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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

Crazy To-Do List? Here's What to Tackle First

Unfortunately, your to-do lists won’t be down to zero until the day you die. So if you’ve been thinking that you’ll only reach productivity nirvana when your lists are empty and your calendar is an open canvas, well, that’s not likely to happen—at least as long as you have a job, a family, friends, and a life to manage.

If you’re like most people, you have pretty chunky lists of things to do, along with a near-constant flood of new to-dos and an overwhelming feeling that it all needs to be done now.

Many people try to tackle their mountain of personal tasks by sorting them by priority, and starting at the top. Seems logical—but they’ve actually got it backward. In reality, before you think about priorities, there are three factors you need to consider, because they each actually limit your choices about what you should (and even can) do next.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and aren’t sure where to start—set your “top priority” lists aside, consider these three factors, and make use of them to help you sort your excess of options into a more manageable set of choices.

Limitation #1: Context

If you’re not in the right place, don’t have the right tool, or are not in front of the right person required to take an action, you can’t take that action. Think about it—ever been at work, in a meeting, and suddenly remember you need to buy shampoo? Unless you leave that meeting, “buy shampoo” isn’t happening in that moment. It belongs on a list called “Errands” for when you’re out and about. (Unless you’re like my husband who thinks the life of shampoo can be extended eternally by shooting water into it and diluting it down when it’s near empty.)

Context will always be your first limitation. You can certainly change your context, to get to the right place, tool, or person to take the action that just came to mind. But unless you do, your choices are limited by that factor first.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done method suggests that you primarily sort your to-do list by context, such as @Computer, @Home, @Errands. This saves time by preventing you from slogging through choices you can’t even make—because you are not in the right context.

Limitation #2: Time Available

The second factor that comes into play is how much time you have. If you’ve got a big project to work on, but you need to bounce to your next meeting or pick up your kids in 10 minutes, it’s probably not a good use of your effort to start it. It might take you that long just to get into the rhythm of it before you have to unhook.

So when time is a factor, look for choices that match your time available. Maybe in those 10 minutes, the best thing isn’t for you to go check your inbox and half-read a bunch of emails that you’ll have to re-read anyway. Maybe instead, you’ll benefit more from going outside and breathing some fresh air, or making that quick call where you know you’ll get someone’s voicemail.

Limitation #3: Resources

The third factor to consider is what your energy is like. I don’t know about you, but Friday afternoon after a long, busy workweek is not the time to dive into anything that will take a lot of mental bandwidth. Instead, I make choices that match what my mental and physical energy is like. Not to say there aren’t times I need to just “buck up” and get in there anyway, but I like to be conscious about what I’m choosing and match that to when I think I’ll bring my best self, whenever I can.

Pulling in Priorities

We said at the beginning to set aside “priority”—but now, here’s where it comes back. While context, time availability, and resources will limit your choices about which to-dos you should tackle next, they still aren’t usually enough to help you decide which will bring you the most value. This is where priority shines—it becomes your strategy.

If you’re thinking that to decide based on priority means you need to have your life and work “all figured out,” I’ll make it easier for you. You just need to know what you’ve committed to—completely. First, capture into lists everything you’ve made an agreement, would, could, or should about, personally and professionally, so that you trust you’re making a decision against the full inventory of what you’ve committed to.

Then, ask these two simple priority questions:

  • What’s the value in getting it done?
  • What’s the risk if I don’t?
  • Often, you’ll realize that half of the projects and tasks you took on can’t realistically get done in the time you have, nor is there value in taking them on now, or little risk to parking them out in the future. These kinds of things go on a “Someday Maybe” list for me. I haven’t given up on the idea—I’m just saying, “not now.”

    Try asking those two questions on the next email you get that asks you to do something. Or the next book you tell yourself you should read. Or the next meeting you’re asked to attend. It might just help you wade through your choices with more ease of mind, knowing you can only do so much, and that you’re making the best choices you can.

    Photo of to-do list courtesy of Shutterstock.