Overcome the challenges of working from home

How to get on top of your to-do list

Published by Amanda Brown on

How to get on top of your to-do list

I was looking at a friend's notebook the other day.There was nothing particularly unusual about the cover – simply a spiral-bound, A4, lined notebook.

But what surprised me were numerous pages of almost unreadable lists. Not only that but there were post-it notes stuck all over the lists and pieces of scrap paper with notes on shoved inside.

She's not known for her organisational abilities and time-keeping isn't one of her skills. She's one of those people who just about gets the children to school on time and is always too busy for a coffee!

“I'm just so busy,” she says.

So, I was prompted to come to her rescue and write this post – how to get on top of your to-do list.

Here are the five main steps:

  1. Start with a brain dump
  2. Review your year
  3. Plan the next month
  4. Decide how to record your to-dos
  5. Bring order to your tasks

1. Start with a brain dump

In an information-overloaded world we are being repeatedly bombarded by demands all day, every day. From the TV and radio, tablets, computers, smart speakers and phones, there is never a moment away from communications which are capturing our attention. It's no wonder we forget things.

Relying on your brain to remember the vast 34GB of information we consume every day, it soon becomes clear that we need to find a better way to remember the tasks on our to-do list accurately and objectively also we remain organised and in control; unlike my chaotic friend.

We need to free up our brains so that they can work on what they are best at:

  • processing information
  • being inventive and
  • creative

A brain dump is a process of emptying your mind of every outstanding task before putting them into some sort of order.

Write down all your tasks using whatever works for you:

  • post-it notes
  • lists of lists on paper
  • one long list
  • a whiteboard
  • an app such as Workflowy or Todoist

I favour post-it notes spread out over my dining table. Plenty of space to stick and rearrange them into a semblance of order.

2. Categorise

Start with broad categories, such as Work and Home. Then sub-divide them into smaller categories. For example, under Home, I might have Me, Children, House, Garden, Holidays, Hobbies, Finances, Studying, Shopping, Meal Prep, Laundry, Events, etc

Under the Work category I would sub-divide further into regular routine tasks and  one-off tasks. Routine tasks could be daily, weekly, monthly, annually.

Take time to review your existing calendar for the past few months to prompt your memory for activities you might have forgotten to add to this master list.

Once you have exhausted your first brain dump, walk round your home and jot down anything else which springs to mind. Look round your office – are there to-dos which you have been putting off?

Leave your brain dump for a couple of days and review it from time to time, adding and taking away as you revise what you really want to be included.

3. Establish your Priorities

When your brain dump is complete and you have categorised all the tasks, it's time to put them into order of priority. this requires making an estimate of the time each task is likely to take and a start date. For example, if one of your household tasks is to returf part of the garden, it's best to choose the spring or autumn, not mid winter when it's too cold or summer when there's less rainfall.

Projects which need the investment of significant amounts of money will need to fit into your financial budget.

Once you have all your tasks categorised and prioritised you have a Master To-Do List.

It is important not to have too many concurrent to-dos otherwise you'll be overwhelmed before you start. Billionaire Warren Buffet only ever has three tasks on his to-do list – but then he has an army of helpers!

4. The Year at a Glance

The next step is to place each of your tasks onto a calendar and/or weekly planner

Certain to-dos such as birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, product launches, etc are best listed on an annual calendar such as a wall planner or on the end pages of your diary with the details included on eachspecific date.

You can use a copy of this Monthly Google Sheet and fill in all the crucial dates. This will give you an overall picture for the year. Print out the completed sheets so they are on hand.

A visual system is preferable to an electronic one if there are other family members who need to see the calendar.

If you prefer an electronic version, fill in the whole year. By doing this you are unlikely to double book or arrange a holiday when the children are still at school. It's important to review this planner regularly at your Sunday Review.

5. Weekly planning

Most of us work to a weekly schedule, but you can adapt this system to fit your particular routine. On a Sunday evening take about half an hour to review the week ahead.

Ensure all your meetings are diarised together with time for preparation and for actioning any decisions, as well as travel time. If you have routine weekly tasks add them in as well as time for carrying out client work and household tasks.

The way I build a schedule is to fill in the whole of each day hour by day. That way you can allocate sufficient time for a controlled number of items on your Master To-Do List.  As the months go by so one-off tasks are completed as new ones are added but your weekly plan only includes activities which fit into the number of hours you have available.

The aim is to end up with a calendar or diary which is full but with sufficient contingency and buffer time to allow for overruns.

Limit your weekly and daily goals

Aim to have no more than three main goals for the week and one ‘most important task' for each day. If you achieve more then so much the better. If you suffer from planning fallacy then you'll need to be over-generous with the time allocated to some projects.

Having a ‘no meetings' day is a good way to crack on with work in the office that requires significant amounts of concentration. Employ some of the Productivity Hacks in this article to support your efficient working practices and look at taking the Homepreneur Efficiently Effective Method Productivity Course which will save you a minimum of 10 hours every week for optimal work-life balance.

In summary

Choose a paper-based or app based system or possibly a mixture of the two. But be consistent  with which activities go where.

You should have one place where you can easily see at a glance your schedules for different time periods – daily, weekly, monthly and annually. You might use a paper planner for the daily and weekly tasks, your phone's calendar to keep on top of appointments for the months ahead and a wall planner for annual events.

Whatever system you choose, stick to it and be rigorous in keeping it up to date. With practice this disciplined approach will pay off and you'll find that Master To Do List diminishing in length.


Categories: Productivity

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