Ask yourself this: if you’ve ever made a to-do list with priorities on it (for example, A, B and C priorities), did you manage to get to the ‘C’ listed items before more ‘A’ grade opportunities or potential disasters presented themselves?
Of course you didn’t.
And if you did get to those ‘C’ listed items, chances are you got to them because they suddenly started to rise up the ranks, becoming the more urgent ‘A’ and ‘B’ items because they were previously left unattended.
The problem is, a standard to-do list just isn’t enough to give us the agility to manage the various levels of complexity we encounter in our knowledge work – from immediate actions through to those things we could be doing, through to the wider, project-level tasks.
In fact, one of the reasons our standard to-do lists don’t work is that they’re often trying to do what we will separate here three different lists – and they’re failing at all three.
Master Actions List
Daily To-Do List
The Projects List
We’re going to use a single ‘Projects List’ to keep track of all the projects we’re working on. I would define a project as a collection of actions that is designed to achieve a particular aim, e.g. buying a phone – which involves visiting a phone shop, assessing current usage, reading reviews etc.
Therefore, a project is any piece of work that either requires more than a couple of action steps to complete. Even with only a couple of action steps, if the desired final outcome will take more than one week to achieve, I would still classify this as a project.
One of the problems we often face with the standard to-do list is the fact that, with only one list there is no sense of scale. We therefore mix the tiniest of actions with the largest of projects, all on one list, and then wonder why we feel overwhelmed!
Your Projects List is really just a checklist of all the current projects you’re working on – it doesn’t need to be hugely detailed. Its function is primarily to ensure that you have some focus at a more strategic level at least once a week.
The Master Actions List
The largest, most important, most dynamically changing and most used list is your ‘Master Actions List’.
It contains every single action you could currently do, for each and every project. We’re only interested in the things that could be done right now, so there’s no need to track future items that are dependent on the outcomes of more immediate things.
The language of the Master Actions List is deliberately designed to encourage action rather than the need for more thinking. So, instead of “call Chris”, try “Call Chris with latest sales figures before next Mondays meeting”. You need a Master Actions List filled with the thing you can actually do when you next have some time, so that you can make the most informed choice when that time arises.
What you don’t want on your Master Actions List are a whole bunch of actions that are either not actions at all (because you haven’t yet defined them properly!) or that you can’t do next because there are interdependencies i.e. waiting for confirmation back from someone before doing that action.
The Daily To-Do List
It’s useful to have a plan at the start of every day. With the Master Actions List to scan, you can make some much clearer and cleverer decisions about where to put your limited time and even more limited attention. Think of the Master Actions List as a wardrobe full of clothes, and the Daily To-Do list as the clothes you want to wear today.
My Daily To-Do List is usually a Post-it note but you could underline or highlight certain items on your Master Actions List, or marking them as “high priority” if you are using a digital list.
This small step, practiced at the start of every day, will increase your focus and help you say “No” to a myriad of distractions that are just about to come your way!
Be warned though – at the start of the day, when you’re feeling fresh, it’s all too easy to start the day with a great plan and great motivation, only for that to be destroyed by 11am as other more urgent tasks come along. Under such circumstances, how do you imagine you’ll feel at 5pm when you look at that Daily To-Do List again, into which you haven’t made a single dent?
The key is to be sensible – presume things will come up and make your Daily To-Do List practical and achievable.
With your three levels of lists, the Projects List, Master Actions List and a Daily To-Do List, you’re well on your way to having everything you need to be more productive!
This is the sixth article in a continuing series about how to be a productivity ninja. (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6)