Is this how to create the most productive to-do list ever?

04 June 2018 -

To-do listAccording to international experts in different disciplines, there’s a science to crafting the ultimate to-do list. CMI Insights rounded up the best advice

Jessica Stillman

The author

The most organised to-do list in the world won’t help you if you’re forced to put the wrong tasks on it, points out Michael Mankins, Bain & Company partner and co-author of Time, Talent and Energy a CMI Management Book of the Year.

“Liberating time requires eliminating low-value activities altogether, not merely capturing them on a list,” he stresses. “Too often, to-do lists create the impression that everything on the list needs to be done and may be equally important. This is rarely, if ever, reality.”

Figuring out what work actually needs doing isn’t just an individual responsibility, he adds. “Tools for managing time are limited in their effectiveness if an individual is working for an company that has structures, processes and procedures which waste time,” Mankins cautions. Eliminating work, in other words, will involve wielding that to-do list in front of your manager.

The psychologist

Once you’ve figured out what work is actually worth your time, you need to translate it into actual to-do list items. Make sure what you write down is as concrete and actionable as possible, advises psychology Professor Art Markman. “A good to-do list needs to be specific. Name particular tasks like ‘gather statistics’ rather than general ones like ‘finish report’,” he instructs.

Breaking down your biggest projects into manageable steps and also including “information about how much time you anticipate tasks taking  so that you can quickly find a task that will fit into openings you have in your work day,” should make starting your work far less daunting.

The professional manager

As Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and member of the Be the Business advisory board, told Professional Manager magazine recently, you should only make to-do lists when necessary: you need to make sure tracking your performance doesn’t become a goal in itself. “About a year ago, [John Lewis] suspended what was a well-constructed performance-management process because it had become the focus of the activity rather than the means through which effective conversations were being achieved,” he said. Ticking off to-do list items is a means to an end, not the end itself.

Markman cautions managers to beware fancy apps and complicated to-do list formats for the same reason: “A pad of paper and a pen is a great technology for a to-do list. The problem with apps and other technology is that you can spend a lot of time making your list and not a lot of time actually checking off tasks on the list.”

The scientist

Set the working hours on your to-do list earlier or later depending on your biological clock. Paying attention to whether you’re naturally a night owl or a lark can help you get more done with less effort.

“It is easier for morning types to start doing activities early in the morning compared to evening types,” says Claudia Roberta de Castro Moreno, a chronobiologist at the University of São Paulo. Natural early risers may want to tackle tasks that involve creativity or deep concentration first thing, saving routine administrative tasks for later in the day. Night owls, on the hand, may experience a burst of mental energy later in the afternoon.

The busy mum

Leave space on your to-do list to tick off tasks. Busy working mum Janet Coyle, who works as director of trade and growth at London and Partners, offers simple but powerful advice: savor your successes. “I am a mum of twins and often feel like I am spinning lots of plates,” she says. That’s why she takes “great pleasure in putting a line through a task once complete.”

She might be on to something according to management Professor Andrew Molinky. “Small wins create momentum to tackle the next set of tasks,” he notes. So go ahead and do a little celebrating every time you complete an item. It will help you get more done.

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