by Michelle Nickolaisen | Featured Contributor
Many business owners have a love-hate relationship with their to-do list – they know it’s a good idea to have one, in theory, but in actuality, they struggle with it. They feel stifled- or, just as often, intimidated and overwhelmed – by it, they feel like it messes with their focus, is too hard to manage, and so on.
However, most of the frustrations that entrepreneurs have with their to-do lists have nothing to do with the list itself, but everything to do with how they use it. Now, if throwing your task list to the wind works for you (meaning: you’re productive + profitable + happy), then fabulous. Keep doing it, darlin’. However, if your current to do list habits are not-so-hot, but you know the idea of shredding it entirely would be a terrible one, keep reading.
Let’s face it, the whole “if it’s important, you’ll remember it” idea is…nice in theory but not so much in practice. At least for most of us (myself included!). If I don’t have a list of my appointments and tasks for the day easily accessible at any given moment, I find myself wandering aimlessly throughout my workday with nothing to guide me and way too much to distract me. (Hello, Pinterest!) Unless you’re working in an environment with absolutely no means of distracting yourself, it’s far too easy to get off track and waste hours at a time.
With that in mind, here’s three ways to stop fighting with your to do list & get back in the realm of peaceful productivity:
Have one list + keep it short
It’s just not worth it to try and juggle multiple lists. Nope. You’ve got one life, so you get one list. This also helps to prevent overscheduling & burnout – one problem a lot of business owners run into is that they don’t acknowledge the amount of physical + mental energy that “home” tasks take from them, so they assign themselves a massive “work” list, on top of a “home” list that might include cooking, taking the dog to the vet, helping their kids with homework, and so on. Then at the end of the day, they can’t figure out why they’re so tired!
The other half of this is to keep your to do list short. In general, if your list can’t fit on a post-it note (written in normal writing, not minuscule etching), then it’s too long. In fact, a good way to force yourself into this habit is to use the post-it note rule for a few weeks, even if you also use some kind of digital project management tool. Learn to ruthlessly edit your tasks and say no, leaving time only for the most important + effective activities.
Also, if you have to move a task too often, get rid of it. My rule of thumb is that if I postpone a task three times, then I either delete it, delegate it, or put it on a backburner. This keeps me from wasting time on busywork or work that frustrates/bores me.
Separate tasks from reminders from appointments
There are a million definitions for a “task”, but here’s mine: anything that requires substantial mental and/or physical energy and a time period longer than 15 minutes. Take out the kitty litter? That’s a reminder, not a task. Write a blog post? That’s a task.
When creating your to do list, you need to separate your reminders from your tasks from your appointments (which are essentially time-specific tasks). I don’t care if you color-code them, underline them, or use glitter (for example, in my weekly planning toolkit, they’re all clearly separated for each day), but they’re not the same thing and should be treated accordingly. Your tasks should be done during your peak hours, and depending on the nature of your appointments, they do too. (Client call? Yes, definitely. Doctor’s appointment? Notsomuch.) The reminder items, however, can be done whenever you have the time/energy. Making the mental distinction between these items can make arranging your workday approximately a million times easier + more efficient.
Set your bigger goals first
You can start with your yearly or monthly goals, if you want, but for the purposes of this post, let’s stick with weekly. Set a planning date with yourself, & at the beginning of the week, pick 2-4 goals – the top things you want to get done this week. The best way to think of these is that they might not be the only things you’re planning on doing this week, but if they were all you got done, you’d be fine with that.
Then, break each of those goals down into the smaller tasks that need to get done to make the goal happen. This creates your master task list for the week. Then you can parcel the tasks out among your days, depending on factors like what days you run errands, or the days when you have lots of appointments (days like that are a good time for smaller or less intense tasks, not so much for deep diving creative work & brainstorming).
There you have it: the tools you need to create an awesome to do list. Now, go forth & get it done!
Get it Together Guru for Creative Entrepreneurs – Michelle Nickolaisen of Bombchelle Austin, TX
Michelle is a project + operations wrangler for creative businesses, who also writes & teaches about productivity, organization, & systems (that don’t suck) for creatives. She lives in Austin, TX with her Shiba Inu & loves Buffy, dark chocolate, and tacos. Find her on the web at Bombchelle, on Facebook, or on Twitter.
From Michelle’s site: “My name is Michelle, and I’m an expert at finding out how + why something works (and then putting that knowledge to usually-good use), being grade-A curious, & getting things Done with a capital-D. I work with with creatives who have an established business, who are ready to launch something new or who want to go in a new path, who tend to get stuck going from innovation into action. If you’re working with me, you can expect sass + laughter, fun surprises, and lots of action.”