Taming Your To Do List (or…How Do You Eat an Elephant?)

There’s an elephant in the room. If you’re like me, it’s sitting just to your right as you read this. It’s big, it’s cumbersome, and it likes to stick its long trunk into everything you do all day long.

It’s your TO DO list.

I recently wrote an article about how I organize and prioritize my to do list to keep me on track and make sure the most important stuff (read: revenue generating) gets done in a timely manner. I even shared a picture of my four-part list broken into revenue generating/urgent, immediate, and low-value quadrants.  All very good.

But, what happens when you’ve organized and prioritized and the list is still GARGANTUAN (ha! 2 points!). When the number of tasks in front of you is overwhelming and confusing, no matter how neatly you’ve wrangled it into one of four corners?

There’s an old kids’ joke that goes “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”.

That’s my best advice to you.  When that elephant in the room gets to be too big to ignore, start chewing.

Here are my five best tips for noshing on that pachyderm.

  • Plan your days: Before I leave my desk at night, I write down the top three revenue generating tasks for the following day. I also note three things I need to get done to keep my business running smoothly, any meetings I have scheduled, and any calls that need to be made. This serves two purposes.  First, it allows me to disengage from work more easily, because I know that I’ve already mapped out what needs to get done and two, it lets me hit the ground running in the morning and not spend as much time organizing my list (again!).
  • No deadline? Delete it: If you’re like me and you put EVERYTHING on your list so that you don’t forget it, stop. Your to do list should only include items and tasks with hard deadlines. When you’re drowning in to do’s, the last thing you need is additional “wouldn’t it be nice” tasks sucking your energy.  Make a second list for things that you’d like to get to when you have the time, or anything that doesn’t have a firm deadline.
  • Go mission critical: If organizing my list into revenue generating/urgent, immediate, and low-value doesn’t give me the clarity and motivation I need, I go MISSION CRITICAL. This list is more detailed, and includes a time estimate in front of every task (5m, 10m, 20m, 30m, 1hr, etc.).  That way, if I find myself with only 20 minutes of free time, I can quickly identify the shorter tasks and knock them out in my window of opportunity.
  • Scramble: Along the same lines, once I’ve assigned an estimated completion time to my tasks, I’ll set a timer for an hour and scramble through as many of the low effort, quick-to-complete items as I can. Basically, I turn work into a game. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment and relief when I can check six or eight jobs off my list in a short period of time. Clearing those quickie tasks all at once also frees up a lot of mental space and leaves me ready to tackle some of the more complicated and time-consuming items on my list.
  • Use a timer: Along the same lines as the scramble is the POMODORO method. This time management technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s and is called “pomodoro” (Italian for “tomato”) after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used as a university student. You can read the six steps of the official Pomodoro technique here, but I’ve adjusted it to suit my own style.  Essentially, I set a time for 60-90 minutes when I start on a task.  I work until the timer goes off, then take a short break (usually about 10 minutes).  If I need more time to complete the task, I do it again, time and all. I don’t know why it works for me, but when the timer is counting down, I get super-focused on the task at hand and all thoughts of hopping onto Facebook or texting Mr. Patterson go away. Maybe it’s because I’m competitive? Or, maybe it’s because I know I can take a break when the bell rings.  Whatever the psychology behind it, it really does work and I recommend you try it in the time intervals that work best for you.

Most importantly, remind yourself that “this, too, shall pass”.  When I’m drowning in work, I try to look on the bright side. Generally, it’s because I’ve gained a new project or client and IT’S ALL GOOD.  The busy times pass, we gain our footing again, and our business is stronger and more successful for it all.  My goal is to help both of us (we’re in this together) create the space and traction we need to get to the other side and celebrate that success.

And, please, make space in your day to celebrate. You’re doing the hard work, and you’re doing a GREAT JOB.  Give yourself a pat on the back, or take yourself out for a coffee, or, just sit for a while with your feet in the grass and your face in the sun and breathe.  Celebrate all you’ve accomplished.  You’re awesome. You’ve got this!