Today’s To-do: Make a better “to-do” list.

I’m rather a fan of to-do lists.  I find that the act of getting all the things that I have to get accomplished out of my head and onto a piece of paper helps me focus and relax, since I’m less worried about dropping one of the many balls that I’m constantly trying to juggle.  When I was working as an in-house lawyer I developed what, for me, was a novel style of to-do list that allowed me to have a better view overall of what I needed to get done for the multiple business units I was supporting.

Instead of simply listing everything out one item after the other in the classic, heart-torpedoing  to-do list format, I took an A3 sheet of paper (I was supporting a LOT of business units) and I made a heading for each of the key businesses.  For example, I was supporting three different global brands so each brand got a separate column.  I had to cover general regulatory issues, litigation and supplier contracts for several different product types.  Again, a separate column for each.  I was also responsible for the businesses across a number of European jurisdictions, so I made a heading for the major ones where fires tended to break out most often (yes, Germany, France, Italy – I’m looking at you! And don’t look so smug Spain – you got a column too.)  There was some potential overlap between the countries and the other columns, but I just used the country headings for items that didn’t fall naturally into one of the other headings.  Finally, because there always has to be one, I added a “Miscellaneous” column.

I worked on a layout that was generally comfortable for me and then I photocopied the A3 sheet so that I had 12 template blanks; enough, I figured, to keep me going for three months.  Obviously this could all be done electronically, but personally I’m a fan of the handwritten list, so I kept it low tech.  Now that I had my template, I started unpicking the items that had been languishing on my former, monstrous, one column “to-do” list and split them out across the A3 page under the most appropriate heading.

The first thing I noticed was that things suddenly had a much less hierarchical feel.  Just by spreading them out on the page, I was able to get a more complete view of what needed to be done for each business unit.  This in turn helped me to prioritise the different items not just in terms of what was most important for me that day, but what was most important for each of the business units.   This client focus meant that I could, where possible, try to get one or a number of things stricken off the list, or at least actioned in some way, each day.  I also found that fewer items got caught up in the inescapable eddy that swirls eternally towards the bottom of the standard “to-do” list.  Because there were so many categories with fewer items in each category, I didn’t feel quite so overloaded by the length of the list and fewer things tended to be ignored or de-prioritised.

If you’re a “to-do” list fan, I encourage you to try this method, tweaking however as best for you.

And next time, I’m going to show you how you can use this same method to bring some more balance to your whole life, not just your workload.

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