Starting the day without a clear strategy on how to tackle the barrage of emails, projects and deadlines will lead to inefficiencies and headaches down the line. We all have our own systems, but it’s inevitable that some tasks just fall through the cracks. Fine-tuning the ancient art of to-do list management takes time, practice, discipline and a little creativity. However, it’s an important skill to master, because the ability to keep your and your teams’ plans organized is the hallmark of a good leader and manager.
The personal benefits shouldn’t be overlooked either. An organized planner keeps your priorities in order and nagging anxieties at bay. With the litany of tasks filling our mind and occupying our thoughts, making a concerted effort to store these items on paper is a critical step to a productive day. Moreover, the perspective gained from visualizing your day on paper—rather than just thinking about it—helps you become more productive and in higher spirits.
It’s time to dust off that old notebook and throw out your sticky notes. Here are a few strategies to keep your list organized and the trains running on time.
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was, simply, an organizational mastermind. After leading the Allied Forces in the largest conflict in the history of mankind, Eisenhower was elected president and lead the United States through two terms. However, he was also an accomplished painter and avid golfer. With only 24 hours in the day, how would one man—with the weight of the world on his shoulders—find time for hobbies? This is where the Eisenhower Box comes in.
Taking a cue from his military background, Eisenhower simplified his day into four major categories, “important and urgent,” “important and non-urgent,” “not important, but urgent,” and “neither important nor urgent.” When placed into a square matrix, a clear pattern emerged: some items can be delegated, some are vital, and some can clearly be scheduled for another day. For managers, this system is a perfect way to start the day and ensure that your attention is given where it’s needed most.
Rather than four categories, the Pareto Principle brings your list down to just two: short term and long term. The Pareto Principle states that most systems, whether economic, persona, political or social, do not distribute equally and usually under fall under an 80-20 split. A minority of inputs lead to the majority of outcomes, whereas a majority of inputs lead to minority of outcomes.
When applied to a broader professional context, 20% of the work takes 80% of your day, whereas 80% of the work takes 20% of the day. This concept was brought to national attention through Tim Ferris’ bestseller, The Four-Hour Work Week. He recommends focusing on the 20% of your list that matters most and has the largest impact on your day. The 80% of your list is most likely “clutter” and can delegated off to others.
This technique was developed Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s to help keep focused and maximize your productivity throughout the day. Rather than staring at a problem for hours on end and only “half-working” for the majority of the day, Cirillo suggests separating your day into distinct 15-minute working intervals.
Set a timer for 15 minutes and devote the entirety of your mental energy to completing your list. Once the timer rings, take a break for fifteen minutes and repeat. The science behind this process is keeping your attention span active for the longest possible period of time, then relaxing to “recharge.” You’ll find that after a few days of applying the Pomodoro Technique, not only your productivity increases, but the anxieties of work will fade away.
These three techniques are only stepping stones to developing a time and list management system that is perfect for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach and experimenting with a few different approaches can help build a unique strategy that fits your needs. Overall, this is a skill that takes practice in order to truly unlock your productivity potential. However, after a few weeks and a few attempts you’ll find the ideal way to stay sane and get work done.