When it comes to personal productivity, most experts promote the use of to do lists to capture the important tasks or things you need to accomplish. Whether you prefer technology or paper, to do lists are a tool for better time management — but lists alone aren’t enough.
If you don’t prioritize the tasks and schedule time to actually do them, your to-do list will simply grow and you will continue to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. That’s why you need a system!
Here’s an approach that works for me and my small business clients:
Make your list accessible and easy to use. If you prefer paper, keep a small notebook or daytimer with you to write down tasks or new ideas when they occur. If you prefer technology, use your smart phone, tablet or other device to capture tasks and synchronize them with your computer. Avoid sticky notes or small pieces of paper to capture tasks and ideas – they get scattered, lost and forgotten.
Note: If the task has a drop dead due date, put it down. If not, leave the due date blank and you can apply it later without losing the idea or task. Do not start ‘working on it’ – simply capture it for now.
Plan and prioritize weekly. Pick a time you will use each week to prioritize your tasks and schedule your work for the coming week. Some prefer end of day Friday, before the weekend starts; others prefer doing this on the weekend. The key is to start the week prepared, and ready to act. Choose what works best for you and schedule the 15 minutes on your calendar each week.
Break down big tasks or projects. If a project will take 4-5 hours to complete, what is the likelihood that you will find a ‘block of time’ that big to work on it? For most, the answer is never. So break the big project into a series of 30-60 minute chunks, apply due dates for each chunk/task, and work on the smaller pieces.
Establish due dates and priorities. Pull out your complete ‘to do’ list and identify the tasks or activities you must complete over the next seven days to meet deadlines or make progress on bigger projects. Next to each task, write down how long you believe it will take to complete the task. Most of us under-estimate the time, but improve over time. Finally, make sure all the tasks on this list are important, move you toward your goals and are the best use of your time for the coming week. If they don’t meet those criteria, delegate or eliminate them! Now prioritize your weekly list.
Put tasks on YOUR calendar. Whether you use paper or technology, your calendar is a must have tool to schedule appointments, meetings AND tasks. With your calendar for the upcoming week in front of you, begin scheduling time to work on the tasks. Look for some similar activities, such as phone calls, that you can group together for added efficiency. Schedule each task; avoid creating big blocks of time to work on a lot of different stuff – it can be overwhelming. Be realistic and plan some buffers for the unexpected – that inevitably will occur!
Modify and update daily. At the end of each day, take 5 minutes to check off the tasks you completed – it feels great to do this! Next, if there are any tasks you didn’t accomplish, ask yourself why? Did you over-schedule, under-estimate the time needed or simply get hit with too many unplanned interruptions or ‘emergencies’? Learn from this for the future. Now, move the unfinished tasks to the next day or later in the week.
If the tasks you scheduled have true deadlines and move you toward your goals, don’t keep pushing them back. You will eventually run out of time in the week. You may need to reshuffle other activities, eliminate non-essential meetings, eliminate interruptions or phone calls, come in a little earlier or stay a little later.
Personal productivity takes discipline. But with the right system, you too can get more done with the time you have. It’s simply a matter of planning the time!
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