It starts with that familiar sinking feeling, as we scurry around trying to do the million things on our mental “to-do” list, and instantly think of another twenty tasks to add. Or we stare at a blank page, too stressed to know where to start writing a list of everything we have to do.
Either way, we get that awful feeling of total overwhelm. We feel like we’ve failed before we’ve even begun. So what can we do? Read on to learn a process that will help you get from “to-do” to “achieved”, without having to work harder.
When you've got too much to do to write a "to-do"
Some of us fall into the trap of keeping everything in our heads, thinking we can keep it all straight. We’ve got far too much to do to take time to write a list!
But in our hyper-connected, warp-speed world full of competing and changing demands, keeping things in our head is a shortcut to missing something important, and chews up the precious mental resources we need to actually get things done. Having a to-do list, and working it with a great process, can seriously help our productivity.
A Google search for “to-do app” in June 2021 returns 18.3 billion results. You’d have to look at 580 results per second for a year to see them all! And that’s before you consider all of the new posts that would be made while you’re wading through the earlier ones.
Contrast that with a search for “effective task management”, which returns a mere 300 million results.
It seems like everyone is looking for the magic app that will turn their “to-do” lists into “achievement” lists. But all the fancy apps in the world won’t help if we don’t have a good process to decide what to do and when.
Many years ago, as a new manager, I felt totally overwhelmed by everything I had to juggle on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. There were team members seeking answers, suppliers needing an approval to get key tasks underway, customers demanding that I solve their problems instantly, reports that my boss required yesterday, and somewhere in all of that, I really wanted to hold on to my sanity! No matter how hard I worked, my productivity wasn’t great, and I felt like I was fighting fires all day long.
Thankfully, one day I stumbled across Robyn Pearce’s website – and I credit her with the inspiration for this article. One of the best things I ever learned was Robyn’s technique to master your to-do list, reduce the feelings of overwhelm, and get into achievement mode.
I’ve worked that process for years now, and have made some tweaks to turbo-charge it. Ready? Here’s the process:
The "TL;DR" version
It’s a simple process – the magic comes when you follow each step in order (no skipping a step!).
- Write it all down
- Prioritise your “Top Five”
- Ignore everything else on your list
- Work your Top Five
- Cross off completed tasks
- When your Top Five is complete, celebrate, then go back to Step 2
- Keep going – you’re on a roll!
Step by step from "to-do" to "achieved"
1. Write it all down
Get a big (!) blank piece of paper, and write down everything that you need/want to get done. And I mean everything – no matter how big or small, if it’s on your mind, get it down on paper.
You’ll probably think of other items as you work through the rest of the process. Great! Write them down on the list (I did suggest you use a big piece of paper!)
2. Prioritise your "Top Five"
This step is one of the most powerful keys to go from “to-do” to “achieved”. Pick and prioritise five (and only five) tasks you want/need to get done.
Why five? Too many tasks feels overwhelming (check out this article from USA Today about how too many options fry our brains). Five is a manageable number to think about. And when you tick off one item, your target is 20% complete.
Many people will tell you to start with tasks with the biggest impact. I disagree – pick at least two easily-achievable items. Heck, “write a to-do list” should be the first item on your list!
As Shawn Achor explains in Before Happiness [non-affiliate link to Amazon], we function on an acceleration principle – the closer we get to our target, the harder and faster we work to complete it.
So for your first session, pick a couple of tasks that will take less than 15 minutes to complete, and a couple of other tasks that will help you feel like you’re making headway. Make one of the short tasks “Priority One”, and prioritise the rest from 2 to 5.
(Note: After you’ve completed your first Top Five, you’ll do this step again – just make sure you don’t leave the really hard, time-consuming, boring, gnarly tasks until last. Mix them up with some easier tasks, so that you continue to feel the momentum.)
3. IGNORE everything else on your list!
From now until Step 6, act as if the rest of the list doesn’t exist. This can feel scary, because we worry we’ll let someone down or forget something important. If you’ve followed Steps 1 and 2, it’s unlikely you’ll overlook something vital.
But if it turns out that you have, write it down (Step 1) then prioritise it (Step 2). Re-order or drop one of your prioritised tasks, but never have more than five prioritised tasks at one time. Then you’re ready to ignore the rest of the list again and move on to Step 4.
4. Work your Top Five, in order
Now we’re getting to the “doing” of the to-do list. You’ve listed everything crowding your mind, selected a few things to focus on, and turned your attention away from other tasks.
Start with your top priority. If you followed the advice in Step 2, it should take less than 15 minutes.
Turn off your phone, close your email, shut your door or put a note on the back of your chair saying “Please Do Not Disturb”, and work that task.
You won’t always be able to work on your to-do list. That’s OK – your brain and body need breaks to stay fresh, and you’ve got commitments to yourself and other people that are important to honour.
Give the Pomodoro Technique a go. I recommend this to all my clients, and they often tell me that it’s one of the best approaches for getting things done while maintaining their energy.
Just make sure that when you come back after a break, you work on your highest-priority item.
5. Check completed items off your list
Done with Priority One? Awesome! Draw a great big line through the task on the to-do list (or put a tick-mark next to it, if that’s more your thing).
Take a moment to bask in the glory of a finished task, and pat yourself on the back for a job well-done.
Next step? Rinse and repeat with your second priority.
Buckle down and get it done. Now you’ve got two completed tasks, and two great big lines through tasks (or tick-marks) on your to-do list.
6. When your Top Five is complete, celebrate, then go back to Step 2
So you’ve done the hard work, and crossed off all of your Top Five? I bet you feel like you can achieve anything! This is a moment to savour. Take a quick walk outside if it’s a nice day, get a celebratory coffee/tea/hot chocolate, or tell a friend or loved one what you’ve achieved.
When you’ve finished celebrating, it’s back to Step 2 we go – pick a new Top Five (remember to check the extra items you’ve added since you first wrote the list), and prioritise them from #1 to #5. Then, you’re going to apply the same process you’ve just completed – work on #1, then #2, then #3 and so on.
7. Keep going - you're on a roll now!
Each time you cross an item off your to-do list, you’re achieving something worthwhile. If you followed the advice in Step 2, you’ve completed a mix of some really hard, boring or challenging tasks, and some quick-win, feel-good tasks.
Keep working the process – pick five, work through them in order, celebrate, pick another five, and so on. Pretty soon, you’ll be feeling a strong sense of momentum.
You’re getting good work done, and your productivity is on the rise. You’ll also be feeling good about what you’ve achieved, enjoying a helpful “bump” from those lovely brain chemicals, and your boss, colleagues, and friends are probably noticing a change. You’re turning “to-do” into “achieved”.
Now turn your process into a practice
Using this process once will help you dig yourself out from a crisis of too much to do. Turning this process into a practice will deliver exponential benefits.
A practice is something you work on with regularity, focus, and commitment. It doesn’t mean doing it perfectly every time – some days are definitely better than others!
Making it a practice means sticking with the process, even when it’s not easy. This takes a bit of grit – you can read more about grit in my post about success.
If you incorporate this practice into your life, you’ll soon discover that almost nothing can stand in the way of turning a “to-do” into an “achieved”. I’d love to hear about your progress in the comments. As for me, now that I’ve posted this article, it’s time to write a new to-do list!
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