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A To Do List That Works

How to use your to do list to actually get more done and feel better


We have all done to do lists. Somehow there never seems to be enough hours in the day to accomplish all the things on your to do list. Here is the system that has worked for me. It can work for you too.

A List Is Not Enough
Making a "things to do list" is not enough. You have to rank them. You have to know which tasks are more important so you can focus on them. Then you have to allocate resources to those items, measure your progress, and reward yourself for your successes.

I list all my to do items in a spreadsheet, although you can do them on paper as I used to do. You also can put them in your palmtop computer or PDA, write them on your calendar, or input them to a time management software.

The first step is to list all you have to do. Then assign a rank to them so you can focus on the important items. (See my article Pareto's Principle - The 80-20 Rule for a refresher on why this is important.)

I use an A, B, C ranking. My A list are the things I have to get done today, before I leave. My B list are things I need to get done, but not necessarily today. My C list are the things I need to find time to do soon.

I found out pretty quickly that things on my C list just never got done. In fact, most of the B list didn't ever get done either. In one Operations Manager position several years ago I found myself getting more and more frustrated with my A list. Not only was I not getting through it every day, as I always had before, but the A list kept growing. That's when I figured out what I had to do to make my to do list work for me and I developed a system that did work.

Time Management
It wasn't enough to know what was important; what made the A list. I also needed to know how long things would take and how much time I had to devote to them. I added a column to my to do list with the estimated time each task should take and an adjacent column with the cumulative total.

Then I did a simple time study. As I did each task I wrote down what I did and the start and end times. I kept track for an entire day. Then I repeated it a couple weeks later on a different day. It wasn't an exhaustive survey by any means, but it gave me some insight. As the Operations Manager much of my day was taken up by interruptions - dealing with events that happened, crises that came up, or problems that had to be solved. On average these interruptions consumed four hours a day. Since I typically work a ten-hour day, that left me six hours a day for the things on my to do list.

Each night, before I left the office, I would update my to do list. I would delete the things that I had completed, delegated, or downgraded, add the new things that had come up, rearrange the priorities to get the most important tasks on top, and assign estimated time to each. Then I'd go down the list to the six hour mark and draw a line. That became my target for the next day.

Reward Yourself
Most often, that line fell somewhere on my A list. Seldom was it anywhere near the bottom. However, that was my goal. If I hit or passed the line, I went home feeling like it had been a productive and successful day. Instead of beating myself up over the things I hadn't been able to get to, I acknowledged my success at having met or beaten my goal. The next day, I had to start all over again and reach for the new goal, but I did it from the perspective of building on previous success rather than from the frustration of constantly having more to do that I had time to accomplish.

You Need A System
To be successful, you have to develop a system to manage your time so you can get more done in the time you have. If your target line on your to do list is always near the top, your boss is going to start looking for someone else who can work a little farther down the list every day. I have listed resources in the right-hand sidebar to help you do a better job of time management.

Manage This Issue
List the tasks you have to do. Prioritize those that are important, not just urgent. Have a plan for what to accomplish each day. Work toward that plan. Reward yourself when you meet or beat your goal.


If you have any questions or comments about this article, or if there is an issue you would like us to address, please post them on our Management Forum to share with the entire group.

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