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Many people still love the paper and pencil to-do list.  Either you keep a regular list, or more often than not when work starts to get busy – you think “I should make a list of everything I need to do so I don’t forget anything”. Some find whatever piece of paper is lying around, some use the same notebook they take to every meeting, and others have a fancy ‘Kikki.K’ To-Do notebook with ruled lines and tick-boxes. However, the smart ones among us use To-Do list software.

There are many purposes for a To-Do list, and yet most people miss many of the benefits. Here is a quick guide on the benefits of a to-do list and how you can maximise them:

1. Get organised!

Probably the most common reason to make a list is to organise your day/week/month. You know you have a whole bunch of work to do but you can’t quite remember it all off the top of your head. By writing down all your tasks you can get a full scope of your workload. A hidden element here is that you don’t have to complete it all in one day!! In fact, by making an initial list, you can then discuss with your manager what can be done in a reasonable time and even give them a chance to lighten your load by re-assigning some tasks to other team members. Without having all your tasks documented, you don’t have the information available to help yourself or the team.

2. Prioritise

The second step after all tasks are written down is to prioritise them. What can be done quickly? What will take more than a couple of days? Is anyone waiting on you for anything? What are your general work priorities?

By assigning a priority you can then work though your tasks in a structured manner. It may be a numbered list from 1 to 10, flags, or differently coloured highlights. If you focus on the higher priority tasks first you can rest assured that you are working on the right thing at the right time.

An often-overlooked step is to review these priorities as new tasks come in. For those who must meet response times or deadlines, you should read all emails as they arrive then prioritise the new tasks. Some may say you should ignore emails, so they don’t distract you while you are working through your current tasks. However, if you have responsibilities you need to ensure you don’t have a higher priority task gathering dust in your inbox while you work away at something less important.

Others prefer to go by the rule – if you can do it in under 5 minutes, do it straight away, otherwise add it to the to-do list and priorities it appropriately.

3. Maintain the same list

This may seem like common sense, but you need to maintain the same consistent to-do list. If you don’t finish the old list and start a new one, you either miss tasks from the previous list, or spend time re-creating the list and duplicating the carry over tasks.

Maintain the same list and update it regularly. There is great satisfaction to be gained by crossing off tasks as you complete them. If a task gets old it might increase in priority and needs to be done next, or it may become unnecessary as circumstances have changed. Either way, you need to ensure every task is actioned and not forgotten. The whole point of having a list in the first place was to make sure you didn’t forget anything!

4. Keep an archive

One of the least appreciated benefits of the to-do list is having a historical record of what you have achieved. The majority of people will use a to-do list until all tasks are complete then rip the page out, scrunch it up in a ball and shoot for 3 points! By doing this you lose all historical record of your activities, performance and even capabilities.

To maximise this benefit of your to-do list, maintain an archive. When it comes time for performance review or refreshing your resume – go through the archive and find all those tasks which you’ve forgotten about. It’s likely that you completed a task, project or assignment months, if not years, ago and it is now becoming very relevant for the next position you are looking for.

If you can, take it a step further and try to convert your old to-do lists into some metrics. See if you can find how many tasks you do each day or week and maybe how long it takes you to complete those tasks. You can use this information to provide to your manager as proof you are improving, taking on more, becoming more efficient and now have far greater breadth of knowledge since your last review.

This seems to be getting complicated for something which you must do on top of all your actual work and it is very important to ensure there is minimal admin overhead for your to-do list.

For those who keep an old pencil and paper list, the overhead is substantial, and you lose many of the benefits discussed. Once you turn the page in the notebook, it’s likely you’ll never return to review that list you sat down and wrote on Monday morning. Then, worst case scenario; you sit down in the team meeting only to remember that task which needed to be done by today!

To-do list software will help to minimise the amount of effort you spend maintaining your list. Adding new tasks, marking items as complete and drag-and-drop for re-prioritisation makes things a whole lot easier. Software has far better storage than the bottom drawer of your desk, and will mark your archived lists with date stamps automatically. This will help when you need to go back and review. Further to that, some software will provide the stats and metrics for you. They can monitor how long it takes to close off a task and how many you are completing in a given time period.

As we progress through the 21st century don’t get left behind with your old to-do list. Are you on-track to complete everything this week? What’s your current highest priority task? Does your manager agree with you on that? Can you remember what you did this week last year? How many of your regular or recurring tasks can you do in a standard week?

By Phill Eilenberg

Delivery Manager

Phill has over 10 years’ experience managing projects and establishing and running project, program and portfolio management offices in government and private sectors. Phill’s key areas of expertise are; working with project managers and PMO teams to establish processes and project frameworks, project schedule setup and analysis, resource capacity planning and project financial planning.