To-do lists: regain control

We suggest a few easy steps...

to-do-list

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US as well as author, politician, freemason, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat – a busy man – was also a great proponent of the to-do list. He famously detailed a 13-week plan to practise important virtues such as cleanliness, temperance, tracking his progress on a chart.

As such, using to-do lists in a business environment to improve productivity by looking at what tasks you need to do and ticking them off accordingly, ought to be relatively simple. But often, to-do lists become part of the workload themselves. They grow exponentially and become unmanageable, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and ineffectual. Often they are crammed full of absolutely everything that is sent our way, whether the task is actually within our remit or not.

By tailoring your to-do lists with a few easy steps, you can stop the rot and regain control.

1. Write it the night before

Depending on the nature of your work, you may wish to make a to-do list for a single day, or a whole week. Whichever suits your working life best, it’s important to write it the night before you start. Better to wake up with a list in front of you than a blank piece of paper/document/spreadsheet. It shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes and will allow you to hit the ground running in the morning.

2. Start your tasks with an actionable verb

And not just ones like ‘reach out’, ‘explore’, ‘plan’, or ‘touch-base’. Use precise language and unambiguous verbs.

  • Text Sandip about lunchtime meeting
  • Email client about query


When you read your task, there should be no ambiguity on what you should be doing, so cut out the corporate management speak.

3. Justify each task on the list

With each point, ask yourself: why am I adding this? If you don’t plan to act on it, remove it. Secondly: ‘Is it my task?’ If something has been thrown your way but shouldn’t be there, it’s time to delegate or outsource it. Finally, rank your tasks. You have to know which tasks are more important so you can focus on them. And prioritise those that are important, not just urgent.

4. Assign time estimates

Not all tasks take the same amount of time. By adding an estimation to your tasks you will see if a task is too big to handle or whether you need to review other tasks in order to manage your time effectively. The key word here is estimate. It is impossible to know exactly how long a single task will take and you will be setting yourself up for feeling as though you have failed if you predict too rigidly and then miss your deadline. Be realistic.

5. Review your to-do list

Whether it’s daily or weekly, it’s critical to review your to-do list to make sure that everything is progressing as it should be. Much like the creation of the list itself, it should take more than a few minutes and will help you adjust and tweak to make sure the next one you do will be even more streamlined and effective.