Different task management techniques are effective for different people. We take a look at decluttering to-do lists to make them more productive. We also review the alternative tool of scheduling rather than listing, and explore its effectiveness in getting what needs to be done, done.

to-do lists

Quick takeaways if you’re in a hurry

  • To-do lists are an effective tool for capturing everything that needs to be done, but they can grow out of control if they aren’t regularly managed
  • De-cluttering is a great way of making your to-do list focused and manageable
  • Scheduling presents an excellent tool to create focus on achieving individual tasks, with consideration for the time required
  • Scheduling is most effective if it includes everything from major tasks to minor phone calls, and also takes into consideration personal commitments and priorities.

Read on: To-do lists vs scheduling: finding the right tool to track your tasks

(estimated reading time: 8 minutes)

Improving productivity is not just about listing out everything that needs to be done – it’s about finding more effective ways of getting the tasks that matter done. Keeping a ‘to-do’ list can often feel like you’re actually keeping a ‘still haven’t done’ list. So how can you manage the tasks you need to get done more effectively?

We’re going to consider two key task management tools and how to use them to make your time more productive. Firstly, the to-do list is a traditional technique for keeping track of outstanding tasks, but it can grow out of control if it isn’t carefully managed. We look at ways to declutter it and make it work more effectively. Secondly, scheduling tasks ensures you can prioritise the actions that matter to you and your business, while considering the time that is required to deliver them. We will explore scheduling as a tool for task management and improved productivity.

To-do lists

Let’s take a look at the to-do list as a tool. This is traditionally touted as the saviour of busy people, as it gives you a single place to capture everything that needs to be done. The challenge with a to-do list is making sure they don’t grow far beyond your ability to complete them. You need to get your priorities right: it’s important to stay focused on where your time is going to have the biggest impact.

An exercise in de-cluttering

Like all things in life, to-do lists are prone to clutter when they are not proactively managed. So we recommend an exercise in de-cluttering to make managing your to-do list more effective.

The first step in clearing out your to-do list is to make sure you’re focused on the bigger picture. A good business plan will help with this. Make sure your to-do list doesn’t go into too much detail for tasks you haven’t started yet. Once you start working on them you can delve into the minutiae.

If it’s not important – get rid of it

Review your to-do list regularly and be prepared to kill off tasks that don’t need to be on it. This could be because they are no longer relevant, or you may decide to defer them to a later date. It’s important not to feel guilty about things that sit on your to-do list for a while and haven’t been done. If something is important to you and you feel it needs to be prioritised, simply ask yourself what you need to do to make it happen.

Delegate where possible

A to-do list is a great tool for delegation. If you’ve listed out the tasks that need to be done but you don’t have the right skills or time to make it happen, why not hand them on to someone else? If you don’t have internal staff you may have consultants or external partners who can help.

Think positive

Don’t let yourself get disheartened. Focus on the positive impact that clearing out your to-do list will have. It’s important to refer back to your business plan and then you can confirm that your priorities are being supported and you’re not wasting time or energy on things that will not yield results.

Once you’re cleared out your to-do list, reviewed your goals, and where possible delegated or deferred short term tasks, you should be able to approach the tasks at hand with a more positive attitude. But if the thought of even beginning to clear your to-do list up is more than you can bear, you might like to consider getting rid of it completely.

Schedule your tasks

There is a wave of popular opinion, especially amongst some very productive business people, that the to-do list is ineffective because it doesn’t account for the time it actually takes to do a task. You can also suffer from the knock on effect of tasks that are important being reprioritised behind tasks that are urgent.

The proposed solution to these failings in the to-do list is to schedule your tasks rather than just writing them down. The argument in favour of scheduling is that if you’ve got time blocked out into your diary to achieve something, then you are going to sit down (or stand up) and get it done. That which is scheduled gets done.

Break down your time

An important first step if you decide to start scheduling your tasks, is to think in the smallest blocks of time possible. Calendar tools traditionally deal in 30 or 60 minute slots, but if you want to make the most of the time in your day you should aim to think in blocks of 15 minutes or less. If you want a quick insight into how well this could work then think of the meetings that are currently in your planner. How many are set for one hour? Often you can achieve a result in a meeting in 30 minutes or less, but if an hour is scheduled then you are likely to take an hour achieving the same result.

Block out the important stuff

Once you’ve started thinking in small time blocks you’re ready to start loading your tasks into your schedule. But before you do, remember to schedule in the events that are important in your life too. You will find that your time will fill up quite quickly so you don’t want to have to postpone a task and rebuild your schedule because you forgot about an anniversary dinner that required you to be home early. Likewise the tasks that take priority in terms of business or career rewards should also be prioritised and done first.

Load up your schedule

A positive side effect of scheduling is that you will actually get the ability to focus on only one thing at a time. Prioritise your most important or challenging tasks for the first part of your day when you are at your most energised. Then make sure you schedule in absolutely everything. For example: don’t check your emails continuously across the day.  Instead, check your emails in pre-scheduled blocks. If an email requires a reply you can schedule in the time to do that too: that way you can be sure you are always working on the most important task.

Keeping track of tasks that need to be done is a challenging job in itself. Different techniques work for different people, and there is no right or wrong way to stay in control of the things you need to get done. If you enjoy keeping track of everything in a to-do list, then regularly going through it could help you remove clutter and ensure that everything stays much more achievable and focused on the priorities of your business. And if you’re tired of the to-do list and looking for a change, then why not consider building your schedule around your tasks, and focusing your time on achieving the initiatives that will have the highest impact. Or perhaps you might find that the most effective system for you uses a combination of the two?

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