In a world that idolises multi-tasking, I prefer focussing on one activity at a time. When you direct all your attention towards one goal at a time, the quality of work is remarkable. We are well aware of giving our undivided attention to one goal at a time, but life happens. You worry about the pending work from what you did 2 hours ago. Or you worry that you may forget something you’d planned to do in 3 hours. There is an emergency, one task overflows the time allocated to it and you end up not doing anything else on your list. You get the drift.
This is why I like to plan my day. I spend 15 minutes at the end of the day thinking of what I need to do the next day and add it to my To-do list. I take this seriously so that once I decide what to do, I don’t have to worry about it again, mostly. The thinking and the decision making is done, and all that is left is to get to work. Mind you, I’ve seen days where everything is a mess, but I like to work off a plan rather than starting with a blank slate.
Based on years of reading about productivity and using To-do lists, here are a few pointers that worked for me.
Sounds simple? It actually is! This is the most common mistake people make. When you read what’s on your list, you should know what exactly you have to do. You should have a specific call to action. If you don’t know what the task involves, add a task for research (spike as we call it in Jira) and then add a task to implement it. (If you have to apply for a visa, you might want to read about the process and do some prep before you can get to the work). This way you are clear about the outcome expected of the task. If your tasks are vague or you have to think about what to do after putting it down on your list, chances are you might put it off for later. This is not the time for thinking. It’s the time for action.
Find your magic number.
This is the number of tasks you can finish on an average day. The number should be proportionate to the time you have for yourself in a day. We underestimate the time it takes to complete a task and overestimate our ability to get everything done. So, find that sweet balance that is neither too easy but nor too challenging. I keep my work and life lists separate. I use a habit tracker for my routines. So between the 1 hour before work and the few hours after work and my routines, I’ve realized that 3 is my magic number. Yes, there are days I’ve not got anything done and days where I’ve done more. Remember to be consistent. Think of this as a guideline for you to plan your day than a strict rule.
Add a ‘To-do Later’ section
While I restrict my To-do Today list to 3 items, anything else that pops into my mind goes to my To-do later section of my list. This works like a backlog,(like Jira) from where I pick up tasks for my next day. Ideas and reminders come to me in the most random places and times. My biggest fear is forgetting them, especially if I do not have to do it immediately. I write down everything I want to do in this section, with an approximate date. It frees up my mind from the unnecessary trouble of having to remember a lot of unrelated events. It gives me an idea of what’s in store for the future and a sense of peace that I have a place to record all these tasks that randomly pop up in my mind.
Add a ‘To-Follow Up’ section
If you have a list of tasks to do and a list of tasks that you’ve completed, you will notice that certain tasks don’t fit either of the lists. If you’ve done your part and are waiting on someone else to work on it before it can be closed, it might be annoying if things are sitting on your list forever. These are technically not things you have to do, but it might end up staying rent-free on your list because someone else is involved and you need to keep track. To track all these pending tasks (with others), I have a section dedicated to follow-ups. Anything which I have to regularly keep checking goes on this list. It clears up the time to focus on things that are in my control, while still helping me keep track of things I’m waiting on. I place this right after my To-do today section and before my To-do later list so that I can always see what’s pending.
Clean your list regularly
You can kill your darlings. Mercilessly. If you want to do the most important things for your life, you should not only prioritise the things to do but also stay away from things you don’t have to do. The availability of To-Do later lists might be tempting to add anything and everything that crosses your mind. But over time some of them might lose their importance. It becomes a distraction or you might forget the context behind why you thought something was important. The more you prune your lists, the more you spend time on work that is significant. The less you spend time on something that does not add value to you.
Being organized is not about trying to control every aspect of your life. It’s planning those aspects of life within your control. While I may not cross all items on my To-do list every day, it gives me a structure for my day. It helps me focus on my priorities rather than trying to deal with things as and when they happen (which sometimes is a better way). It helps me manage my time better and reduces the number of decisions I have to make every day. All this is possible because words tend to become powerful when you write them down. Trust me, it’s changed my life!