4 Easy Ways to Stop Falling Behind
How to hack your to-do list
I hate falling behind. I also hate wasting time. That’s why I make it my mission to avoid having a long to-do list, no matter what life throws my way.
Many of us fall into the to-do list trap. We have a list of things we need to accomplish, and then someone asks us to do more things, so we add them to the list and we get frustrated when we can’t get everything done.
It doesn’t work.
Here’s what does.
1. Have working meetings.
Instead of having a meeting to talk about how to do something, have a meeting to actually do it. Working sessions are amazing. You’d be surprised how much a team of people can get done during a 30-minute meeting.
The key is to have an objective for each meeting so each person knows what to prepare and how to contribute. With a little preparation, you can skip the lengthy introductions and get down to business.
Don’t have a dozen meetings to talk about plans — have meetings to act upon plans.
For example: Your team wants to meet to discuss the components of an upcoming presentation. Everyone starts taking notes about what the presentation should include. Why? Why wait for someone to create a Google document, and then have another meeting about it later on, and then wait for everyone’s individual contributions? And then have another meeting to discuss why it isn’t really done? Why not just create the presentation right then and there? Together?
2. Stop triaging tasks according to their importance, and start tackling them based on:
- how long they take to accomplish
- whether you can multitask them
- how much attention they actually require
Let’s say you’re in the middle of a project that’s going to take an hour or two to complete, when someone interrupts your workflow and surprises you with an important but menial task.
Your instinct might be to shoo the person away and to say, “I’ll do that later — I have other priorities.”
But guess what? This menial task is a day or two away from becoming a priority, too. And now it’s sitting on your to-do list, stressing you out for the rest of the day.
You could have done it in 5 minutes, and it wouldn’t have affected your current project. If anything, it would have given you a much-needed break from your current endeavor.
You might think that doing the little tasks immediately will cause a million other 5-minute tasks to pop up, but that’s not what will happen, because:
- nobody will actually expect you to get things done in 5 minutes, and
- you don’t actually have to submit the work as soon as you finish it.
If you can do something in 5 minutes, do it now.
If you can multitask without sacrificing the quality of your work, do it.
If a project requires very little mental energy and can be done at virtually any time, tackle it slowly whenever you need a break from something energy-intensive.
3. Master your own calendar.
Block off time on your calendar to do things that will pile up if left untouched. Start your day with a cup of coffee and 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to check emails, return calls, do paperwork — whatever. Block off the time and you won’t have 5,347 unread emails and a voicemail box that’s always full.
Then, block off time for lunch. This is especially important if you choose when to have lunch. If you don’t block off the time, you might not have lunch. Whether you decide to work during lunch is your own business, but at least you’ve set some time aside.
If you have a huge project, block off time for that, too. Be flexible; you don’t want to inconvenience others by being unavailable all day long, but you have to be realistic about your own schedule.
This means learning to say things like:
- I reserved that time to complete an important project. Do you mind if we choose a different time?
- Is this something we could do via email?
- Can we turn this into a working session? I think we can get this done pretty quickly.
- FYI, this deadline isn’t realistic. I won’t be able to tackle this until Wednesday.
and so on.
4. Delegate, tag-team, automate.
It’s not easy. People always say that if you want something done right, you should do it yourself. But you know what? These people always have a lot to do and not enough time to get it done.
There is literally no reason why you shouldn’t leverage the support of your team. Even freelancers can subcontract or automate certain tasks.
You should not delegate work to people who will need extensive training in order to complete it… but you should delegate work to people who can do it well. You should also delegate work to people who are looking for new challenges or who are eager to practice new skills.
Tag-teaming is a whole different ball game. Instead of doing something alone, find a willing partner and see how you can help each other. Two minds are often better than one.
Developers do pair programming. Doctors collaborate to make challenging diagnoses. As a technical writer, I like to tag-team certain projects with subject-matter experts or with people I can learn from. Do what works for you, but don’t feel like you have to do everything alone.
And lastly, don’t be intimidated by task automation. If you can invest a little time up front to win back a few hours every week, do it. So what if you spend an entire day setting up a system if it saves you time in the long run?
If you’re starting off with a huge backlog, don’t worry. You can do one of two things:
- Block off some time, delegate some tasks, and start this plan with a blank slate.
- Start this plan immediately and let the backlog take care of itself.
I hate to-do lists.
I hate seeing outstanding items on them, and I hate the feeling of watching them grow exponentially. If you’re in the same boat, a little re-structuring of your workflow could help you take control of your time.
technical writing • DevOps • author of Diary of an SRE • kerisavoca.com