake we ALL make and write a ridiculously long to-do list?

Our good intentions set us up for failure because our lists are so long, there’s no way we can get through them in a week, let alone a day.

Not only does being busy all the time suck, it’s a one way street to Heartattacksville.

You want to spend time hanging out with your partner or playing with your kids or talking to your neighbour over the fence, not scrubbing the bathroom.

I can guarantee you don’t need to do about 80% of of what’s written on your to-do list.

So let’s write out an effective to-do list that works for you, not crushes your soul like depressed mountain troll perfumed with the rotten stench of failure.

PRIORITISE YOUR TOP 3 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS

simplify word on a clipboard

Instead of writing a huge to-do list, pick no more than three things to focus on.

There’s that word again.

Focus.

Focus on the most important things on your list and stop with all the busy work and you’ll be more effective.

What are the most important and urgent things you need to do today?

You may have heard of Stephen Covey’s time management grid. He uses it to classify the 4 things we do with our time:

  • Stuff that’s important and urgent
  • Stuff that’s important but not urgent
  • Stuff that’s urgent but not important
  • Stuff that’s neither urgent or important

This is what it looks like: time management grid

Most of us spend our time doing urgent and not important stuff. Headless chook stuff.

To totally blow your productivity out of the water, reach your goals and have a happy healthy life, you want to spend as much time as you can doing the Important But Not Urgent stuff.

Important stuff like working on your goals, building and maintaining relationships with friends and family, enjoying true recreation (not mindless in front of the TV recreation).

Those top three priorities for the day? They should include at least one important but not urgent thing to do from the action plan you created when you set your goals for the year.

Let’s rework our to-do list to something better.

Better to-do list

Now you’ve got yourself a list that’s much more achievable and if you only manage to do the top three things, then your day is a success.

What about the other stuff?

Well, you can freeze the meat tomorrow. The bathroom doesn’t really need cleaning today or even this week. Someone else can walk the dog. Even the garden can probably wait another day.

(It’s always a good idea to phone your mum, though.)

3 WAYS TO SQUEEZE MORE PRODUCTIVITY OUT OF YOUR TO-DO LISTS

Hands of a woman squeezing a stress ball

1. BATCH YOUR TASKS

Going back to our list, we can batch some of those tasks to get more done.

You could walk the dog to the park (tick), let the kids play (tick) while you read that chapter of your book (tick).

You could freeze the meat while you cook dinner.

Instead of checking your emails 10 times a day, turn those distracting notifications off and check them once or twice a day. Save time and stay focused.

You could wait and run all your errands on the same day instead of going out everyday.

To batch your tasks, look at similar tasks and do those together to save time.

2. SCHEDULE YOUR TIME

If you’re a mum of young kids (or work in customer service) you might be laughing at the idea of scheduling your time.

It’s all very well and good to say you’re going to declutter the cupboard or tackle the filing between the hours of 9 and 10, but the kids (and the customers) never get the memo.

However, a loose schedule can make all the difference between getting something done and totally forgetting it.

According to a Forbes article, the most successful people schedule everything into a calendar.

Ultra-productive people don’t work from a to-do list, but they do live and work from their calendar”. [source]

The key to using a calendar is to time block out all the important stuff in your life first. All that stuff from the important but not urgent quadrant of Covey’s grid. Time with your kids. Time to work on your goals. Time to work. Time to sleep. Be realistic (don’t schedule focused tasks when you know the kids are going to need you), block that time out and make it sacred.

Then schedule in all the other stuff in around, batching what you can.

I combine a calendar (both paper and digital), and a diary to write down my to-do list and plan my day.

3. STOP PLANNING AND START DOING

Planning is fun!

Doing the work? Not as much fun.

Forget the coloured pens, complicated symbols, stickers you can buy for your planner (that’s a thing. Really.), and other organisational hacks. That’s all busywork. It’s fun. But not important. Not urgent.

Write out what you need to get done or schedule it in your diary and go do it like an Nike ad.

7 OF THE BEST FREE DIGITAL TASK MANAGER APPS

task-manager-app2_thumb

While I’ve always been a paper and pen kind of gal, I’ve started mixing digital and old-school organisational tools because like most people, I always have a phone on me, I don’t always carry my diary and certainly not my calendar.

Wake up at 2am and remember tomorrow’s the last day to pay for your child’s school excursion?

It’s a lot easier to schedule a reminder in your phone for the morning and then get back to sleep than hunting around for a pen and writing a note in the dark. Believe me, that’s how I rolled for years.

(Sidenote: blue light and sleep don’t mix, so download a Twilight app or blue light filter on your phone and dim the screen right down so you don’t wake yourself right up at night).

There are hundreds of task management apps out there. Here are 7 of the most popular task management apps.

  1. Google Calendar – I use Google Calendar for just about everything and it’s my go-to task manager. I use it to track household maintenance, bills as well as personal stuff like birthdays.
  2. Evernote – This is not a dedicated task manager but a note-taking app. It comes in at number 2 because I use it every single day for personal organisation as well as blogging stuff.
  3. Any.Do – A simple, sleek to-do list manager with the cool feature of being able to set a reminder for a time of the day that you choose to review your to-do list.
  4. Wunderlist – Another popular task manager with lots of functions like sub-tasking and adding notes. It also now syncs with your Google Calendar.
  5. Todoist – A task manager linked to your Gmail account.
  6. Trello – A visual to-do list, that uses cards. Looks kind of like Pinterest, but it’s a task manager.
  7. Todo – Based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. This one has a calendar view, which can be useful.

Because using a calendar and scheduling your tasks is so important for getting things done, it’s a good idea to use a to-do list that synchronises with your Google Calendar. You can use Zapier to connect apps and automate tasks. It’s pretty cool.

We all get the same number of hours in a day. We can choose to make those hours count or we can get bogged down in busy work.

How are you going to use your to-do list to have a more productive day?

how to smash through your to do list with style and have a more productive day

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2 Comments

  1. I’m surprised no one hs already commented on this post Melissa.
    Thank YOU!
    I was feeling snowed under with new year jobs
    In ten days I have cleared the back log using this system of the 3 top things and on each day got through a lot of the ‘want to jobs’ as well.
    I don’t put down regular cleaning jobs ,just high priority ones. A lot of time I use my kitchen timer to keep me on track i.e. allowing myself 20 minutes to do a task so I don’t get side tracked.
    With it being so hot here at the moment I am trying to do the heavy/manual jobs and washing,early in the morning. Then I can sit and do paperwork -sew or mend or RELAX when it gets too hot .Funny 6 weeks ago my olive oil was solid in the bottle (10 degrees in my kitchen) yesterday was 39degrees. I use weather conditions as another filter for the jobs I have to do. I don’t want to plan a large wash and then have to try to get it dry. My 8 year old granddaughter will be living with us for a few months when school starts ,she comes from a very disorganised home life -looks like I have some re training to do!I have already sorted my husband out (he even scrapes his plate into the chook bucket before putting it into the dishwash -yes shock horror I regularly use it . I have an excuse we are renovating the kitchen and have had some problems with our 85 year old house I have NO sink at the moment.
    Keep up the great work Melissa and it is appreciated

    1. Hi Eileen,
      Thanks.

      I think we all feel snowed under – especially when it’s so hot! I’m reading a very interesting book called Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte and it seems to be a global epidemic!
      Using a timer is a great idea!
      Sounds like you’ve got a busy few months ahead. Hope all goes well.

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