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Small Business Productivity: Is Your To-Do List Doing You?

Do you make to-do lists?

Most methods for productivity include making various to-do lists of the things you want and need to get done. Whether it’s David Allen, Stephen Covey or Jerry Seinfeld, everyone suggests making lists.

But do you ever find that your lists keep growing? Or do you get discouraged looking at a never-ending list of stuff that needs to get done? Or worse, do you find yourself not getting things done because you’re overwhelmed by your to-do list? So, what happens when your to-do lists start doing you?

What happens when the to-do lists you make begin getting in the way of actually getting things done?

Personally, I make lists all the time. I live by lists. While I’m not a fan of Getting Things Done, I do appreciate and use some of David Allen’s approaches. For instance, I do write my to-do lists in order of urgency. I also get the things done immediate that will only take a few moments so they never end up on a list in the first place. And one of the more helpful suggestions I’ve taken from GTD is getting everything out of my head and onto a list so that my mind isn’t tied up remembering things.

But to-do lists can take over your business – and your life. They can grow out of control, making it difficult, even overwhelming to getting things done. Just spend a few days writing down all the business ideas and tasks you face and you’ll quickly see what I mean. How could you possibly get all that done.

Well, in truth, you’re not supposed to get all that done. What you’re supposed to do is get all that stuff out of your head and onto to-do lists so that it’s not taking up mental space in your mind. But the second function of to-do lists is being able to sort what needs to be done, what should get done and what could get done:

  • What needs to get done – These are the items on your to-do list that are essential. Either they are the next step in a project for a client or the development of a course or product. Or they are any item that must get done as soon as possible.
  • What should get done – These are the items on your to-do list that do need attention, just not immediately. This list is sort of a master list that stores everything that I will eventually need to get done. I create a to-do list for each part of my life – work, home remodeling, personal projects, etc. It’s from this to-do list that items move to the ‘needs to be done’ to-do list. For instance, the next ‘must do’ steps in my client work.
    note: I’m realizing only as I write this that this to-do list is the master to-do list for my business (never thought about it this way before). It holds the full picture for all my client and project work. So, in essence, this is is rather large and segmented by project. It’s also the most dynamic to-do list since items are constantly coming and going.
  • What could get done – The items on this to-do list are more larger, big vision-type items. It could be an idea for a new product or service or some brainstorm of a joint venture I want to look at. Basically, this is a list of the items that are not necessary in my day-to-day/week-to-week work load.

These three basic to-do lists make up the bulk of how I work. The ‘needs to get done’ to-do list is where my immediate action steps live. This is my ‘gotta get it done now’ list. I look at it multiple times daily and often only do the items that are on this list. I usually try to build this list out on Monday mornings to be done for the whole week.

As I mentioned, the ‘should get done’ to-do list is my master list. As items are completed on my ‘need to get done’ list, new items from the ‘should get done’ list move up to become ‘need to get done’ items. For example, the once one step in a project is completed, the next step on that project moves from ‘should be done’ to ‘needs to be done.’ I go through this list on Monday mornings, again on Wednesday and then near the end of the day on Friday – making sure the right items are being promoted.

The ‘could get done’ to-do list, for me, is where I house all my ideas, brainstorms, brain dumps, and creative thoughts. Often it holds the overall vision of my business. Since I vision on my business a lot, a few times a week, actually, this to-do list tends to also become a development ground for ideas and new directions before it officially becomes a project. If you saw this list, it’s often mind maps, outlines and sketches.

The flow of all these to-do items is what keeps my to-do lists working for me. These days I seldom find myself in a situation where my to-do list is doing me. Instead, I get things done – in an orderly, efficient and effective way.

What do you do to get things done? Is there a method that you’ve found works best for you – if so, what? And where is the biggest gap in your to-do list system?

Let’s talk about it…

(note: image from alykat on Flickr)

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Comments

  1. Dawud, it’s uncanny how you came up with this post this morning when I was just looking at my own to-do list and getting overwhelmed by the second at bunch of tasks I needed to accomplish today. I’m glad that your own list is working for you and thanks for putting things into the proper perspective. Without putting a sense of order and priority into your list, one could end up getting swamped by it, accomplishing nothing significant at the end of the day. Thanks, Dawud.

  2. Charter Cable TV says:

    I certainly understand what you mean by lists getting in the way. Often times I spend so much time on creating and updating my to do list that I don’t actually do anything – But then again, there would be far more times when I wouldn’t know what to do without an ongoing reminder.

  3. I use GTD, or my version anyway, and I do a little check-up every 3-4 months as to how my workflow is doing. I wrote a post about it here http://hdbizblog.com/blog/2007/11/26/opening-the-bottlenecks-in-your-personal-workflow/

  4. I feel like I am beginning to really take control of my lists and tasks. It has taken patience and trying a variety of methods, but I do feel like I have just about found a system that is working for me. It is a combination of Highrise (by 37Signals), a white board at my desk, and a daily task schedule by hour.

  5. I do similar to-do lists, but in a less-organized fashion in a regualr old notebook. :D

    Works for me though. New day? New page. :) I also write down what I *did* do,.

  6. Mike,
    The only way I’ve found to be successful with to-do lists is the break them down. You?

    @Stephen,
    The check-up…that’s what I don’t do. Gonna start though. How do you do it?

    Char,
    Nice. What’s one thing you could do to be more effective with your to-do lists?

    Andrea_R,
    What do you do with all the pages if you don’t get some of the items done?

  7. For implementing GTD you might try out this web-based application:

    Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.

    Unlike other applications, it has prioritizing too, so you could mark your items as “What needs to get done”, “What should get done” and “What could get done”.

    As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between “Active”, “Someday/Maybe” and “Archive”. This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.

    Hope you like it.

  8. I’m using to do lists and I’m happy with it.. i STILL HAVE CONTROL though :)

  9. Wendy Piersall says:

    I seriously can’t function without a list. I need it to keep myself on track, with my ADD it’s one of the only consistent tools I have to keep myself focused long enough to get anything done! :)

  10. Charter Cable,
    How do you decide what’s the most important things to do on your to-do lists?

    Dan,
    Nice service. Will definitely take a look. Thanks.

    Are you using it exclusively?

    Handy,
    HOW are you using your lists?

  11. I find that after I have handled client work my personal projects to-do list just grows and grows, all I seem to get time for is my blog, and sometimes not even that when stuff hits the fan.

  12. Ah, to-do lists! I was struggling with those and came across Jott (http://snipurl.com/2cram) which turned out to be the best solution for me. Seems to work pretty nicely without having to always reach out for a pc or paper/pencil. you can voice schedule your tasks and have them sent as reminders on your mobile. Lately because of all the stress I even forgot I had jott account which is altogether a different matter but I’ll definitely using it today so thanks for the reminder :)

  13. To do lists are always helpful. I make a new one everyday. It helps me get things done. Also i like to use pen and paper when making these lists. I always find my computer desktop cluttered and seem to throw my lists away. Paper is harder to throw away because you know what your looking at. Great tips.

  14. Chris,
    They do just grow and grow. That’s the reason I segment mine. I keep the most important parts in front of me and allow the other to-do lists to hold space for other tasks.

    Wendy,
    Do you segment your lists in some way?

    Pearl,
    I still use paper and pencil. Though I’m switching, slowly, to Things (Mac only).

    Best,
    As I said above, I still use paper too. Sometimes you just can’t do better than paper and a good pen.

  15. Good tips. I see it’s about proritization. I like to keep my to-do-lists at a minimum. Say, 3 or 4 items at once. Otherwise, it really can get overwhelming! Then, perhaps, making a second list of the not so important items to put in a draw for next time can be done.

  16. Multi-tasking can do snarly things for a do-able to-do list. I use to-do lists to re-examine my priorities and come up with step-by-step plans.

    I also use to-do lists to sort out what’s bothering me and what I’m going to do about it. Those lists are arranged according to what’s in my control, out of my control, or could possibly be in my control with special effort.

    Nice post. :-)

  17. This is why I developed To Do Lists for different personalities in my first book. Not all to do lists are created equal! A Perfectionist definitely requires a different approach than an Allergic to Detail personality

  18. As a wahm to 7 kids, I operate on crisis mode. I make lists, but things get moved around constantly. At the end of every night, I wonder where all the time went…

    I need a nanny, a chef, a chauffer and a personal assistant….LOL!

    Great post as usual!

    :)

  19. travel,
    It can get overwhelming. But I deal with dozens of to-do’s at a time. I’ve found a good system allows you to manage more – easily and effectively.

    But what’s a good system?

    Elizabeth,
    Multi-tasking is dangerous if you want to get things done. I multi-task pretty well, yet I’ve clocked what I can get done when singularly focused versus multi-tasking. And there’s no comparison. I get much more done when I’m focused on one task at a time.

    I’d love to hear more about how you arrange your to-do lists based on what’s in your control. Any references?

    supermom_in_ny,
    My wife and I feel that way and we’ve only got three kids – albeit 4 and under (no twins).

    Do you manage to get anything from your lists done consistently? Do to-do lists help you?

    Sunny,
    Great point. Please put a link to your book up in the comments. If spam catches it, I’ll fish it out.

  20. Mari Adkins says:

    I use Remember the Milk for my to-do lists – like Outlook Calendar, it can send me reminder pings, and I’m able to e-mail myself notes. This works way better for me than Post-It Notes. :)

  21. David, I have a feeling that my to-do philosophy evolved with the help of Dale Carnegie (from a yellowing paperback read a zillion years ago) and something else that hit me like a ton of bricks almost 20 years back when my daughter was learning to walk: goals must be reachable and incremental. Without goals that are both reachable and incremental you have a setup for feeling and acting like a failure, no matter how awesome you truly are.

  22. The objective is not to do a lot of items. It’s to get big results. You always prioritize. Sometimes you need to do things that won’t give big results but fulfill promises or avoid crises. Whenever possible identify the big impact actions and do those. You don’t want to wait to do those till after your energy is spent on minor tasks. You have to consider energy also. You have time but you also have energy. You want to channel that energy for biggest impact. If an item has been on your list for a while you need to take an honest look at it: will you really do it? Do, delegate or dump holds true here as it does for your inbasket. These are my thoughts. Thanks for letting me comment.

  23. This is an interesting read. I remember when I was a lot younger, I used to obsess about making to-do lists but I always end up listing more than what I can handle. It’s just that one task branches out to more tasks and then I end up having something too big to handle.

    Now that I got a bit older and I’m now working, I keep a more functional and grounded to-do list. But I have a different list for the different aspects of my life. So at work, I have a separate list that takes care of all my duties for that particular day, that week and that month. When I’m at home though, I have a separate list of things to do. So I’d like to think I keep a healthy distinction between my work life and my home life. :)

  24. I find that no matter how many times I try to make to do lists, they never seem to work. After some advice from another Entrepreneur, I learned that as long as all Vital jobs are done each day, and you write down all ideas, you will be ok.

    Took me 3 years to resign myself to the fact that my brain just isnt meant to be controlled by to do lists. Would probably stop my creativity.

  25. I found that I always struggled with my to do lists in the past until I started to scrap them and make them way smaller.
    Kind of like one step at the time and never more than 4 major projects in any week. This tactic has helped me tremendously and since then I almost always get my to do lists done.

  26. Elizabeth,
    Without a doubt that’s true. Watching my kids is a great reminder of that. What do you do to break your goals into actionable steps?

    Rex,
    Without a doubt. The goal is to be as effective as you can with the time you have, right? How do you evaluate what’s important versus what’s tedious work?

    Sunny,
    Sure, any time.

    Mari,
    I know a lot of people who email themselves reminders. Ever take it a step further and use to-do software?

    Call,
    Sounds like it. What have you learnt the most in parsing out your lists?

    Monica,
    Interesting. I know what it’s like to create an endless list of tasks that never gets done. Can you share more about how you scrapped your old lists and made them smaller?

  27. Stuart,
    Fully understand. So what do you use to track your projects and tasks?

  28. The act of writing something down is very powerful. It sets an intention to accomplish and finishing. Finding the perfect to-do software or system can be challenging. I have tried several and can’t find one that does “everything” perfectly.

  29. I use GTD with a twist. I pick a things I want to get done tomorrow at the end of the day, and put as Outlook tasks.

    I manage GTD (including projects) using OneNote so creating Outlook tasks is very simple with shortcuts. OneNote has some great category feature that I use for context.

    Later I find this is exactly what’s recommended in Zen to Done.

  30. Mari Adkins says:

    I missed your response Dawud. Sorry about that. For a time, I used Stickies – they sit right on the computer desktop like a Post-It, but with the convenience of alarms and the ability to share via e-mail or over a network. But then I discovered Remember the Milk and AirSet – AirSet syncs beautifully, imho, with Outlook Calendar (and man others). I use RtM mostly for grocery/shopping lists, honestly. But AirSet is great for everything else – telephone calls, appointments, birthdays, trips, meetings, etc.

  31. I agree with Simon too.

    The physical act of writing them down gives me a bigger push that compels me to really do them. It’s also particularly delightful to cross out items from the to-do list. haha!

    @dawud
    As it turns out, my things to do don’t end up controlling my life. I have a specific time for everything and that prevents things from overlapping with each other. :)

  32. I think I had better to use a list after that.

    Do you recommend any “to do list” software or online service?

  33. Simon,
    Mac or PC?

    Hendry,
    Sounds like a great strategy. What do you do with any tasks that backup?

    Mari,
    No worries.

    I’ve looked at Remember the Milk – nice system. I think I tend to like the simple, 3-tier todo-list, myself.

    Call,
    Nice. I know so many people who do have their to-do lists controlling them. How did you find the system that works for you?

    hakan,
    Mac or PC?

    In general, find what works best with your brain and your workflow.

  34. Vintage Bicycles says:

    My today list is certainly overdoing me…

    Now what was I doing?

    Oh yeah.. I was supposed to leave half an hour ago… I think I am addicted to blogs. uhoh.

  35. Custom Metal Fabrication says:

    This may not be the best advice, but I always feel happy when I accomplish two or three items from my to-do list. Instead of stressing myself out to get everything done, I focus on getting just a couple items done, it helps my stress level a lot!

  36. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful and beneficial to your readers :)

  37. It helps me get things done. Also i like to use pen and paper when making these lists.I have to keep myself focused long enough to get anything done!

  38. I make lists all the time, but the never seem to get any shorter. In fact some of my “to-do” lists have entries like “go through the other to-do lists”! I just have so many! I think my productivity needs to be better.

  39. Thank you for all of the useful ideas about re-organizing and prioritizing. I have found that a daily, weekly monthly, yearly lists really help me to move along on a path where I want to end up down the road 5 years or 10 years from now. And it all starts with how the daily builds into the weekly into the monthly…

  40. Very useful and important strategy to apply in all aspects, I guess I’ll make this my new years resolution. Writing to-do lists and prioritizing and following up.

  41. I always start my day with a list to keep priorities in line, but often I’ll have to deviate due to new projects or other priority changes. This is where a boss comes in really handy.

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