When I worked in a large open-plan office with everyone’s desks on show, I saw every different way of working imaginable from the ultra-neat to the completely chaotic. There was certainly no ‘clean desk policy’ in those days and the amount of paperwork was shameful by today’s standards. I had one colleague who used to simply pile up company reports to the side of his desk until they reached desk level and then start another one until he had barely enough room to manoeuvre and his poor assistant was brought in to do a day’s filing
One of the routines I had then and have never really changed over the intervening years is keeping a to-do list. Either on a phone in Notes or on post-it notes when brainstorming, or in great apps like Workflowy and Trello, the humble list is where I start most days. And when I can’t get round to those routine household tasks at the weekend, a list seems to help motivate me to get those jobs done.
Ticking those jobs off one by one is very satisfying.
But does a to-do list make you more or less productive? For most small business owners a list is a complete must as we have to wear so many different hats and the art of keeping organised is focusing on a single task until its finished and not getting seduced into whizzing off to do social media, making phone calls or responding to emails when the main goal for the day is writing that client proposal. There are so many distractions that interfere with getting things done.
So here are just a few tips for using your to-do list to become more organised and productive.
Write your to-do list in the evening
It’s tempting to end the day, by finishing the last task, closing the office door and putting on the kettle for a well-earned cuppa. But research shows that it’s far better to the end the working day by reviewing what you have achieved and planning out tomorrow’s activities. Your mind is then clear all evening and when you sit down the next morning you are fresh and ready to tackle the day ahead.
Use the right stationery for the task
If your to-do list includes a new project, it might be better to start with some coloured sticky notes to brainstorm your ideas. I clear my desk and get scribbling, not really worrying about being neat and tidy – usually, they end up being pretty random. When the brain is exhausted of ideas, it’s time to create some sort of order out of the post-its. From out of chaos emerges a list or maybe a series of lists.
I use my Weekly Planner pad for my main tasks of the week, but for scribbling down notes I use one of my notebooks or even scraps of paper.
By the time you have finished compiling your to-do list on the weekly planner, the post-its, backs of envelopes and scraps of paper should now be redundant as what’s planned for the next day and beyond is in one place.
What do I start the day with?
Advice varies when it comes to starting the day. Frankly I cannot begin with the most important task which usually requires the most brain power. It has to be a ‘warm-up exercise’ which gets the grey matter fired up. The warm-up will vary from person to person but for me it will be emptying the incoming emails, answering the simple ones and scheduling regular social media posts.
From then on the to-do list can be annotated with those tasks which are urgent and important, urgent and unimportant, non-urgent and important with unimportant and non-urgent usually being relegated to the bin!
Allocate sufficient time for each task
It’s good to tackle difficult task when you feel fresh. If that’s 10am or 2pm it doesn’t matter. But always allocate enough time to complete these challenges and turn off all potential sources of distraction such the phone or social media notifications.
Divide big projects into their component parts
It’s tempting to keep a to-list short. It seems like there’s less to do and therefore more time for spending with the family and friends or indulging in more socialable events or hobbies.
Is it realistic to keep adding ‘New website’ or ‘Sign up 5 new clients’ to the list week after week? These are daunting projects which probably need a notebook or spreadsheet of their own.
I like to use ‘reverse engineering’ for planning out projects. I know where I want to get to, so by working backwards step by step I can gauge the different parts of the project. I may not even have all the answers at this stage, but by writing out the steps I have clearer idea of what’s involved and how long it’s likely to take. One word of caution though, if you are creating a new website it usually takes twice as long as you expect!
Let’s use the example of printing a new business card.
Reversing the steps gives us:
- Receiving the printed cards
- Sending the artwork
- Choosing the printer
- Obtaining quotes from list of recommended printers
- Deciding on the card stock
- Approving design
- Agreeing style of and content on card
- Choosing the size of card
- Selecting the graphic designer based on specific criteria
- Sending brief to short list of recommended graphic designers
- Writing a brief
Keep only the next steps on your to-do list for the week with the remaining task listed on a spreadsheet, Word document or in a project notebook. You may find Trello useful for this type of activity.
This type of planning works well in both a work or home environment and can be used individually or as part of a team.
Whichever way you like to get things done, the humble to-do list is one way of keeping on track. Let us know in the comments below about your list keeping.