You probably already make a list of your “to-dos”. If you don't, then you definitely need to. Why do you create a to-do list? Well, it's simply too hard to remember everything that you have to do. If you don't write it down, you will probably forget it or remember it at the wrong time (for example remembering what you should have told your boss today as you are just about to go to sleep at night).
However, one simple “to-do” list is not enough to truly keep track of everything in your life. If you are a busy person with complex and changing daily tasks and priorities, you need a more sophisticated system than just a “to-do list”.
If you only have one list of to-dos, you will find that some of the items on your list don't really fit there. You know that you need to keep track of them, but they are not really things that you need to do. So what you end up with is a list of to-dos and a bunch of other stuff such as: items you don't need to do anything with right now but are waiting on someone else, items that you want to do later but don't really have time for right now, and also larger projects that are not a simple “to-do”, but instead a project that has lots of to-dos as part of it. It's valuable to separate these lists because your mind finds it difficult to deal with a list of mixed items. As you look at your to-do list it becomes all too hard, even stressful, because many of the items are not really actions that you can do right now.
Here are some of the lists that you should create for yourself to be truly effective in managing your time:
- A daily priority list. This is today's priority items and should have a small number of items on the list (usually less than eight).
- A general to-do list. If you are really busy and have lots of items on your list you might want to separate this into important to-dos and less important items.
- A list of items that are “on hold”. You can also call this list a “someday maybe” list. These are items you don't want to do right now but might want to action some time in the future. You may even want to separate this list into “on hold for a short time” and “someday maybe”, with the distinction being that the first list is stuff that you don't want to do now but will want to do in the next few weeks and the someday maybe list is stuff that you might want to do some time, but have no intention of doing in the near term future. These lists are very valuable because they are a placeholder for your ideas and enable to you to realistic about the fact that you can't accomplish everything in your life right now.
- A list of items that you are waiting to follow up on. This is where you are waiting on someone to take action or get back to you. See the article on What are you waiting on?
- A list of goals. This is the medium and longer term stuff that you want to achieve in your life. Goal setting is a very powerful process and if you don't have written goals this is something that you definitely should do.
- Projects and next actions. This is a list of all items that will take multiple action steps to achieve. With projects it's crucial to work out what the next action step is so that you are constantly in forward motion.
- A list to prepare for a meeting. If there is a meeting coming up you can write down any items that you think of related to that meeting.
- A list of items to discuss with a particular person. If there is a person you interact with often, for example your boss, you can list the items you want to discuss with that person. Then when you have a phone or in person meeting with this person you will make sure to cover everything that needs to be covered.
- A list of books to buy, movies to watch or other stuff like that.
- Shopping lists.
- A list of phone calls to make. This is great to have on you in your car, or on your phone, so that when you have a few spare moments whilst driving you can make some calls (using a hands free set of course!)
- A list of to-dos for specific contexts. This means that when you are in a certain place, for example at your computer, at the shopping centre, at your house, there are actions that you can only do in that place. The advantage of putting these things in a list together is that you can look at this list and know immediately what is relevant to that location.
Once you get into this habit, you will certainly be more organized and more effective. Another great benefit is that you can also be more relaxed. You don't have to worry about what you need to do because you have clarified it and written it down. This frees up your mental energy to focus on more creative and interesting tasks than remembering what you have to do. And because you have an appropriate reminder system, it is a lot less likely that you will miss things that you have committed to do. Keeping track of commitments in this way will be a very powerful boost to your career or business.
Many of the concepts in this article come from the methodology and teaching of David Allen in “Getting Things Done”. You should definitely take a look at his teachings on time management as it is very powerful stuff.