An effective time-management system isn’t really a single system, but a complex and interwoven set of skills and behaviors. There are lots of different things that come into play with how well we manage our time, including: how efficiently we work and resist distractions; how well we estimate and judge the passage of time; how well we manage our; and how well we manage our tasks and the things we need to. And all of those aspects of our lives, and the underlying skill sets involved, are intertwined in how well we manage the 24 hours we have in each day. As you’ve read from the previous posts in this series, what it takes for an individual to be good at “Time Management” can be more like a tangled mess of spaghetti than any self-help book might imply. Especially if you have a Busy Brain or ADDish tendencies!
How well we manage the things we have to do in our lives is an integral part of the bigger picture of time-management. Even if we work hard and improve our sense of time, our calendar management, and our thinking about our own abilities, this “task management” piece can be a big disconnect for many of us, and the weak link in the proverbial chain of time-management.
Without an effective system in place for task management, we are constantly playing catch-up, squeezing in what we can to dig ourselves out from under the mountain of things we need to take care of, and feeling constant stress of those “forgotten” items that won’t come back into our awareness until they become another crisis to manage, and another fire to put out.
There are two essential components to managing tasks effectively: a trusted means of capture, and creating routines (which I will explore in another post).
Establishing a trusted means to document or capture the things you need to do is essential to alleviating stress, and making sure that things don’t fall off your radar. Recording the things you need to do in some reliable form that you can retrieve is the cornerstone to a good task management system. It is this reliable capture and retrieval system that gets the barrage of things you have to do out of your mind, out of your unreliable working memory, and alleviates stress. And all I’m talking about is creating an effective “to-do list.”
“Lists never work for me”
We’ve all made lists before, with varying degrees of success. If you’re in the habit of writing things down (or recording them electronically), but it isn’t working for you, I don’t want you to lose that habit. It’s a good one! But there are a few, small things you can do differently that can make a list work for you:
- Never, EVER use loose pieces of paper or random sticky notes! Your “to-do list” can be either electronic or in good, old-fashioned paper-and-pen form, but what is important is that it is recorded somewhere that you will not lose it, and that you will know where it is when you need it. Not on sticky notes. Not on random, loose pieces of paper! If you take nothing else from this article, your productivity will be dramatically improved if you simply adhere to this one principle: no more loose paper! Don’t get me wrong: I love my sticky notes but, in and of themselves, they are not a reliable means of capturing your to-dos! Sticky notes stick to more than just their intended target, and they become un-sticky, too. And loose pieces of paper and sticky notes do very little to alleviate the stress and worry that a trusted system for capturing your tasks will.
- Create a List you can Trust! We’ve all made lists (either paper or electronic), but if we can’t find these lists when we need them, they can’t help us. So put your list in a dedicated notepad, notebook, or electronic device, for starters. (And before you ask, it has been my experience, both professionally and personally, that whether you choose an electronic or paper version of a to-do list is much less important than the way you use the list. It is simply a matter of personal preference.)
- Use your list! Next, your “to-do list” also can’t help you if you don’t use it. Get into the habit of recording the things you need to do as you become aware of them (which is facilitated by keeping your list with you as much as possible) is really important. And this is where those sticky notes really do come in handy! Sticky notes can be a great “vehicle” for transporting information from one place to another—temporarily. I keep a packet of sticky notes in my purse, in my bathroom vanity, and in my nightstand at all times for jotting down things down as the “pop in” to my mind temporarily–until I can capture them in my list, safe and sound.
- Create habits for your List! And creating habits for reviewing and “managing” the list is just as important as creating the list. (And, yes, you do need to learn to “manage” the list that “manages” your to-dos!) I recommend reviewing the list as least once daily (preferably more) so that you can remove the tasks that have been completed, and determine which tasks still need attention. Your list will be in a constant state of flux, and will need to be maintained for you to be able to manage your life with less stress and more productivity. Finding repeatable times each day to check your list, such as with your first cup of coffee in the morning or before you go to bed at night. Attaching the list-maintenance to behaviors you’re already doing regularly can make the habit easier to create.
Next month, I’ll explore how you can tame your to-do list, creating priorities, and how to make sure you’re actually tacking the tasks on the list, so that you can keep it from growing exponentially! Surprisingly, how you record the tasks on your list really does make a difference in your ability to execute those tasks!
Until then, grab a notebook or notepad, and start a new habit!