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Tame Your Daily To-Do List

A daily to-do list has the potential to help move your strategic plan forward step by step, but it’s easy to become sidetracked. These tips may help.
March 14, 2016

A small-business owner’s daily to-do list may be more than just a piece of paper or online calendar with items you cross off (or move to tomorrow’s list) every night. Used properly, a to-do list has the potential to move your business’ strategic plan forward step by step, every day. The ultimate to-do list is often manageable, realistic and actually helps get stuff done. Here’s how you might create one.

How Does My To-Do List Relate to My Strategic Plan?

Your business’ strategic plan should ideally help move you toward big goals by breaking them down into smaller goals and steps. In the same way, each task on your to-do list has the potential to propel your business toward a goal in your strategic plan.

For example, if your plan includes increasing sales by 15 percent by the end of the quarter, writing a proposal for a prospective new client can help advance you toward that goal. Organizing your expense receipts doesn't move you toward that goal, but may move you toward another strategic goal, such as keeping more accurate and up-to-date books in preparation for seeking a business loan.

Breaking big to-do’s into smaller steps may help push you to action by overcoming any fears holding you back, such as fear of failure or fear of the unknown.

How Do I Create My List?

A good place to start is often creating a master list of all the things you need to do. This “brain dump” helps you get everything floating around in your head down on paper or online so you can clear your mind without forgetting things. 

If you like, you might categorize the master list into things such as business to-dos, family to-dos and personal to-dos. (This often works well for family-oriented business owners I know who are not only dealing with business to-dos, but also trying to keep kids’ soccer practices and dental appointments in their heads.)

Put any items that involve deadlines or appointments on your calendar so you can see what’s coming up. Consider taking time every week to review your calendar, your master list and your strategic plan. Every evening, create the next day’s to-do list. Do it at night so you can hit the ground running in the morning.

What Should Be on My To-Do List?

You might feel victorious after making a huge, audacious to-do list … even though all you’ve actually accomplished is finishing your morning coffee. Dr. Timothy Pychyl, who specializes in the study of procrastination, has theorized that writing tasks on a to-do list creates a feeling that you have actually done the tasks, which may be counterproductive. To eliminate this phantom sense of accomplishment, limit your to-do list to three items.

Another reason to keep your list short is that, thanks to something called the Zeigarnik Effect (a phenomenon identified by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in 1927)our minds often tend to obsess about unfinished tasks rather than acknowledge what we’ve accomplished. In other words, if you see 20 tasks hanging over you tomorrow and a nightmarish week ahead, you might freak out and get nothing done today.

Make your three tasks specific, especially if you’re procrastinating on a big task. Breaking big to-do’s into smaller steps may help push you to action by overcoming any fears holding you back, such as fear of failure or fear of the unknown. If you're exploring expanding your business globally and you aren’t sure where to start, a specific task like “Look up three online resources to learn more about global business” may get you started.

It doesn’t matter if you set your online calendar to single-day view, write your to-do list on a sticky note or use project management software, the idea is to focus on today’s three to-do's only. Seeing less to do might energize you. When you actually complete the three tasks, you may feel a sense of accomplishment that generates momentum. Then move the next thing on the list up, and so on.

What Tools Can Help With My To-Do List?

Plenty of people do fine with the calendaring, reminder and list apps on their phones already. If you’d like a more specific list-making app, check out DoItTomorrow—it’s super-simple and helps keep you focused on the short term. Remember the Milk and ToodleDo have more capabilities, but still allow you to keep it simple. 

How Can I Actually Get My To-Do List Done?

Setting priorities is often key, and choosing three tasks per day forces you to do this. Before putting anything on your to-do list, consider asking yourself if it is the best use of your time, whether it can be delegated or whether it can be automated.

In the example I used earlier, writing a client proposal may well be the best use of your time, but sorting receipts may not be. Can you automate this with an app that scans your receipts when you get them and sorts them into categories? Can you delegate it to an assistant or virtual assistant?

Setting deadlines often also helps. Some tasks have hard deadlines (finishing the proposal before your client meeting at noon, for example). For those that don’t, consider setting self-imposed deadlines and take a break when you’re done. Racing the clock may add incentive, and doing something fun—whether it’s meeting a colleague for lunch or going to a movie—might reward and recharge you.

What About Interruptions?

Few business owners can expect to sit in an ivory tower uninterrupted. Limiting your to-do list to three items may help ensure you have buffer time for unexpected problems, drop-in employees or other issues that arise during a day. If someone else sets your schedule (such as an assistant or virtual assistant with access to your calendar), try to make sure you block off enough time to accomplish your tasks and have some extra cushion built in so you won’t get overscheduled.

How Can I Make My To-Do List Even Better?

To be strategic about your to-do list, it may help to review what you accomplished at the end of each day. Look at what got done and what didn’t. If you ended up completing your three key tasks, plus an additional four, what allowed that to happen? If you couldn’t even get through two of the three to-do's, what held you back?

If you’re regularly falling short of your to-do goals, consider delving deeper to figure out why. Perhaps you’re worried you won’t do a good job at writing that proposal, so you put it off. Maybe social media is distracting you, or employees constantly interrupt with problems they could really handle themselves. On the other hand, if you’re constantly postponing a task and the sky doesn’t fall, maybe it doesn’t need to get done at all.

To-do lists are extremely personal, and what works for me (I’m a big sticky note fan) may not work for you. That’s why reviewing your results, assessing them honestly and thinking hard about ways to make your to-do list more effective may be a good way to build your ultimate to-do list.

Read more articles about business planning.

This article was originally published on March 17, 2015.

Photo: Getty Images