Successfully overcoming the challenges of ‘To-do’ Conundrum

During the initial few years of my professional career, I used to carry a journal with me. It was A4 sized diary. I would start every day listing out all the actions that were to be completed. As I completed each one, I would just strike the point. When I moved into a role supporting one of the executives, the list of actions to be done had to be captured for each meeting that I was part of. The list kept growing. I realized writing the actions on paper no longer made any sense. I then developed a Microsoft Excel tracker that had one worksheet each for Risks, Actions, Issues, Decisions and Dependencies. My RAIDD log, that is what I had named the file. The thing is this, the list kept growing.

Later, I have seen many versions of the To-Do lists at people’s homes, offices, even on mobiles. Today when I remember those lists, I realize that these To-do lists are a mere reminder of work left undone than the other way round. Initially, I used to create such lists and place them on my work table, only to realize that they exert too much pressure on me. Often, in my case, the tasks that we earmark for a fixed time, don’t get accomplished within the speculated time when they’re strictly allocated to a particular hour. Recently, I read that most successful people do not maintain a
To-do list and prefer rather to demarcate tasks based on their two primary characteristics- Priority (or importance) and Urgency.

Why do people make To-do lists?

  • Firstly, putting it down on paper eases the burden of a whole day’s work. You seem to be in control of your work day and have a fair idea of what needs to be done, how fast and what can be delayed. However, putting it down on paper also means you play around with time and tasks and toggle between them.
  • Seeing a whole bunch of a dozen or so tasks can overwhelm you if seen from a faraway perspective. Limiting the number of high priority tasks and interspersing them with low priority ones, lets you be flexible about completing them at the end of the day.
  • A to-do list also enables you to plan in advance for allied help required. Ex. If picking up your kid at 12.00 in the noon from school is listed as high priority task, you have an idea that the car needs fuel which you have forgotten to refuel in the morning.
  • A list like this leaves a feel-good sense at the end of the day, but it also leaves you drained out in a bid to accomplish more in a day’s time. Inevitably, you will end up extending your work timing or push some tasks to the next day, which kind of defeats the purpose.

The Eisenhower Matrix

The To-Do Matrix or Quadrant was developed by Management Guru Steven Covey. Former US President Dwight Eisenhower came out with the Urgent-Important matrix which is also on similar grounds. Such a demarcation is very much essential for leaders who have to continuously take decisions and hence, prioritize their time. It is a fine balance that they have to manage between important and unimportant tasks against them being done immediately or at a later time.

Using the Urgency Matrix

All tasks come with a clear instruction about when they need to be done and how important are they. Ex. Paying your electricity bills. If it’s the last date, you better do it right here right now. If not, it is an important task, but not urgent.

  • First Quadrant ‘Important-Urgent’:Meant for tasks that need immediate attention and completion. It could be the scheduled video call with potential investors or an appointment with the doctor.
  • Second Quadrant ‘Important – Not Urgent’ : One which can be delayed a bit but has to be completed, nonetheless. Ex. Calling mom back home.
  • Third Quadrant ‘Not important – Urgent’ : One which robs most of your time. Ex. Making a guest appearance in some event sponsored by your client. You know it’s a waste of your time, but you need to oblige the client to maintain cordial relations.
  • Fourth Quadrant ‘Not Important – Not Urgent’ : One that is most often sacrificed when the other three view for your attention and time. These are the tasks that you want to complete but just don’t find time for. Ex. Visiting that book exhibition that’s ending in a day or two.

Making the most of To-do lists

  • Having a To-do list is one thing, completing the same in the stipulated time is an altogether different ballgame. Not pressurizing each task in being completed on the same day, by you and in the given time, makes it achievable to a large extent.
  • Making use of online to-do apps helps in controlling your time minute by minute and reminding you on the go. This comes in handy when you are short of time and have more to perform.
  • Synchronizing your To-do list with people who are involved with the particular task helps everyone to be on the same page. Ex. If you need your partner to join you on some meetings or site visits, synchronize with the partner, the client, the site supervisor and the driver. That way, you’re never left wasting time in waiting or delaying tasks for no fault of yours.
  • Don’t hesitate to move tasks from your list if you feel it can change the quadrant. Demoting certain important task does not demean it in any way. All it does is allow you a good time to approach it with a fresh perspective.

A good list motivates you to complete it, not bog you down under its own weight. Make sure you have incorporated tasks from all quadrants in a day’s time. That way, you have given justice to important and inessential tasks. One must understand that the whole objective is to manage work and time effectively. So at the end of the day, your list must be largely ticked off, but more than that, it must appear that the whole is more than the sum of the parts in terms of accomplishment.

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