When things get busy, do you feel like a slave to your to-do list? Are you ticking things off, but don’t feel like you are getting anywhere? Or maybe the list is so long you’ve ditched it completely?
I’ve been there and I’m happy to say it doesn’t have to be that way! You can master your to-do list and achieve more of what really matters – without the stress.
Out with the old
I’m what most people would describe as a busy mum (although I hate the b word ). I wear many hats and I love it. I care for my four-year-old and look after the household, I help my husband in his business, I work two days a week in adult education, I co-ordinate a charity craft group with over 300 members, I’m on the kindergarten fundraising committee and I write here at MoreTimeThanMoney.
If you think it could get kind of crazy at times – it does. This time last year, it had become kind of crazy all of the time. I was doing too much. Feeling completely overwhelmed, I pulled out of a fundraising project and ditched my to-do list. I took each day as it came and just did what I needed to get through. And the world didn’t end!
On reflection, I realised it wasn’t just how much I was doing, but how I was approaching it. My epic to-do list was at the heart of the problem. Crammed full of obligations reflecting others’ agendas, it was more of a wishlist than anything I could realistically achieve. Rather than bringing a sense of order, it put me in a spin. Any satisfaction I gained from ticking things off was eclipsed by the glaring list of things I’d failed to achieve. This needed to change.
Taking a new approach
As my life settled down, I found that a to-do list can be an effective tool for keeping calm when the pressure is on. The trick is to own your to-do list, rather than letting it own you. Through trial and error, I developed a strategy to craft to-do lists that work. It revolutionised the way I approach getting stuff done, saw me thorough the hectic holiday season and helps me maintain a slow mindset, even when I’m busy. Here’s how I do it.
Step 1 – Write a brain dump
This is the traditional to-list – write it ALL down. The purpose of this first list is to get all those must-do’s whirring around in your head down on the page. Save your energy for doing the tasks, rather than trying to remember them.
Step 2 – Reflect on why?
Just because you’ve written it down doesn’t mean you have to do it. You have a choice. This was probably the most revolutionary part for me – you have a choice. It’s your time, you decide how to use it. It’s time to make some decisions.
Reflect on each item that you listed in your brain dump. Ask yourself, “Why do I feel the need to do this now?”. Often there are items you feel you should do, but why? Is this thing something you want to devote your time and energy to? What’s the worst that could happen if you didn’t do it?
Step 3 – Distinguish what’s urgent from what’s important
This comes from the classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Urgent things are those that need attention now, important things are those you need to do to achieve your goals in the longer term.
Evaluate your brain dump. What’s important? What’s urgent? When you’re busy, you’re often focused on working through urgent stuff, and the important stuff gets neglected.
If you tick a lot off your list, but don’t feel like you are getting anywhere, look to prioritise some important stuff. If you can’t prioritise the important stuff right now, at least you can see the trade-off that you’re making.
Step 4 – Write your to-do
Now make your actual to-do list. I limit mine to the things that I am going to achieve that day. Three things is ideal, seven at most. Otherwise, the list starts to become overwhelming. I don’t include the things that have to happen everyday as part of life – making dinner, doing the laundry etc.. It’s tempting to add these things so you can tick them off – we’ve all done it! Try to resist and focus on the things you’ll get a lot of satisfaction from achieving that day.
I write my list in the order that I intend to tackle things. I consider the natural rhythm of my day (heavy brain work after dark does not work well for me, for example). Often I make more than one day’s list at once and co-ordinate over three to five days. If I’m unable to do something today, safely scheduling it later in the week means I can stop thinking about it and focus on today’s tasks. Another technique I use is to split the day into zones – morning, afternoon, evening – each with its own mini list. This also helps me to stay focused, while preventing me from feeling overwhelmed by all I have to do.
Step 5 – Let it go
Between Steps 1 and 4 need to let some stuff go. At first this can be difficult, but with practice at Step 2 you will become better at distinguishing the should-d0’s from the must-do’s, as well as identifying and making space for what is important.
Remember, there is no perfect. Good enough is just great.
What’s your approach to to-do lists?