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Leave me alone! How do I know I’m making progress when my to-do list just won’t go away?

To-do list

Whether you are a fan of the ‘to-do’ notepad, post-it piles, scrap paper, a bullet journal, or =mc’s Action Sheets – sometimes even looking at the number of things that need to be done can be utterly overwhelming. And make you hate the list that itself seems to be nagging at you.

When you’re up against it day after day it’s hard to feel you’re actually achieving anything. Putting in extra hours so you can tick more things off the list doesn’t necessarily make you feel better or clear the backlog. More likely it leaves you exhausted and sleeping badly because you go to bed with your brain still in overdrive. How, then, can you feel like you’re progressing – and most importantly – feel like what you do makes a difference?

The good news is Stephen Covey, guru of time management, has the answer:

  1. know which of your activities have the greatest impact
  2. prioritise effectively
  3. forgive the list

In other words, understand the distinction between important and urgent activities and then focus your attention on those, not on demonising the list.

1. Having impact

Covey’s definition of Important activities are those that contribute to achieving your or your organisation’s objectives – in essence, the reason your role exists. As a fundraiser it’s what you do that brings in the money for your organisation to deliver on its mission. As a volunteer coordinator, it’s ensuring the volunteers (without whom the organisation couldn’t do its work) are getting the right support and guidance to be effective.

Urgent Vs. Important

Urgent activities are those that have the appearance of needing immediate attention. For example, an email pinging in, your phone ringing, or a colleague asking for help with a piece of work they are leading on. You then have to decide how you’re going to respond to the siren call of immediate tasks that are screaming for attention now.

President Eisenhower was familiar with the dilemma –
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Again, Covey is very clear about the answer. In order to have impact you need to focus to those activities that are important over those that demand urgency. In other words, if you’re constantly dealing with things that are urgent (and let’s face it, they’re often more exciting) you’ll never find time to get to what’s important. It’s not about ignoring what’s urgent, it is about making time for important – impactful – activities. Even an hour a day will make a difference.

2. Prioritising effectively

Once you understand the relative importance of each activity on your to do list, it’s much easier to prioritise effectively. Here’s how.

At the start of each day identify the one thing on your list that will have the most impact – your important activity (rather than necessarily the creating the most ‘noise’). This is then your A1 priority and you should complete it by the end of the day. In doing this you know you’ve achieved impact.

3. Forgive the list

Remember, your list is there to help you, and it’s for storage and prioritising, not to nag. Your brain is not for storing things – it’s for thinking things. Use your list effectively, and you can go home safe in the knowledge you’ve done the one thing that has lead – or will lead – to the biggest pay off, and not worry about all the things you haven’t done. The list will always be there. By taking control in this way you put yourself in much better position to have a decent night’s sleep and return to work the next day ready to achieve impact once again.

What do I do next?

If you are interested in finding out more about how we can help you manage your time effectively, visit our Managing Multiple Priorities page and register for the interactive online learning session.

If you’ve got 5 or more colleagues interested in this training, contact us about our in-house training options. We’ve run this training programme for a vast range of organisations, from WWF to Kings College London, Mind to Gateway Housing, and the proof it works is very much in the feedback:

“As a guy of a certain vintage, who has been through a number of management and time management courses down the years, I will confess to going into the day with a somewhat cynical outlook – old dog, new tricks and all that. However, I found the day an enlightening eye-opener. I particularly liked the ‘to do’ list tool, which was an improvement on others I’ve seen and I’ve already begun using it.”
– Steve Grant, Head of Finance, National Theatre Wales

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...