To-Do Lists

The Key to Efficiency

Do you often feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, or do you find yourself missing deadlines? Or do you sometimes just forget to do something important, so that people have to chase you to get work done?

All of these are symptoms of not keeping a proper “To-Do List.”

To-Do Lists are prioritized lists of all the tasks that you need to carry out. They list everything that you have to do, with the most important tasks at the top of the list, and the least important tasks at the bottom.

By keeping a To-Do Lists, you make sure that your tasks are written down all in one place so you don’t forget anything important. And by prioritizing tasks, you plan the order in which you’ll do them, so that you can tell what needs your immediate attention, and what you can leave until later.

To-Do Lists are essential if you’re going to beat work overload.

When you don’t use To-Do Lists effectively, you’ll appear unfocused and unreliable to the people around you. When you do use them effectively, you’ll be much better organized, and you’ll be much more reliable. You’ll experience less stress, safe in the knowledge that you haven’t forgotten anything important. More than this, if you prioritize intelligently, you’ll focus your time and energy on high value activities, which will mean that you’re more productive, and more valuable to your team.

Keeping a properly structured and thought-out To-Do Lists sounds simple enough.

But it can be surprising how many people fail to use To-Do Lists at all, never mind use them effectively. In fact, it’s often when people start to use To-Do Lists effectively and sensibly that they make their first personal productivity breakthroughs, and start making a success of their careers.

Preparing a To-Do List

To start preparing your To-Do List, download our To-Do List template. (Writing your list down on paper or putting it into a document is the simplest and easiest way to start using To-Do Lists.) Then follow these steps:

Step 1:

Write down all of the tasks that you need to complete. If they’re large tasks, break out the first action step, and write this down with the larger task. (Ideally, tasks or action steps should take no longer than 1-2 hours to complete.)

Note: You may find it easier to compile several lists (personal, study, workplace To-Do Lists, for example). Try different approaches and use the best for your own situation.

Step 2:

Run through these tasks allocating priorities from A (very important, or very urgent) to F (unimportant, or not at all urgent).

If too many tasks have a high priority, run through the list again and demote the less important ones. Once you have done this, rewrite the list in priority order.

Using Your To-Do Lists

To use your To-Do List, simply work your way through it in order, dealing with the A priority tasks first, then the Bs, then the Cs, and so on. As you complete tasks, tick them off or strike them through.

You can use To-Do Lists in different ways in different situations. For instance, if you’re in a sales-type role, a good way to motivate yourself is to keep your To-Do List relatively short, and aim to complete it every day.

If you’re in an operational role, or if tasks are large or dependent on too many other people, then it may be better to focus on a longer-term list, and “chip away” at it day-by-day.

Many people find it helpful to spend, say, 10 minutes at the end of the day, organizing tasks on their To-Do List for the next day.

Using Software

Although using a paper list is an easy way to get started using To-Do Lists, software-based approaches can be more efficient in spite of the learning curve. These can remind you of events or tasks that will soon be overdue, they can also be synchronized with your phone or email, and they can be shared with others on your team, if you’re collaborating on a project.

There are many time management software programs available. At a simple level, you can us Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel to manage your To-Do Lists. Some versions of Microsoft Outlook, and other email services such as Gmail, have task lists and To-Do Lists as standard features. Remember the Milk is another popular online task management tool that will sync with your smartphone, PDA, or email account. It can even show you where your To-Do List tasks are on a map. Other similar services include Todoist and Toodledo.

One of the biggest advantages to using a software-based approach to manage your To-Do List is that you can update it easily. For example, instead of scratching off tasks and rewriting the list every day, software allows you to move and prioritize tasks quickly.

Tip: All of us think, plan and work differently. A program that works well for a colleague might not work well for you simply because you learn and think in your own way. This is why it’s useful to research and try several different ways of compiling your To-Do List before deciding on a single system.

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming combines a relaxed, informal approach to problem-solving with lateral thinking. It asks that people come up with ideas and thoughts that can at first seem to be a bit crazy. The idea here is that some of these ideas can be crafted into original, creative solutions to the problem you’re trying to solve, while others can spark still more ideas. This approach aims to get people unstuck, by “jolting” them out of their normal ways of thinking.

During brainstorming sessions there should be no criticism of ideas: You are trying to open up possibilities and break down wrong assumptions about the limits of the problem. Judgments and analysis at this stage stunt idea generation. Ideas should only be evaluated at the end of the brainstorming session – this is the time to explore solutions further using conventional approaches.

Individual Brainstorming

While group brainstorming is often more effective at generating ideas than normal group problem-solving, study after study has shown that when individuals brainstorm on their own, they come up with more ideas (and often better quality ideas) than groups of people who brainstorm together.

Partly this occurs because, in groups, people aren’t always strict in following the rules of brainstorming, and bad group behaviors creep in. Mostly, though, this occurs because people are paying so much attention to other people’s ideas that they’re not generating ideas of their own – or they’re forgetting these ideas while they wait for their turn to speak. This is called “blocking”.

When you brainstorm on your own, you’ll tend to produce a wider range of ideas than with group brainstorming – you do not have to worry about other people’s egos or opinions, and can therefore be more freely creative. For example, you might find that an idea you’d be hesitant to bring up in a group session develops into something quite special when you explore it with individual brainstorming. Nor do you have to wait for others to stop speaking before you contribute your own ideas.

You may not, however, develop ideas as fully when you brainstorm on your own, as you do not have the wider experience of other members of a group to help you.

Group Brainstorming

When it works, group brainstorming can be very effective for bringing the full experience and creativity of all members of the group to bear on an issue. When individual group members get stuck with an idea, another member’s creativity and experience can take the idea to the next stage. Group brainstorming is can therefore develop ideas in more depth than individual brainstorming.

Another advantage of group brainstorming is that it helps everyone involved to feel that they’ve contributed to the end solution, and it reminds people that other people have creative ideas to offer. What’s more, brainstorming is fun, and it can be great for team-building!

Brainstorming in a group can be risky for individuals. Valuable but strange suggestions may appear stupid at first sight. Because of this, you need to chair sessions tightly so that ideas are not crushed, and so that the usual issues with group problem-solving don’t stifle creativity.

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