The Question You’re Not Asking About Your To-Do List

Time Management To Do List QuestionWhen prioritizing our to-do lists for the day, we often ask ourselves questions like, “What is the most important?” “What is the most urgent?” “What is my number one priority?” These are all valid questions, but a question we don’t ask enough is:

Which task will have the most noticeable impact?

Here are two reasons this question is essential to planning your day:

1. We Can’t Do Everything

When we get extremely busy, we start to wonder how in the world we’re going to finish everything on our lists, but we fail to accept that maybe everything on the list doesn’t need to be finished. In that case, you’ll need to search for the tasks on your list that provide the most bang for your buck.

Think of it like cleaning a house. Washing the dishes in your sink and cleaning your upstairs bathroom are both important tasks, but if company is coming for dinner in 30 minutes and you only have time for one, which one would you choose? I’m guessing your guests will spend more time in your kitchen than your master bathroom. Use the same line of thinking when it comes to other tasks in your day. If I accept that I can’t do everything, which task is most noticeable and has the biggest impact?

2. We Need Motivation

We’re motivated by success. When we labor away and see no results from our work, it’s difficult to stay motivated. That’s why choosing tasks with a noticeable impact can help keep a dreaded project moving along. Dealing with the stack of papers on your desk might not be the most essential part of a project you’re working on, but if it will keep you motivated to finally be able to file them away, then they might be worthy of your prioritization.

Aiming for maximum impact in your tasks can help streamline your to-do list. You might be so pleased with the results, that you’ll realize the other tasks weren’t really necessary anyway.

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4 Tools You Need in Your Time Management Toolbox

Time Management ToolboxWe all know that we need some kind of list and some kind of calendar to have a well-organized time management system, but what else do we need? What else do we need in our time management toolbox? Make sure you keep these four essential tools close to you.

1. A Pen

How many times have you meant to write something down…and forgotten? We usually do this when we get a deadline and aren’t prepared to notate it in some way. Keep a pen clipped to your To-Do list so it doesn’t get lost among the jumble of other pens that disappear from your desk drawer. Keep a digital list? That’s great! Make sure to keep it with you at all times so you don’t fall victim to forgetting tasks either.

2. The Helpful Friend

Different friends fill different roles in our lives. Some are there to make sure we have fun. Some are there to cry on, others to support us, others to listen to our excuses, and others to tell us what we want to hear. Then there is the friend who doesn’t let you accept your own excuses and tells you to quit whining and get to work when you need to hear it most. Know who that friend is and let him or her help you.

3. Your Blinders

We all have our unique Time Killers- those little things that waste your time without your permission. You need to figure out how to put your “time management blinders” on so they don’t distract you while you’re working. Does that mean putting your smartphone out of sight? Does it mean closing your door occasionally? Figure out your blinder strategy in advance so you don’t lose your productivity to distracted work

4. Your “Why”

Why are you working so hard? Is it to support your family? Reach a personal goal? Reconnect with your “why” on a daily basis. It makes the “how” so much easier.

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How To Stop 5-Minute Tasks from Taking Over Your Life

Time Management 5 Minute RuleThe “5 Minute Rule” is one of my favorite pieces of time management advice to keep your to-do list trim. “If it takes less than 5 minutes, just do it now!” However, how do you ensure that your day doesn’t become an endless barrage of short 5-minute tasks and you never get any “real” work done? It’s a valid concern. Check out these three tips to let The 5 Minute rule help your time management.

1. Set aside “focus blocks”

In The Time Diet, everything you do is either a Meat, Vegetable, or Dessert. If you’re focused intently on a Meat when a 5-minute task comes across your desk, try keeping it on your desk until you finish your train of thought. Then, before you reward yourself with a break, tackle the 5-minute task. Sometimes these tiny little Vegetables can be a great way to break from our Meats while still remaining productive.

2. Monitor your procrastination

Sometimes people search for tiny 5-minute tasks to do when they are really procrastinating on something else. (For example, a light bulb has a greater chance of being changed in my house if I’m trying to avoid writing my dissertation…) Be honest with yourself when assessing these tiny tasks. Are you doing them because they are important? Or are you just trying to avoid doing something else.

3. Make a process for your interruptions

If you’re continually interrupted with the same short little task, how can you create a procedure to handle these interruptions? Can you send calls straight to voice mail when you’re working? Can you create a signature file outside your office door to sort through at the end of the day? Can you post a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” on your door or in an email? Use your creativity.

Taking care of little tasks quickly is important, but so is keeping your focus. With some discipline and planning, you can keep your to-do list trim, while still maintaining your concentration.

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How Impatience Can Derail Time Management Goals

time management patience“A watched pot never boils.” I was reminded of this saying tonight as I waited impatiently for my pasta to cook so we could eat dinner. “Why is this taking so long??” I muttered.

Then I realized that the “watched pot” is like so many other tasks we have in our world of instant gratification, and that patience can hold great value for our time management. Here are three ways to be patient as you move through a lengthy to-do list.

1. Keep track of small steps of progress

We live in an age where we want to see results now. (5 minutes ago would be preferable.) This makes it difficult to devote time to longer tasks that will take a while to complete. Celebrate small successes and keep track of stepping stones of progress. That will keep you motivated.

2. Keep your eye on the goal

Do you remember why you’re working so hard? Before you get frustrated and give up, reconnect with that you want your end goal to be. I would say to remember that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” but I’ve already used one cliché in this blog so far and I think that’s sufficient.

3. Remind yourself of past experiences

If abstract future goals are not motivating you, tangible past examples can be helpful. Remind yourself of a time when patience paid off. For me, I always think back to when I started my PhD four years ago and thought I would surely fall off that steep mountain before ever reaching the top. Now that I’m so close, that motivates me to finish pretty much anything on my to-do list!

What is your “watched pot” that you’re frustrated with right now as you wait for it to boil? Don’t give up just because you think the end is not in sight. Keep plodding along, be patient, and don’t stop!

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How To Hold a Time Management Garage Sale

PrintAre there things on your schedule that are cluttering your day? Are they getting in the way of things that actually matter to you?

This week, I cleared out all the clutter in our house and had a garage sale. Getting rid of the extra junk was so freeing, but I realized that I probably had some clutter lurking around my to-do list also. Have you held a “time management garage sale” lately? Here are the four steps:

1. Take an inventory

Much of what we do all day happens on autopilot, so we don’t realize how we’re really spending our time until we look at it. This week, pay close attention to how you spend your time and how long you spend on each task. Sometimes tasks that we think only take a few minutes, actually consume hours of our week.

2. What is important to you

Take this opportunity to reexamine what’s important to you. Is it family? Friends? Is it spending time outside? Is it having a salary that supports going on yearly vacations? Is it eating dinner at home every evening? Is it the satisfaction you get from your job? Reflect on what’s important and how it aligns with your goals.

3. Do they match?

Now, revisit your “time log” from the week. Does how you spend your time match up with what’s important to you? You might not love your job, but if it’s moving you toward a more broad career goal, maybe it’s fine. You might realize you’re spending way too much time on email when instead you could spend a few extra minutes enjoying your morning coffee. Or perhaps you say that being active is important to you…and yet you put pretty much every other obligation in front of exercising.

4. Ditch it

Just like my house only has room for a finite amount of “stuff,” we only have time for so many things during the day. If we fill it with things that don’t either give us enjoyment, move us further toward a goal, or better the world in some way, we’ll have less room for the things that actually matter. Don’t live your life on autopilot. Make purposeful decisions with your time and change course when needed. Put those unwanted tasks out on your driveway and let them be someone else’s problem.

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5 Questions to Ask Your Unfinished To-Do List

Time Management to-do listOh, the frustration of an unfinished to-do list! Those lingering tasks left without a satisfying check mark beside them. Before you simply roll your unfinished tasks onto tomorrow’s list, stop! Here are five questions to ask yourself when you end the day with uncompleted responsibilities.

1. Why?

What happened that left tasks lingering? Did unexpected situations pop up that took priority? Were you unfocussed? Were you working inefficiently? Taking a moment to analyze the why behind your unfinished list can help you correct the problem in the future.

2. Am I Being Realistic?

Perhaps your list remains habitually unfinished because your expectations are too high. You only have so many hours in the day and you can’t work at your peak efficiency non-stop. You’d never expect to write War and Peace in a day, but maybe that’s what you’re demanding of yourself.

3. Is Everything Necessary?
If the same tasks have lingered at the bottom of your list for weeks…and the world has kept on spinning, are they really necessary? If so, you need to make one of them a focus task for tomorrow and clear it from your plate. If not, get rid of it! Just because you’d like to do something or it might be helpful, doesn’t mean it’s necessary.

4. Have I Said No Recently?

If your list keeps piling up, are you saying “Yes” to too many tasks that don’t realistically fit in your schedule? When was the last time you said “No” to a task? Can’t think of when? Make it tomorrow.

5. What Can I Do Differently Tomorrow?

If you didn’t finish your list today, and you do everything exactly the same tomorrow…you probably won’t finish your list then either. What change will you make to produce a different result? Do you need to wake up earlier? Take an energizing walk over lunch so you’re more productive in the afternoon? Turn off Facebook so you’re more focused?

Come up with a game plan that will put you on the road to success.

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The Best Technology for Time Management

In The Time Diet, having an organized way to manage your tasks and deadlines is essential. There are two components to a good system of time management: A choose-to list for daily tasks and a calendar for long term deadlines. (If you are new to The Time Diet, I don’t like to use the word “to-do list.” I prefer to call it a “choose-to list.” Choosing to do something puts YOU in control. Read more about this concept here: The Choose-To List)

Those who have heard me speak know that even though I am far from a tech-phobe, I prefer the pen and paper method for my choose-to list and calendar rather than technology. This is because pen and paper give me more control over how I write things down than any phone app or online program. I can star things, cross things out, draw arrows, circle things etc…without being limited to the constraints of a computer screen. This is especially true for my calendar. I prefer my paper pocket calendar to the calendar on my phone because I can actually see what I have written on every day of the month without having to click through individual days.

That being said, a choose-to list is worthless if people don’t actually carry it with them. If the only way you’ll ever keep your choose-to list or calendar with you is if it integrated with technology, then you need to make sure you are using the best software out there.

Here are 5 popular time management apps or programs that allow you to keep your list and calendar for your Time Diet synced with the technology of your choice.

Time Management App and Program Review

1) Evernote This is an extremely popular app that you can use on both your computer and your phone. It does not have a calendar, so it can’t really stand alone as your only method of time management, but what makes Evernote stand out is its ability to capture pretty much anything you’d want to keep track of. Is “make dinner” on your choose-to list? Add the link to the recipe and your shopping list to that task. Evernote allows you to categorize photos, web pages, notes, voice memos…pretty much anything you can think of. Because of its flexibility, Evernote can be a great enhancement to your time management system. Check it out here: Evernote

2) Remember The Milk In addition to its adorably quirky name, Remember The Milk is a really cool application. You can access it online or on your phone. Lists are extremely easy to manage and the interface is fairly intuitive. Remember The Milk syncs easily with other applications you may already be using such as Gmail, Google Calendar and iCal so it doesn’t really need to feel like a “new” application, but rather a helpful add on to things you already know. One of my favorite features is that it can alert you of deadlines via text message, email or instant messenger- whichever works best for you. Like most time management software, you are limited with how your tasks actually look when you enter them. You can change the priority of a task, but this just adds a different color exclamation mark next to it. Overall, it is a very helpful and easy to use product and great for your Time Diet. Check it out here: Remember The Milk

3) Astrid This is a time management app for the Android platform. The interface is a little cumbersome, but adding a task is extremely easy. You just start typing! Astrid also syncs with the Android calendar so if you are already using the calendar feature, Astrid is a great app to complete your time management system. The interface has three basic screens: Summary (what the task is) Dates (when the task is due) and Alerts (when you want to be reminded of the task.) Astrid advertises that it also syncs with RTM (Remember The Milk) but in my opinion, if you’re already using RTM, Astrid is superfluous. Astrid is a great tool if you wish to keep both components of your time management system on your android phone. Check it out here: Astrid

4) Google Calendar Yes, I know it seems that Google is slowly taking over the world, but their Calendar feature is really great, especially if you want to share your calendar with others. You can use the “task” feature for your choose-to list and sync your work calendar, personal calendar and spouse’s calendar all in one place. I like that the whole calendar is visible in a “month view” and you can see what tasks fall on which day without having to click through individual days. You can also set up email reminders for upcoming deadlines. Google Calendar is free and works great on my laptop, but doesn’t show up very well on my Android Phone. Check it out here: Google Calendar

5) OmniFocus The program, available for Mac products, is usefully for everyone from business professionals managing multiple projects to college students who just want a simple way to keep track of all their homework deadlines and their book list for each semester. It is a bit expensive (40 dollars for the iPad version) but many of the people who use it swear by it. The interface is extremely sleek and easy to use and you can sort your lists by priority or deadline (or by Meats, Vegetables and Desserts if you are properly following your Time Diet!) My favorite feature is the “forecast” screen, which shows you all your deadlines for the next few days. For me, the steep price tag is not worth it, but if you’re a Mac person and the free-ware just isn’t working for you, this is the way to go. Check it out here: OmniFocus

Have any of these products worked for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

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The Choose-To List

Whenever people talk about time management, it doesn’t take long until the “to-do list” is mentioned in the conversation. While I think it is essential to write down important deadlines and keep track of the things you plan to accomplish during the day, I don’t really like the name “to-do list.” I think it encourages the notion that we don’t have control over our own time and that some magical deadline god is forcing us to do things. A “to-do list” sounds too much like a “have to-do list” to me.

In reality, everything we do during the day is our choice. I spent part of today writing a paper that I have due in December. Did I particularly want to spend my time that way today? No, and in fact it would be very easy for me to complain that I had to spend the day working and it was so horrible. But, the only reason I had to work on that paper today is because I’m choosing to be in grad school right now. Not only am I choosing to be in grad school, but I’m choosing to want to do well in my classes. I didn’t have to work on my paper today. I chose to. Did that make me any more excited to spend part of my weekend working? No, but if you view your daily tasks as choices rather than mandates it shifts the control from your work to you and control is a powerful thing.

Because the work we do is a choice, I advocate calling it a “choose-to list” instead of a “to-do list”. Calling it a “choose-to list” serves as a constant reminder that the things on it have value because you chose to put them there. If the things on your list don’t seem to have much value, then why are they there? Having a “choose-to list” causes you to constantly reassess whether the things you are doing are really worth your time. If they aren’t, get rid of them. If they are, then stop complaining, put your head down, and start grazing.