Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Do you work hard all day but feel you’re achieving nothing? Do you lie awake at night with all your unfinished tasks swirling around in your head? I can help you. Read this post to see how to boost your productivity and reduce stress.
The good news is that you aren’t alone. It’s the human condition. Back in the 1940’s, the psychologist Kurt Lewin developed his Field Theory. According to Lewin, our behavior is a function of our personality and our environment. Pressure from the environment pushes us.
Another psychologist, Bluma Ziegarnik, applied this thinking to the tasks we perform. She found that we live in a state of tension caused by our unfinished tasks. When we finish a task we forget it. Unfinished or interrupted tasks stay in our heads and give us grief.
I am no stranger to pressure. I spent over 40 years in high tech companies, pushing forward advances in technology, and finding ways of harnessing it to improve the lives of ordinary people. Along the way I learned a lot about how to cope with a strenuous workload.
In this blog I’m going to share how to get back in control and get the right things done. Here are my ten steps to fix your todo list.
Step 1 – make some time
When you are overloaded, you never have enough time. You’re constantly in meetings, or doing your email, or chasing your tail. You have got to break out of the cycle.
To start, carve out half a day to get yourself back together. Choose a time when the pressure is low. For me, Sunday afternoon is good, because I don’t have deadlines due then. I’m still feeling rested from the weekend, but I can feel the pressure of Monday morning reaching for me…
Sit down in a place where you can avoid distractions and interruptions. No TV. No music. No conversation.
Step 2 – make one list
Do you have lots of post-it notes with reminders of things to do? An Outlook task list? An inbox with loads of unanswered emails? A pile of paper waiting for attention? Is your voicemail full? If so, you’re normal. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now it’s time to take control. Make one list.
And make it a new list. Don’t just add to a list that’s already out of control.
There are lots of todo list apps out there. But now is not the time to start playing with them. Keep to the job in hand. Make your list on paper, or start a spreadsheet.
Start by listing what is on your mind. Don’t look at emails or text messages. That comes later. For now, just drain everything out of your brain. Trust it to know what really matters.
Every item on your list is a task. Describe it as an outcome. How will you know when you have done it? If it’s a promise you have made, write down who it is for, and when it’s due. But don’t give it a date at all, unless the task absolutely must be done by then.
Step 3 – scan your inputs
Now you can look at your emails. Don’t start answering them! Just scan them, looking for action items, and add the actions to your one task list.
Remember most emails are unnecessary. People telling you stuff you didn’t need to know. Asking you to do things you don’t want to do. Delete anything you don’t need. Only accept new actions that are important. Forget the rest.
Do you have a lot of papers? Gather them all into one big pile. Sort them into three smaller piles – Action, File, Trash. Add the Actions items to your one task list. Put the Trash pile in the trash. Leave the File pile for later.
Review your other inputs. Voicemail, social media, post-it notes, Outlook, or whatever. Have a look at your appointments for the next few weeks – what do you need to prepare for? Again, be selective. Only accept things that really matter. Add them to your task list.
Step 4 – prune your list
Review your task list. Is it a long one – too long? Are you really going to do everything on it? Do you have the time, and the energy? Now is the time to admit defeat, and take out anything you are never going to do.
Step 5 – renew your promises
What if you have promised to do something, and you now realize you can’t do it? That’s bad news for the person that is waiting for it. You’re going to have to tell them. Maybe you can do it, but to a new deadline? Maybe you can do something less hard on you, that allows them to make progress? Make a note to call them, or send them an email now.
Step 6 – think about fun
We don’t live to work – we work to live. Make sure your task list includes the fun things in life. Things to do with your family and friends. And tasks that look after your personal health and well-being. Get them all onto your one task list.
Step 7 – break down big tasks
Now your task list is taking shape. You probably find some tasks are small and easy – like ‘Buy AA batteries’ – and some are much bigger and more complicated – like ‘Fiona’s birthday party’.
Some tasks are so big, it’s really hard to get your head round them. When you are faced with a big task, break it down into manageable steps. Or if you can’t see all the way to the end, just write down the first step, to get you started.
Step 8 – make a schedule
You’re coming to the end of your task planning session. You have one big list of everything. Now make some choices. What are you going to do tomorrow? And the rest of the week?
Pick out the most pressing tasks, and make time for them by adding them to your calendar, as appointments with yourself. Be realistic about how long they are going to take. If you’ve broken down your big tasks into smaller ones, you should be aiming to get each task done in less than an hour.
“How can I schedule my tasks? My diary is full already! I’m in meetings all day!” It’s a familiar cry, but it won’t do. You must get back control of your own time.
Bail out of any meetings that aren’t vital. For the ones you can’t escape, talk to the meeting organizer. Can the meeting be shorter? Can it be a phone call? Can you attend part time? Maybe the meeting organizer is also waiting for you to complete an action. Negotiate!
Step 9 – do what matters
If you have had a good task planning session, it should last about a week. Use your task schedule. Pick from your task list, and get the most pressing tasks done. Remember to pay attention to the nice, easy tasks too – it’s a great way to make your todo list shorter, and it makes you feel better. Progress at last!
No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. It’s the same with task plans. You’re just tearing into a nice juicy task, and the phone rings. Panic stations, drop everything! But now you have a handle on the ‘everything’ you are dropping. Just park what you were doing, add the new task to your list, and keep going.
Step 10 – do it all again
After a week, you may have drifted a long way from your original task schedule. But you will have the satisfaction of knowing you did the right things. Now reserve another hour or two to review your one task list again, and get it back under control. It will be easier this time, because you are only looking at changes.
Now is the time to think about using an app for your task list, instead of just paper. It makes your task list easier to maintain. There are lots of good apps out there. One of the best is my own TaskAngel, which runs on iPhone, iPad and Windows. It keeps a single todo list in sync across all your devices. Give it a try – it’s free!
Here again are the ten steps:
Make some time
Make one list
Scan your inputs
Prune your list
Renew your promises
Think about fun
Break down big tasks
Make a schedule
Do what matters
Do it all again
Andrew Boswell June 2016
TaskAngel is available on iPhone, iPad and Windows. To try it for free please visit taskangel.com
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