Four tick boxes of differing sizes on a white background.

Massive “to do” list? Here’s how to get control.

If you have more than six things to do (that’s the limit of most people’s short term memory), you’re going to need a to do list.

Simply getting the list written down helps you to quantify and establish what you need to do. You should be wary of doing any work that is not on your to do list. I only work on ad hoc tasks once I’ve put them on my list, that way I get a warm feeling when I tick them off and I have a record of the tasks I’ve been working on. It’s all about having a basic level of control. You may find that you task list runs to several pages. If it does, don’t worry, we’re all busy; the important thing is that you now have a list.

The next step in taming your list is to divide your tasks into four categories; here’s how. Take a piece of paper and divide it into four quarters.

You should set up your categories as follows;

Urgent / Important

This is the top category and goes in the top left hand quarter. Items in this category are important, in that they contribute directly to your job or goals. They are defined as urgent as, if neglected, it will be of detriment to your job or goals.

Less Urgent / Important

Items in this category are important, in that they contribute directly to your job or goals. These tasks go in the top right hand quarter. However, they may relate to tasks that have to be completed at some stage in the future so you may have the luxury of deciding when you work on them.

Urgent / Less Important

Items in this category are not that important, but are urgent; these tasks go in the bottom left quarter. Perhaps an email that, whilst not important for your project, has been chased up and you really should respond in order to help someone else out. You may not be surprised to find that a lot of emails from your boss tend to fall into this category!

Less Urgent / Less Important

Items in this category are neither important or urgent and go in the bottom right hand quarter. If you are busy with the other categories, you will find that items on this list rarely get done. I find that my Less Urgent / Less Important list sits neglected for weeks at a time and every now and again I review the list and find that a number of these items will have been overtaken by events and can simply be taken off the list without any work. There is nothing that will save you more time than not doing a task!

A Post-It note divided with lines into quarters and then labelled in terms of relative importance.

Once you’ve set up your to do list in the manner I’ve suggested, you can then simply work on your tasks in category order, starting at the top left, then top right, then bottom left and bottom right. Yes, you should be dealing with Less Urgent/Important tasks above Urgent/Less Important tasks; this is how you avoid fire-fighting and invest time in things that really matter.

If you work on your tasks in that order, you should find that the number of tasks you are working on in the Urgent/Important category should reduce as you get control of your task list. In fact, you should find that you start to work more on the Less Urgent / Important tasks as you move off the back foot and start to work on planned tasks rather than ad hoc fire-fighting tasks.

Once you have your tasks list and categorised, the next step is to look at what you have to do each day. The key trick to making progress is to GET ON WITH IT, it is just too easy to sit on a task and not try to make progress.

Either last thing at night or first thing in the morning, you should look, using the categories detailed above and select the most important tasks that you think, given a good run, you should be able to get through in a single day. Don’t worry too much about estimating how much work you can get through in a day, after all, you can always go back to your main list and select more tasks or carry tasks over to the next day. I guarantee that you will tend to carry tasks more often than you go and get more from your list! We are all optimists and tend to underestimate the scale of any given task.

The act of preparing a shortlist (I scribble it on a scrap of paper and keep it in my top pocket) is that it sets you a target that you feel obligated to try and achieve. Simply having a small, supposedly achievable, list gives you two things. Firstly, you feel that you have made a promise to yourself earlier in the day to try and finish those tasks and secondly, if you find yourself wondering what to do next, you have a ready made list of the important tasks to hand and are less likely to procrastinate.

A daily task list helps you to consciously avoid working on tasks that are not on the list, whilst prioritising those that are. Just the fact that your tasks are readily available to read makes it more likely that you will work on those things over the other things that may be jockeying for your attention.

Avoid the temptation to keep a couple of long term tasks on the “back burner” to work on as and when you get time; either the task is important or it isn’t!

If a task is important and has any kind of complexity to it, you must allocate time to doing it. It is easy to think that you can complete a large task by working on it in your “spare time”, however, you would be wrong.

If it needs doing, capture it, categorise it, prioritise it and do it!

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I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.

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Chris Stevenson

Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.

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