3 Tips to Make Your To-Do-List Your Real Priorities

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By Shani Harmon and Renee Cullinan

Have you ever written down a to-do item that you have already completed, just for the pleasure of crossing it off? Or found yourself breaking down action items into smaller and smaller components, just to guarantee the joy of marking them done? These habits are harmless enough until they begin obscuring the big picture and causing you to lose sight of the real priorities.

Competition for your time is fierce. Executives receive an average of 121 emails in a typical workday, and they spend the equivalent of two full days in meetings each week.  Many find themselves at the end of the week wondering “where did the time go?” and stressing over the work they never found time to address. Sunday as a day of rest has been replaced with Sunday as the catch up day and over 76% of us report having “really bad Sunday night blues.”

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Is it even possible to get all of your work done (and done well!) and still have a life?

Nope. It’s not. But fortunately, there are probably a lot of things on your list that really don’t matter. If you left them there for a couple of weeks and did nothing, when you looked back, you would realize that there was no negative impact of leaving them undone. Our To Do lists typically are a laundry list of things we could do, but are not necessarily the most essential. And given how fast things change, chances are there are recurring actions on your list that used to be critically important but no longer matter.

Here’s How To Whittle Your To Do List Down To Your Real Priorities:

  • Start by asking: “What is the big goal with this project, idea or team and what are the key progress markers en route to achieving it?” For example, if the desired result is “Bring a disruptive innovation to the market within the next 12 months,” interim milestones might include completion of the prototype and approval of the pricing strategy. Next, break each milestone into the set of action items required to achieve it.
  • For each of the action items, explore whether or not this work might have already been done elsewhere in your organization. Over and over again, we see leaders launch new initiatives without ever checking to see whether someone else has already done it – a huge waste of time and resources.
  • Then, for the remaining items ask yourself “What is the work here that only I can do?” Leaders often involve themselves in too much of a project because they are unsure of the capabilities of their team or simply not good at delegation. Challenge yourself to assign at least 25% of the items to your direct reports rather than keeping them on your own list. (But first ask them to apply this process to their own list so they’ll have the whitespace to take on the new work.)

By now, you should be down to the truly essential items.

Focus On What Really Matters

The next challenge is managing your time to ensure it doesn’t get swept away from you by the allure of the immediate. Start your day by asking yourself “What is the one thing I can do today that will meaningfully advance me towards the big goal?” Make appointments with yourself in the calendar and label them with the work that you’ll complete during those windows.

Research has shown that working in time blocks of about an hour with a scheduled break afterwards drives the best performance. Lining up those windows of time with your optimal energy gives you an even greater chance of success. If you’re a morning person, knock out a tough problem first thing. Push meetings later in the day and cluster them (with 15 minute breaks in between) so that you’re not trying to cram other tasks in around them.

Protect yourself from distractions during those critical working times by turning off email and social media. Role modelling this for your team can help them manage their own time more effectively and break free from the trap of constantly monitoring and answering email.

By focusing on the work that really matters and slimming down your To Dos, you may actually be able to work less while having much more impact. Try it and see whether that shift gets you closer to a more sustainable work life.

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