What could be easier than making a to-do list? You just write down all of the things you want to do… then get on with doing them. It sounds so simple and yet with a little thought and a strong inclination to procrastinate, creating a list can quickly become a research project all of its own. There is, after all, a difference between the things you have to do and the things you’d like to do. And there are differences too between what you really have to do and what you probably should do… just as there are differences between the things you think you’d enjoy doing and maybe you’ll do one day, and the things you know you’ll enjoy doing and sincerely hope that you’ll do. Which of these kinds of tasks should go on your to-do list, how do you prioritize them and how do you stop your list from becoming so overwhelming that having written down everything you plan to do, all you really want to do is hide under a blanket and do nothing? Lists-making might look simple, but when you’re trying to organize your time, your life and your tasks, it’s vital to know how they work.
The simplest kinds of lists are tiered lists. These allow you to prioritize your tasks so that you can see instantly what needs to be done first. Alan Lakein, author of How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, recommends these kinds of lists in his time management system.
Prioritizing Your ABC Lists
For Lakein, tasks are categorized into three lists, marked “A”, “B” and “C”. A-list tasks need to be completed within a day, B-list tasks should be done in a week, and C-listers are supposed to be completed by the end of a month. Within each list, tasks can also be prioritized either by writing them in order of urgency or by assigning each task a number. So the most important task each day will be A-1; the least important might be C-23. Beneath each task, you should also write the goal-specific activities needed to complete them.
As time management systems go, it’s remarkably simple. But while that can be a benefit, it also brings limitations. Because the system doesn’t distinguish between tasks that can be completed quickly and those that need more time, it’s easy to get the prioritization wrong. A small job, such as writing a quick email or giving a quote, might be less urgent than a tougher job, such as completing a white paper or writing a report. But if it can be done in minutes, getting it out of the way can help to bring clarity, increased focus on the remaining tasks — and the satisfaction of crossing an item off the list. Events too have a habit of increasing the length of the lists even as you’re working through them. That means tasks don’t get completed and instead are shunted on to the B list… which then begins to form a new A list, parts of which are shunted onto the next B list and so on. Instead of feeling as though you’re achieving your goals, you can often feel as though you’re simply reorganizing tasks.
Mark Forster, a business coach and author of Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management, takes a slightly different approach. His “closed lists” are intended to set a boundary on the work that needs to be completed. Having made a list of all the tasks that need to be completed within a day, you draw a line underneath the list to mark it off and provide yourself with the kind of reinforcement that helps to say “no” to more work. And if you can’t say “no,” anything else you take on has to be added to the next day’s list — or in the worst case, placed below the line.
The aim each day then is to complete all the items above the line, then the items below it. Keeping track of the amount you manage to complete each day will also provide a good idea of the amount that it’s possible to get done in a day so that future lists will be more accurate. The main benefit though should be a methodology that enables you both to plan the day and deal with the inevitable interruptions that crop up so that each day’s to-do list is always finished.
Recently, Forster has honed his system a little further with “Autofocus” which uses closed sub-lists and intuitive choices to guide prioritization.
Four Lists and 43 Folders
If that sounds like it’s starting to get a lot more complicated, then David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity system takes things up a whole new level. Allen recommends creating four different kinds of lists.
“Project” lists describe goals rather than actions. They aren’t followed on a day-to-day basis and the tasks they contain aren’t ticked off regularly. But they are reviewed weekly to ensure that you’re on the right track and in control of events rather than allowing events to control you. A project list may, of course, be subdivided into smaller project lists.
“Action” lists, which contain specific tasks, will almost always be subdivided and may be broken into sublists as detailed as “Calls,” “Errands” and “To Read.” Placing the lists in context is supposed to make them easier to complete.
“Waiting for” lists are projects which can’t continue until the next step has been completed by someone else; and the items on the “Someday/maybe” list are the long-term goals you really hope to reach one day. The support material required to complete the tasks on all of these different lists should be filed in 43 folders.
It’s a system that’s completely comprehensive and fiendishly complicated, and its adherents swear by it even as they adjust it to fit their own lives.
And that’s really the key to using lists for productivity. It’s not the list-making that’s important but completing the tasks on the list. A simple list system like Alan Lakein’s is fine if you know what you need to do and what you have to do to complete it. Mark Forster’s is good too if the kind of interruptions you receive are rare and easily manageable. And David Allen’s structures appear to work for geeky types who can make sense of his workflows. Inevitably, you should find yourself gravitating towards the organization system that works best for you — and which, unlike this lady, gets the work done.