15 Tips to Conquer Your To Do List (Part 1)
Now that the presents have been unwrapped and the halls have been undecked, it’s back to the daily grind. And while you’d love to feel energized and excited about jumping into 2012, instead you’re weighed down with dread. You know the second you step foot in your office you’ll be hit with 20+ tasks to add to your to-do list and an inbox full of e-mails begging for an immediate response. You’ll start January 2 feeling overwhelmed and incapable of getting everything done—and 2012 will become another year of wishing things were different.
It’s true, says Jason Womack: For too many of us, feeling anxious and overwhelmed has become the new normal. But 2012 can be the year you finally get a handle on your to-do list and start working—and living—at your best.
“Most of your dread doesn’t come from the work itself—it comes from how you think about the work,” says Womack, a workplace performance expert, executive coach, and author of the new book Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley, February 2012, ISBN: 978-1-118-12198-6, $24.95). “The psychological weight of unfinished tasks and unmade decisions is huge. There is a constant feeling of pressure to do more with less. You can’t change that reality…but you can make peace with it.”
Womack’s book is packed with strategies, tactics, tools, and processes to help readers consistently and incrementally improve their performance at work. It teaches the fundamentals of workflow and human performance and spells out how to get more done, on time, with fewer resources, and with less stress. But more than that, it provides brilliant insights into why we tend to do what we’ve always done—and how we can break out of the patterns that hold us back.
“The first step to changing the way you get things done is to accept that you’re never going to get it all done,” says Womack. “You’ll always be updating your to-do list by crossing off completed tasks and adding new ones…and that’s okay. When you improve the way you approach the things you need to get done, both on the job and off, you’ll stop wishing things were different and start really making new things possible.”
Read on to learn more about the essential good habits you can create in 2012 and make it your most productive year yet.
Purge and unsubscribe. When Womack suggests reducing your psychological burden, in some cases that means reducing your literal burden. Start 2012 by deleting and recycling to make room for the “new” of the new year. Too many people let a backlog (paper AND digital information) pile up over the last six weeks of the year.
“Get rid of everything you can and reduce what might be coming in,” advises Womack. “Unsubscribe from e-mail newsletters, magazines, book-of-the-month clubs, perhaps even the ad-hoc committees you’ve joined recently. Try the ‘unsubscription’ for three months; at the end of those 12 weeks, you can re-up if you want to!”
Block out your time and prioritize. Ask yourself this: How much time do I really spend each day clicking through e-mails and making my to-do list? The answer is probably a lot. When you spend your day making giant to-do lists or flagging “urgent” e-mails, you’ll never get any real work done. Instead look at your day and figure out where you have blocks of time to really focus and engage on what needs to be done.
Time blocking and prioritization are two important keys to daily productivity, says Womack. Look at your to-do list, figure out where you have blocks of time to act on those items, and then prioritize. “I keep my defined ‘work’ actions to 15 to 30 minutes each,” he says. “These are the ‘chunks’ of time I can use to stay focused, minimize interruptions, and work effectively.”
On that first day back after vacation, you might also designate specific “Interrupt Me” times during the day for the first couple of weeks of the year. This lets people know that you’ll be working “head down” for larger blocks of the day and encourages them to “think-bunch-interrupt” so you get more done at once, instead of getting interrupted multiple times per day.
Change how you manage e-mail. The moment you click on your inbox, your focus goes and your stress grows, as you proceed to delete, respond, forward, and file the messages you find there. You see names and subject lines and suddenly your mind starts racing; all you can think of are the latest projects, the “loudest” issues, and the high-priority work that shows up. If you’re not careful, all you’ll do all day is manage your e-mail.
Rather than simply flag e-mails that require action, use the subject lines to catalog and organize them, suggests Womack. For example, you might put “Follow-up Call” in the subject line of an e-mail about a meeting you just had with a client. Also, don’t look at your e-mail unless you have a block of time to devote to prioritizing them and responding to them. When you are going through your e-mail, use subject lines to catalog them and organize them so that you’ll easily be able to go back to less urgent e-mails later on.
Take technology shortcuts. Womack writes about a client of his who easily wasted over three hours a week organizing her e-mails into the 300+ folders she had down the left-hand column of her Microsoft Outlook. And those three hours didn’t include the time she knew she’d have to spend catching up—putting most of her 7,000 inbox e-mails in those folders! Womack shared with his client a few specific features (rules and search folders) of Microsoft Outlook that would enable her to cut down considerably the time she spent organizing her e-mails.
“My client now spends less than an hour a week filing her messages,” says Womack. “And while an e-mail system is what worked for her, practically every kind of software you use daily has tricks and shortcuts that once implemented could save you a lot of time. Sit down with those who can teach you more about these systems. The more you fully understand the tools you use the easier it will be to learn even more about their features and how to use them to your advantage.”
Break inertia. Ever watch a freight train start to move? That first forward jolt takes the most energy; keeping the train rolling is much easier. Do some small things to get rolling on getting caught up at the beginning of the year. Then pace yourself. You’ll probably find it’s much easier to keep rolling along at a comfortable clip.
“We build up such a sense of dread that what we have to do seems insurmountable,” explains Womack. “Once you get started with something small and manageable, you almost always realize ‘Hey, this isn’t so tough after all.’ And soon you find that you’re making real progress—and it feels good.”
Tomorrow: 5 more tips to conquer your To-Do List
About the Book: Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley, February 2012, ISBN: 978-1-118-12198-6, $24.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.
About the Author: Jason W. Womack, MEd, MA, provides practical methods to maximize tools, systems, and processes to achieve quality work/life balance. He has worked with leaders and executives for over 16 years in the business and education sectors. His focus is on creating ideas that matter and implementing solutions that are valuable to organizations and the individuals in those organizations.