I was in the office of a member of my doctoral committee one day when I noticed tacked up on a wall next to each other were two to do lists. One was dated 2004, and the other was dated 2005. It was December 2010. Even sadder, not everything on the lists had been completed.
To do lists are a simple thing. You list all the work, activities, and/or projects you need to complete within a certain period of time on a piece of paper and then proceed to do each thing. The vast majority of people get this all wrong. They make a giant sprawling list or have several giant sprawling lists with anything and everything written on them. Take out the garbage is right next to complete and submit tenure portfolio. The lists have no order, no dates, and no hope of being completed.
And do not even get me started about people who write down random things on Post-it Notes.
Let’s get our to do lists organized so you know what important, meaningful work you need to do.
What’s Important, What’s Not
Not everything on your to do list is created equal. Some tasks are more important than others and should be prioritized that way. In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey lays out a strategy for prioritizing your schedule and to do list. He creates four quadrants on a piece of paper. One quadrant is “Important & Urgent”; another quadrant is “Important, Not Urgent”; a third quadrant is “Urgent, Not Important”; and the final quadrant is “Not Important, Not Urgent.” The tasks listed in the first two quadrants – Important & Urgent and Important Not Urgent – should get the highest priorities. The “Important, Not Urgent” is the one that usually gets neglected. A lot times this includes research and writing that has no deadline. Make sure to prioritize these tasks and work on them every day. The other quadrants should either be delegated (Urgent, Not Important) or deleted (Not Urgent, Not Important). If you cannot delegate the Urgent, Not Important items, then do them when you can after you have completed your important work.
Take some time to categorize the tasks on your to do list. This will allow you the opportunity to think about what is the most important work to do, what can be delegated, and what does not need to be done.
Here is an example of Covey’s list.
Now that you have categorized and prioritized your work, you need to create a projects list. This is a list of all the projects that are important and meaningful for you. David Allen’s Getting Things Done has a cult like following, and he is a big believer in project lists. He divides the list into three areas: Current Projects, Waiting on a Response, and Future Projects. Waiting on a Response is one that folks often overlook. Projects can be delayed months because an e-mail went unanswered, and the project coordinator forgot about it. This allows you to stay on top of all the things you are waiting for from other people.
I divided my projects list even further into the three areas of my job: Professional Responsibilities, Research, and Service.
Another point Allen drives home about lists is that people often just put a big project on the list – Research and Write Article on Productivity – and neglect to list all the steps involved in the project. This means when you go to work on the project you will have no idea where to start and will get very little done. Instead, you need to list all the steps of the project along with due dates. Now, you can do this in your project list, or you can use another file – like a task manager – to do this.
I use Evernote to to list my projects and Trello to list all the steps of the project and their due dates. I paste a link to the project’s Trello board in my Evernote list. This makes it easy to track my progress on a project.
Here is an example of what Allen’s list looks like. I have three of these tables, one for each part of my job, all in one note.
Finally, you want to make sure you know what you have to do on a given day. I keep my to do lists short by only listing the one or two big things I want to do that day. I work on those first, and when I am done I look at my projects list and see what else there is to do.
Here is my Weekly Template.
This will take a little time to get set up and running, but once you do it is easy to keep up with using just a few simple steps.
- When you have a new project, first decide in which of the four quadrants it goes. If possible, only select projects that fall into those first two quadrants.
- Place the project on your projects list with a due date and either list the steps of the project on that list or on a task manager.
- Start working on the project by completing steps on a daily or semi-daily basis.
- Complete a meaningful project. Move on to the next meaningful project. Be productive. Fell fulfilled. Go home and bask in your awesomeness.