How do you know when your work is done? For those of us who have unlimited possibilities for work and could do it 24/7 without ever finishing, it is a demand of good leadership to be able to stop, to switch off and to KNOW THAT YOUR WORK IS DONE!
To attempt to manage their work and other commitments, most people keep some kind of ‘to do’ list? Yet sadly these often don’t deliver. This post considers the reason for this, and explores four things that what can be done about it.
The first problem is that most to-do lists grow ever longer as more items get added than get completed. Then some items just never acquire the sense of urgency and importance needed to be prioritised over other things. Yet they remain on the to-do list, forever reminding the individual of what they’ve not done, thus draining energy and generating feelings of failure. Eventually, recognising that the list isn’t working, many folks give up their attempts to keep a to-do list and the whole thing gets relegated to a file.
Such a list is in fact a ‘want to do’ list; an uncensored wish list of possibilities. As such, anyone comparing their actual daily accomplishments to the list is virtually destined for disappointment.
In summary four must-have requirements for success are:
1) A master list showing all your major responsibilities, ideally limited to no more than twelve headings. For each heading list the routine tasks needed to fulfil that responsibility, then add any other activities or projects that are planned or underway. Categories of responsibilities that often get overlooked in such planning include personal development, non-work relationships, and ones’ own health! Such a list is not a to do list. Rather it offers a regular, say weekly opportunity to step back, assess one’s balance across these areas of work and personal life, and plan accordingly.
2) A means of scheduling specific activities, transferring them from the master list and giving them a ‘home’, whether in a paper diary, MS Outlook, or smartphone app. There are plenty of apps out there and most seem to do a good job. The usual problem is not the tool, but the discipline of keeping it up to date. David Allen, writing in Getting Things Done, refers to such a schedule as a ‘commit to do’ list, distinguishing it from the ‘want to do’ list that many of us keep. The idea of giving everything a ‘home’ in the diary/planner is an important means of helping you to switch off and relax.
3) Recognition of the tendency most of us have to fail to anticipate the unexpected demands that will disrupt our plans, and to be over-optimistic about how long activities will take. The fact many of us prefer to overlook is that we can only ‘commit to do’ something on a given day if we have a realistic understanding of how long it will take, and we have allowed time for the unexpected. Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
4) The discipline to turn vaguely described actions into tangible outcomes, and at minimum a concrete first step. For example, the item “begin personal time management project” might be usefully translated to a first step of “create a list in Outlook of all my responsibilities and core activities”. Many things on to-do lists fail to get actioned because they are vague and unclear! Articulating the very first outcome that you need to achieve is a good place to start.
For most of us, the above will require one or more new decisions, and this will demand effort. The reward for putting effort into determining what we will commit to do, and then doing it, is the satisfaction of knowing that our work is done!