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Stop List Bulge – How to Stop Procrastinating and Get Rid of Your Never Ending To-Do List
We are creatures of habit. Every day we walk, talk, think, worry and go to work as yesterday. No problem if you can get and do everything you want in one day. But what if your list is bigger than your time? Maybe you notice that you’re great at adding “to-dos,” but never seem to cross off half of your list?
There is no end of things to keep you busy. In the workplace there are client needs, boss needs, improvement needs, committee needs, and the list goes on. Everyone I know wants to know how to get more things done on their list. And then there are the changes you want to make in your personal life. Bookstores are filled with advice from well-meaning writers (like me), telling us that we need to: meditate daily, exercise, plan for our financial future, and ultimately be spouses and parents. Oh—how can we do all this and have time to sleep?
It’s all good – if you have endless time and nothing else on your plate.
I have discovered in my life that all the ambitions and great ideas in the world are worthless unless I have the discipline that helps me plan and be effective in getting things done. Just think of all the people you know who talk about the changes they want to make in their lives, but never make any progress. The problem is that they don’t have a plan and the tools to carry it out. Without these tools they become dreamers who are always frustrated by their inability to carry great ideas to fruition.
“Never mistake action for success.” John Wooden
Let’s look at ways to actually do things more appropriately and avoid list bloat.
The fact is that we cannot do it all. No one can, Branson, Oprah or Buffett, or you—no we shouldn’t try. When that new, cool, “must-do” pops into your consciousness, stop and think before you “will-do.” You can save yourself a lot of time and grief at the selection stage.
When I’m traveling I have time to read magazines, listen to podcasts and get ideas for my business. Often I find myself scribbling these little nuggets on a notepad or tearing articles out of a magazine, and I find myself already working out how I’m going to put them into action. Nothing wrong with that – as long as I’m not trying to find the time to do it.
On a recent trip I made notes on: creating new “thank you” cards to go out to clients, adding an automated assistant to my website, and using Google to find potential association clients for my keynote speaking business. All good ideas – and any one of them can chew up hours of time to research, create and perfect.
Instead I use the one week rule. If it still feels good at the end of the week, it may have merit and I’ll take it to the next step. If other things take priority after a week or it doesn’t grab me, I move on. This obviously wasn’t important enough, and don’t worry, there will be plenty of great ideas to follow.
An interesting exercise is to see how long tasks stay on your list for attention. In one study, some tasks were on a to-do list that lasted 27 days! It’s a mind-numbing habit of thinking about work for 27 days, choosing to skip it, rewriting it the next day, and then going through the same routine over and over again every day!
Often times the way I recorded a job delayed its start. If the task looks like hard work – or takes too long – I stop. A trick I’ve developed is to always record tasks (in my day plan or action plan) so that they give specific direction and appear to be completed in twenty minutes or less (obviously some activities, like meetings, can take longer).
For example, “phone gym and get quotations” will always get more action from me than “research new venue options” or “work on event budget”. When my brain hears language like “research”, “investigate”, “solve”, “deal with” or other vague words, it means heavy lifting. After all, if you have a constant stream of emails screaming at you, calling your name at your desk, and the phone ringing, would you even try to tackle something that feels undefined and like a lot of work? I know I won’t.
A good exercise is to scan the tasks on your list today that you’ve procrastinated on this week, and then check your words. If you see a vague abstract description, you should start with a tighter, more specific description.
“Adventure is just bad planning” Roald Amundsen
Work from a list
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: only work from one list. In my book wait a minute I describe my plan as a pilot system of an action plan (for the week) and a daily plan (for the day.) I find that this system keeps me focused on the right task and keeps me motivated and focused.
When I work with clients, I see certain habits that hold them back, and multiple lists can be the biggest anchor. When you have a daily timer, lists on your computer, notes recorded on your phone, sticky-notes to remind you of important details, and a note pad with scribbles of the last meeting you’re in trouble. You cannot claim to be focused, goal oriented and effective if you allow your lists to circulate like rabbits.
“Don’t try. Do. Or don’t. Don’t try.” Yoda
The first change you’ll want to make to your lists is to divide tasks into at least three categories: today, this week, and long-term. Cramming everything into one list only creates list overload and doesn’t serve you.
Next you need to decide which tools you want to use. A common strategy (if you can call it that) is to have a large journal-like book that doubles as a day planner. Everything goes in there like a big suitcase with all your responsibilities unsorted, unprioritized and (probably) unfinished.
I recommend that if you are a Microsoft Outlook user, you become familiar with Outlook Tasks. It’s an easy way to record your goals for the week and your long-term goals. Learn how to set categories and you’ll be even more successful. Good categories are: “Action Plan (for the week)”, Boulders (long term)”, Reading, Training Committee, Research, Finance, etc.
On a Mac you can use the Tasks feature in iCal or some third-party tool. By separating your work into what you want to see today, a short list of priorities to complete by Friday, and the long-term boulders you want to focus on, make a significant shift.
Drop the luggage
You can’t put a piece of clothing in an already packed suitcase—physics is against you. And you can’t keep adding things to your day timer when you don’t have enough time for what you already have.
The solution is to increase your “stop doing” list as much as you increase your “to do” list.
I remember when our kids were young a friend’s family policy was a toy for toys. If a child wants a new toy and the parents agree, one of the toys they own has to be donated to the charity. What a great lesson and a great idea to reduce clutter in the home.
I describe the Stop Doing List more in my book wait a minuteBut here are some tips:
what can go Often habitual, routine, and ordinary tasks are simply carry-overs from the previous week. Do you still need to do these tasks? Start your Stop Doing List with a review of the tasks on your current to-do list by asking these questions:
- What if I don’t do this now?
- If I were creating my ideal job, would this be on my list?
- If I don’t do this anymore, what can I do instead?
Challenge “cause”. It could be that you’ve always mowed your lawn, done your own taxes, or answered your phone at work—just. “Because” is just an excuse to skip serious thought.
Saying “I’ve always done it that way” is like the story of the now grown daughter who asks her mother why she always cuts the turkey in half before roasting it. her Mother was a young girl and the oven was very small.
“‘One day’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.” Tim Ferriss
Give more reps. Whether you are in your business or not, you should avoid doing work that someone else can do for half your salary. Delegate to them and you’ll free up your time (plus they’ll be better than you).
It’s all about building capacity. If your time is always full, you have little ability to take valuable new opportunities to learn (like taking that evening course), explore (like calling your customers for advice on how to better serve them), and grow. (Like creating exciting goals for the next quarter).
Get it fast
Sometimes the Peter Principle (work expands to fill the time given) gets the better of us. You may discover hidden time savings by getting more efficient at routine tasks.
Start by finding a time-consuming activity that you do regularly and speed it up; Shoot for the same results, but in less time. I’ll give you three to work on here, and you might also want to check out: exercise, writing, cooking, and meetings.
Reading. We do it every day, but how many of us succeed at it? The average person reads at about 200-300 wpm (1/2 to 1 page per minute). What if you could double your speed, without losing consciousness? This means you can read faster, keep content flowing better, and consume more information in a month. cool
There are several simple improvements you can make to read faster. In my book wait a minute I describe the system I use. You can also get a great system from free-time guru and author Tim Ferris at www.bit.ly/spdread
email. In one generation we’ve gone from a new technology to email becoming so commonplace that it’s considered an essential job skill and can even be a person’s (gasp) full-time job. Emptying the inbox seems obvious, but most people never improve their efficiency. There are four quick fixes:
- Visit less frequently. Don’t allow email to fill the gaps in your day, or you’ll always succumb to other people’s goals. Create a schedule (I try to work on email only four times a day), focus on work, and switch off in between.
- Pre-sort and read up on priorities. Create simple rules for moving emails to new folders. Then read your emails first, starting with the most important folder.
- Close unwanted lists. Unsubscribe-enough said.
- Use the phone. Don’t let the good old phone call change. When in doubt about how they will react to your missive—pick up the phone.
Typing. An average computer user can type about 33 words per minute. With a little focused practice, the speed can increase to between 50 and 70 wpm. Think of all those emails, reports, agendas, or inter-office memos you can create in a fraction of the time.
Here’s a quick way to get your fingers flying: take a free online typing test http://www.typingtest.com, set a goal (like 20% growth in a month), take an online lesson for 10 once a week for a month Minutes, retest at the end of the month. Now, here’s your incentive: If you’re typing about an hour a day (most of us are twice that) a 20% improvement is the equivalent of a week of less time spent typing.
Stopping list-blowing means more worthwhile things get done and you’re less stressed. But, that is unlikely to happen without a new strategy.
Here is what I recommend. Use any of these for a week and then notice the results. Look forward to the improvement – keep up the good work. No big deal – never mind, move on to a new try. The trick is to be consistent with implementing new strategies and pay attention to small changes.
A small change, done consistently and well, can make a big difference in your success and stress levels in the long run. Sounds like a good investment!
“Be faithful in the little things because therein lies your strength.” Mother Teresa
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