Don’t all this structuring just amount to more work? Do we really need a to-do-list? Is it really worth the trouble of writing down everything we have to do?
These are legitimate questions. The purpose of having a good structure is to make it easier to get things done, and then of course the structure itself should not constitute a threshold or obstacle.
I receive questions such as these from time to time when I give lectures, and you might have already guessed that I always answer them with ”of course it is worth it”. Allow me to explain why.
Arguing for the better option
I find that there are three situations in which we tend to ask ourselves if we really need a to-do-list. We think:
- ”I will just remember it. Isn’t that enough?”
No, not for most people I meet. During a regular day when the tempo might be quite high and we have a lot to do, it is very easy to forget things. Suddenly we remember something we should have done earlier (which we had forgotten) and we will have to exert much more effort and strain ourselves to get it done on time.
Our mind is a rather poor choice of location to keep to-do-tasks in when it comes to getting an overview and sort amongst all the tasks we need to do. Few people manage to ”hide” the to-do-tasks they do not want to focus on at the moment (you have probably tried not to think of a pink elephant when asked not to…). When we cannot obtain that clear and complete overview of everything in our minds, we tend to just do what we come to think of rather than what actually has the highest priority. You do the right thing but at the wrong time.
- ”I have it all in my e‑mail account. The inbox is equivalent of my to-do-list.”
Sure, until now you might have used the e‑mail inbox as part of your to-do-list (but only part of it since some things you have to do did not originally appear in an e‑mail). Besides, this is another impractical format to keep the to-do-list in as well. Someone keeps adding items to it, including items which do not constitute to-do-tasks. The tasks/subject-lines in the list are rarely formulated in terms of what the actual task is comprised of, but rather along the lines of ”Re: re: re: re: the project”. When we have forgotten what to do with the e‑mail titled ”Last meeting”, we need to reread the e‑mail to remind ourselves. If we had formulated the to-do-task right after reading the e‑mail in the first place, when it was obvious to us what we needed to do, then we would not have to bother rereading it.
- ”Well, we have the business’ operational plan, our project-plans and all the activities scheduled in the calendar. Why should I re-write all of that as steps in a separate list as well?”
Whatever you have done so far is fine, but are you really getting the overview you need to be able to see and surveillance all the more extensive tasks you have to complete and hence ensure that you are progressing as you should in all of them? Are the notes made in the tools you mentioned above detailed enough? Is what you have to do clearly defined as separate to-do-tasks which each takes less than a workday to complete so that you get to enjoy ticking at least a few of them off your list every day?
- Be honest with yourself. Have you gathered all the tasks you have to do in the single place or tool you previously determined would be the only location for to-do-tasks?
Or, do you have any undefined tasks in other places for which you thought ”Never mind writing it down, I already know what I need to do”?
- Look through your e‑mail inbox and define any other tasks you come to think of. Have a look at the notes you have made during all meetings you have attended in the past week and sift out any tasks you have forgotten to define and write down separately. Also look through your calendar for upcoming meetings and activities, and make note of to-do-tasks you need to do in relation to these and which you have not yet added to your list.
Invest your time well now and you will thank yourself later
The few extra seconds you have to spend on specifying and writing down every to-do-task is time well spent and invested. It will become much easier for you to get an overview of all your tasks and engagements, you can be more certain that your priorities are accurate from one day to the next, and you will be able to plan more things in advance. All in all, you will have a concrete tool that will help you keep track of everything you need to do, which is a prerequisite for fine-tuning your structure and finding a healthy balance between your work and the rest of your life.
What tool or method do you use?
How have you simplified the process of defining and making note of to-do-tasks so that it is done in a flash? If you have a good idea or method, tell me!