The best single time management tool is a to-do list. It is a simple but powerful tool, easy to understand and maintain. In one place all of the jobs you have to do, lined up and waiting action, prioritized in order of importance. Well, in theory that is how a to-do list should operate. In reality, we all tend to use our to-do lists in a hit or miss fashion. Yet, we also know how effective a well maintained to-do list can be – so perhaps a short review of how to keep one is in order.
A good to-do list assists you to remember all of the tasks you have at hand. When under pressure, we tend to focus on a few items at the expense of others and may actually forget important jobs. A to-do lists allows us to tackle important tasks first, without losing track of the need to complete other items. The to-do lists also functions as an activity journal – an important tool helping to determine how wisely you are spending your time.
Time management guru David Allen in 2002 authored the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It’s still a good read and I recommend it to each one of you that feels a bit overwhelmed at work. You can also review Allen’s blog and website at http://www.gtdtimes.com/.
Allen’s time management method is simple and intuitive: get those “things to do” out of your head and record them in some reliable fashion externally. Then you can concentrate on actually doing what needs to be done rather than on remembering what needs to be done.
From my own reading, Allen’s most important tip is equally simple. Don’t write your “To Do’s” as a simple description of the task, include the action you must take. For example “Make Dr. Appointment” becomes “Call Dr. Mendoza 850-566-5555.”
The most efficient people I have ever known all maintained to-do lists. Some kept their list on a sheet of paper, some in a day-planner and others electronically. Many kept a running journal, transferring unfinished lists each day to a new entry. In every case, however, the list was an actual list – written down, prioritized and completed tasks noted. Some of the most fastidious to-do list masters would even complete a task not on the list, write it down after completion and then immediately scratch it out. The effect was psychological (one more accomplishment) and also had the effect of creating a journal of when a task was accomplished.
Begin by writing down all of the tasks you have in front of you. Make the items you list specific action items. For example “plan a cruise night” is not as specific as “Find rental space” and “gather invitation list”. If some tasks are very large, break them down into smaller units. Place a completion date next to each task. Now, prioritize your list from 1-5 with 1 being the most important and 5 the least. Re-write the list in priority order. Important tasks that are not due immediately might deserve some additional consideration – doing a small amount of research or study now can take the task down to size closer to its due date. If your list is too long, break it up into immediate tasks and those that are due much later. A to-do list that overwhelms you will not be as good a friend as one that assist you in getting work completed.
Focus on a task, finish it and scratch it off the list. Move to the next priority. The very act of maintaining a list and scratching an item off as completed will often bring a feeling of being in control of your time.
Need some assistance? Here are a couple of templates. There are also great programs available on smart phones. Find the one that works best for you and use it. You might just find yourself in charge of your time again!