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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 in a very similar way as yesterday. No problem there if you get and do everything you want in one day. But what if your list is bigger than your time? Maybe you realize that you’ve added “Things to do” nicely, but half of your list never seems to have a line drawn though?
There is no end of things to keep you busy. At work there are customer needs, boss needs, improvement needs, committee needs and the list goes on. Everyone I know wants to know how to do more things on their list. And then there are the changes you want to create in your personal life. The bookstores are rife with great advice from well-meaning authors (like me) who tell us that we must: meditate daily, exercise, plan for our financial future, and be the ultimate husband/wife and parent. Yes, how can we do all this and have time to sleep?
It’s all a good thing – if you had endless amounts of time and nothing else on your plate.
I have discovered in my life that all the ambition and great ideas in the world are worthless unless I have a discipline that helps me be efficient in planning and getting things done. Just think of all the people you know who talk about the changes they want to make in their life, but never seem to make any progress. The problem is that they lack the tools to plan and complete. Without these tools they are destined to be dreamers who are always frustrated by their inability to move big ideas forward to completion.
“Never confuse performance with achievement.” John Wooden
Let’s look at ways to actually do more of the right things and avoid a list.
The reality is that we can’t do everything. No one can, not Branson, Oprah, or Buffett, or you, not even if we try. When that new, cool, “Must-Do” comes across your consciousness, pause and think before you make it a “Will-Do.” At the selection, you can save yourself a lot of time and grief.
When I travel, I usually have time to read magazines, listen to podcasts and get ideas for my business. I often find myself scribbling these little nuggets on a notepad, or tearing the article out of the magazine and already formulating how I’m going to implement them. There’s nothing wrong with that – until I try to find time to do it.
On one recent trip I made notes about: creating a new “Thank You” card to go out to clients, adding an automated assistant to my website, and using Google to search for potential affiliate clients for my main speaking business. All good ideas—and each of them could chew up many hours of time to research, create, and perfect.
Instead I use the one week rule. If it still sounds good at the end of the week, it might have merit and I’ll take it to the next step. If after a week other things have taken priority, or it no longer grabs me, I move on. It was obviously not important enough and, fear not, there will be much more great ideas to follow.
An interesting exercise is to look at how long tasks remain on your list waiting for some attention. In one study, the longest some tasks were on To-Do lists was 27 days! That’s 27 days of thinking about the task, choosing to skip it, rework it the next day and then going through the same routine over and over again every day – that’s a mind numbing habit!
I often put off starting a task because of how I’ve recorded it. If the task looks like hard work – or it will consume a lot of time – I will put it off. One trick I’ve developed is to always log tasks (in my Day Plan or Activity Plan) so that they provide specific direction and look like they could be completed in twenty minutes or less (obviously some activities like meetings can take longer) .
For example, “call Jim and get a quote” will always get more action from me than “explore new options” or “work on an event budget.” When my brain hears language like “investigate,” “investigate,” “repair,” “deal with” or other vague wording it interprets it as a heavy burden. After all, if you have a constant stream of emails screaming at you, work at your desk calling your name and a phone that keeps ringing, would you try to tackle something that is undefined and sounds like a lot of work? I know I wouldn’t.
A good exercise is to scan tasks on your list today that you have procrastinated on this week and then check your wording. If you see some vague abstract description, it could be that a tighter, more specific description would have started you off.
“Adventure is just bad planning” Roald Amundsen
WORK FROM ONE LIST
This might seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: work from just one list. In my book Give me a break I describe my Plan as a Pilot System of the Action Plan (for the week) and Daily Plan (for the day.) I have found that this system keeps me focused on the right work and 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 notepad with scribbles from the last meeting, you’re in trouble. There is no way you can claim to be focused, goal-oriented and efficient if you allow your lists to spread like rabbits.
“Don’t try. Do. Or don’t. There’s no try.” Yoda
The first change you should make with your lists is to divide work into at least three categories: today, this week, and long term. Cramming everything into one list only creates list overload and does you no good.
Next you need to decide what tools you need to use. A common strategy (if you can call it that) is to have one large journal book that doubles as a day planner. Everything goes in there like a big suitcase with all your responsibilities unorganized, unprioritized and (probably) unfinished.
I recommend that if you are a Microsoft Outlook user that you familiarize yourself with Outlook Tasks. This is a simple way to record your goals for the week and your longer term goals. Learn how to set categories and you will 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 function in iCal or some third-party tool. The important change to make is to separate your work into what you need to look at today, a short list of priorities to complete on Friday and long-term Boulders that you focus on.
You can’t keep stuffing clothes into an already full 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’s already there.
The solution is to grow a “Stop Doing” list just as well as growing your “To Do” list.
I remember when our kids were younger, a friend had a toy-for-toy family policy. If a child wanted a new toy, and the parents agreed to it, then one toy they already owned had to be donated to charity. What a great lesson and what a great idea to reduce clutter in the house.
I describe the Stop Doing More list in my book Give me a breakbut here are some tips:
What can go? Often the usual, routine and frequent tasks are just carried over from last week. Do you really still need to do these tasks? Start your Stop Doing list by reviewing the tasks on your current To Do list with these questions:
- If I didn’t do this anymore, what would happen?
- If I were to create my ideal job, would this be on my list?
- If I didn’t do this anymore, what could I do instead?
Challenge “because”. It may be that you’ve always mowed your lawn, done your own taxes or answered your phone at work – just for the heck of it. “Because” is just an excuse to skip critical thinking.
Saying “I’ve always done it this way” is like the story of the now grown daughter asking her mother why she always cut the turkey in half before baking it only to find out it was because when when hers mother was a young girl the ovens were much smaller.
“‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to your grave.” Tim Ferriss
Delegate more. Whether you are in business for yourself or not, you should avoid work that someone else can do at half your salary. Delegate to them and you free up your time (except they might even be better at it than you).
It’s all about creating capacity. If your time ship is always full, you have very little ability to embrace valuable new opportunities to learn (like that evening course you want to take), explore (like calling your customers for advice on how to better serve them), and grow ( how to create exciting goals for the next quarter).
Sometimes the Peter Principle (work increases to fill the allotted time) gets the best of us. By simply becoming more efficient with a routine task you may discover a hidden time saver.
Start by finding one time-consuming activity that you usually do and speed it up; shoot for the same results, but in less time. I’ll give you three to work with here and you might want to take a look as well: exercise, writing, cooking, and meetings.
reading We do it every day, but how many of us actually excel at it? The average person reads about 200-300 wpm (1/2 to 1 page per minute). What if you could double your speed, without losing insight? That would mean you could read faster, retain the flow of the content better and consume more information in a month. Very cool.
There are many simple improvements you can make to read faster. In my book Give me a break I describe the system I use. You can also get a great system from leisure guru and author Tim Ferriss at www.bit.ly/spdread
Email. In one generation we’ve gone from a nascent technology to Email being so commonplace it’s considered a necessary job skill and could even be a person’s full-time job (sigh). Clearing the Inbox faster seems obvious, but most people never improve their efficiency. Four quick improvements are:
- Visit less often. Don’t allow Email to fill gaps in your day, or you’ll always be a victim of other goals. Create a schedule (I try to work on Email only four times a day), do focused work and switch it off in between.
- Preorder and read about priorities. Create simple rules for moving new emails into folders. Then read your emails starting with the most important folder first.
- Delete unwanted lists. Unsubscribe-enough said.
- Use the phone. Don’t let Email replace good old phone calls. When in doubt about how they will react to your missive, pick up the phone.
typing The average computer user can type about 33 words per minute. With a little focused practice, speeds can increase to between 50 and 70 wpm. Think of all those Emails, reports, agendas or inter-office memos you could create in much less time.
Here’s a quick way to get your fingers flying: take a free online typing test http://www.typingtest.com, then create a goal (like an increase of 20% in one month), take an online lesson for 10 minutes once a week for a month, at the end of the month test again. Now, here’s your motivation: if you type for about an hour a day (most of us are at least twice that) a 20% improvement is the equivalent of one week a year less time spent typing.
Stopping list-bulging can mean more of the right things get done and you have less stress. But, it is unlikely to happen without a new strategy.
This is what I recommend. Use any of these for a week and then notice the results. Notice an improvement – great keep it up. Doesn’t make a big difference – no problem, go ahead and try a new one. The trick is to be consistent with the application of the new strategy and pay attention to the small changes.
One small change, done consistently and done well could make one big change to your success and stress level in the long run. Sounds like a good investment!
“Be faithful in small things, for it is in them that your strength lies.” Mother Teresa
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