Tweaking My To Do List To Improve Productivity

One of the first things that I do at work each morning is type up a to do list.  I used to write it out by hand, but now I have an Excel file that I modify each day.  It’s actually pretty nifty.

Organizing By Recurrence

I have two columns of tasks.

The left column consists of tasks that I do every day.  Things like cleaning my inbox at the beginning and end of every day, organizing my desk, and other such tasks are in this column.  You might wonder why I list tasks that I do every day, and the answer is simple: To make sure that I do them…..every day!

The column on the right is for things that I have to do that aren’t necessarily daily tasks.  These are more related to the projects that I’m working on.  I have to update project schedules, send out status reports, input service request tickets, schedule meetings, etc.  I also put an item for each meeting that I have that day.

After I’m done, I print it off and that becomes my list for the day.  As I often have things come up, just like in any job, I leave some blank areas where I can write items in.

Not Everything Gets Done Every Day

One thing about my task list is that not every item gets done right away.  This might seem counterproductive and might go against the way some think a task list should be done, but this way works for me.

So, then, you might be wondering what kind of items don’t get done and why they’re listed?  I’ll explain.

When I know that I have a task that needs to be done, I will add it to my task list, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done that day.  There are, of course, those types of items, and those get done as needed, but there might be some that don’t necessarily need to get done.

For example, if I have to plan out a project, I might have two weeks to do all of the preliminary work, consisting of things like building the schedule, getting estimates on labor, listing out any items that need to be ordered, submitting the plan for management review, and so on.  These all need to get done, but generally the tasks get spaced out over a period of a couple of weeks, yet I will put them all on my to-do list, so that I’ve got the whole list of action items that I need to complete.

Noticing A Productivity Gap

This system generally works pretty good for me, but I was starting to notice a troubling trend.  Certain items tended to stay on the list longer than I would like.

I started noticing that some tasks stayed on the list for days, or even weeks.  Especially administrative type tasks, where nobody was really checking on whether or not I did them by a certain date.

Yet, it started to bug me to see them appear day after day, and to see the list pile up.

Introducing Bold Font To My To-Do List

I decided to try something that I’d once tried but had failed: Applying bold font to certain tasks.

  • The failed attempt – Several months prior, I had thought that it might be a good idea to identify the tasks that I really did want to get done that day by highlighting them in bold.  This seemed like a great idea, but it really didn’t work out so well.  See, I basically highlighted the entire left hand column, plus whatever tasks I wanted mb-2015-10-notebookto get done that day in the right hand column.  By the time it was all said and done, I probably had 75% of the tasks listed in bold.  That instantly made it where the bold didn’t stand out, and I started ignoring it completely in a matter of days.
  • Revising my approach – I knew that the idea of highlighting tasks would work, so I tried it again.  This time, I made it so that the items in bold were limited in number, and that they were applied only to items that I could potentially put off but that would be a good idea to get done.  That meant that I would not bold items that I did every day, nor would I bold items that had a deadline of that day.  I limited myself to highlighting just a few items per day, so that the bold actually stood out on my list.

The Early Results Are Promising

Right away, I started seeing a difference in my productivity!  I noticed that by limiting the number of bold items, they really did take center stage on my list.  This would force me to concentrate on them throughout my day.  Some early observations:

  • I’m not getting 100% of the bold items complete every day, but I’m around 80-90%.  If I look at how many I would have done had they not been given extra attention, I’d realistically say it’d be around 40%.  So, I’m drastically increasing the productivity on items that I could potentially put off, but have no reason to.
  • I keep a tally of how many task items I complete every day.  I’m finding that the number of items I complete on an average day has gone up by a few.  This means that I’m increasing my overall productivity for my entire job.

This is pretty cool stuff.  I know that everybody has different tools and methods that they use to increase productivity.  I know that using an Excel spreadsheet and using bold fonts may not be the trick for everyone.  But if you want to try, here are my tips.

  • Have a system to track your to-do items
  • Review your system periodically
  • Change and tweak as necessary

That’s it!

Readers, how do you stay productive and how have you evolved your systems to match your work style?

8 thoughts on “Tweaking My To Do List To Improve Productivity”

  1. ooohhh Beagle, you are talkin’ my language!! Productivity is my favorite hobbyhorse.

    Like you, I also use lists in various formats to try to organize work and accomplish it in a timely way. When I had a job, I liked to make a “things to do tomorrow” list at the end of the day. Usually I’d highlight one or two “things to do FIRST tomorrow.” This would really jump-start the day…otherwise, I’d spend the first hour hanging out with the other editors, drinking coffee and reading competing rags and solving the world’s problems.

    I’ve tried a variety of digital lists, from Outlook to Google to bottomless pits of Word docs. Excel would be useful, too…and if you wanted to get REALLY nerdly about it, you could assign values to the tasks. Values could represent the degree to which you accomplished x, y, or z (say a 0 for not doing the darn thing at all, a 1 for starting but not finishing and 2 for getting it done and checking it off the list). Or they could represent the importance or urgency of the job: 1 on the low end (doesn’t need to get done until this time next year…) to 10 on the high end (it was due yesterday!). Then, if you averaged the values of a given day’s tasks, you could assess whether you could let yourself play a game of kill some time on Twitter (“ahh, I can have a cup of coffee and loaf: this is only a #3 day”) or whether you need to bust your buns (“augh! this is a #9.5 day!”).

    How could any self-respecting list enthusiast resist such a thing? Maybe it’s even marketable…

    • Fun stuff. I think I have a pretty good balance between something that keeps me productive while not taking too much time on the tool itself. I think keeping score would be some great metrics, but I would see it consuming more time than it might provide in productivity.

  2. When you try to do everything you accomplish nothing. I have sure learned that lesson over time. It’s not essential to do everything, just the most important things. I find I have to let others know my timeline as well and find out the urgency of their project because usually something to them is urgent and to me it’s not that urgent. Might as well be great at a few things than mediocre at everything.

  3. Well, both my husband and myself have health problems. One of mine is chronic fatigue. So I have to vastly scale back my Type-A personality.

    Each day, I set one to two tasks for the day. This includes appointments have to go to. Keeping the number low means I don’t feel overwhelmed (I’m also a depressive) and am far more likely to get the items done. And checking those off my list will sometimes push me to get other items on the bigger to-do list done.

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