Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Focusing Your Task List

A to-do list

If you’re like many people, you probably have a long list of things that you need to do (or think that you need to do). I’ve seen people with to-do lists that are a page or two long, and only getting longer.

It’s daunting when you’re faced with a mound of tasks like that. It can be paralyzing. You don’t know where to begin. The sheer amount of work in front of you is overwhelming. So much so that you shut down and procrastinate.

With a little planning, you can turn that mountain into an ant hill. Here are some tips that can help you do that.

Set Priorities

Not all tasks are created equally. Some are more important or urgent than others. You need to put the most important ones at the top of your list.

How do you determine which tasks are the most important? That’s really up to you. You know what you need to do better than anyone. A good rule of thumb is to tackle tasks that have an imminent deadline first. So, if you have to finish some charts for a report in two days, put that task at the top of your list. Finishing the text for a blog post that’s due in two weeks can wait.

When coaching or speaking over the last few years, I’ve run into a handful of people who claim that all of their tasks have the same priority — high. If you’re in that boat, the problem I’m sad to say is with you. You’ve either:

  • Taken on too much work,
  • Procrastinated, or
  • Just don’t know how to prioritize your work

You need to step back, reevaluate, and reset. Or you might need to call for help to get your work done.

Focus On A Few Tasks At a Time

You’ve prioritized your tasks. But you’ve still got a big, scary, daunting list of things to do. You can make it smaller, less scary, and less daunting by focusing your task list. To do that:

  • Start at the top of the list
  • Focus on a maximum of four tasks
  • Make sure that you can finish most, if not all, of them in one day
  • If you can’t finish all of them, complete the unfinished tasks the next day
  • If you finish all your tasks, resist the urge to add more tasks to the day’s list. Avoid assembly line productivity

At the end of each day, put together your task list for the next day. If you need to, shuffle your task list.

Low-Hanging Fruit

While I’m not a fan of GTD (a popular system for productivity), there are aspects of the system that I find useful. One of those is the two-minute rule — complete any any tasks that will take two minutes or less.

Two minutes is a bit limiting. You might have some low-hanging fruit on your task list — tasks that you can complete in under 10 minutes. I suggest tackling those either first thing in the day or at the end of the day.

Do What’s Necessary to Finish Your Tasks

Remove any and all distractions that will pull you away from what you need to do, even if only for a few moments. Those moments when your eyes aren’t on the ball can put a dent in your productivity.

Be ruthless with your focus. Turn off your phone. Disable email, instant messaging, and Skype. Close your door if you have one. Cut yourself off from the internet if you can. Use the Pomodoro Technique.

Your might have to be a bit blunt with friends, family, or co-workers. Try to explain to them that you need to get your work done, and nothing else matters to you right. You’ll probably ruffle a few feathers in the short term, but that can’t be helped.

Chipping Away

Instead of diving into your task list and barely treading water, focusing what you need to do will help you get things done. Your progress will seem slow at first, but chipping away at your tasks has a cumulative effect.

Just as you can’t run 5K when you first start running, with regular practice you’ll reach that mark. It’s the same with your task list. With all the chipping away that you’re doing, and harvesting the low-hanging fruit, you’ll soon notice your task list shrinking.

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