Why Doesn't My To-Do List Work?


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By Carl Pullein. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Did you know that to-do lists, on their own, don’t work? In this episode, I explain why and what you need to do to ensure you get the most out of your productivity system.

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Episode 195 | Script

Hello and welcome to episode 195 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development, and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

I think many of you have found that just developing the habit of using a task-manager, or to-do list, doesn’t really work in the long term. Yes, they do help you to remember things you may otherwise forget, but they don’t move you forward on your goals or your projects. It can become frustrating.

This week’s question is all about the parts that are rarely written or spoken about and hopefully, I will be able to unblock your task manager so it puts you on track to achieving your goals and completing your projects.

Now, before we get to this week’s question, if you haven’t already done so, I strongly recommend you download my FREE Areas of Focus workbook. It’s going to be a part of this week’s episode and it will enable you to start tightening up your task manager so that you are focused on the right things.

The download link is in the show notes.

Okay, on with the show and that means it’s time for me now to hand you over to the Mystery Podcast Voice, for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Timothy. Timothy asks, Hi Carl, I’ve recently started using a to-do list and have it set up for the Time Sectors. I really love it, but I find all I am doing is reacting to what my customers and boss want me to do and I don’t have time to do anything else. Is there a way to add in my goals so I have time to do something about these as well?

Hi Timothy, thank you for your question.

What you describe is quite common for a lot of people who begin consistently using a to-do list for the first time. Most people have used to-do lists at some point or another for things like a packing list before going on holiday, or when redecorating a home. There’s nothing new about a to-do list.

The problem with to-do lists is they are very focused on the here and now. Rarely do people use them to plan out what needs to happen to achieve a goal or to complete a long-term project. They become reactive instead of being used proactively.

What do I mean by that?

Well, most people I come across tend to put tasks on their list that are demanding attention now. Quieter, more long-term tasks tend to be placed in folders such as Someday/Maybe or just get added to a list and forgotten about. It’s when this happens that our longer-term goals and projects get relegated to the bottom of the list and that means there’s no time to do anything about them.

What we need to do is to reverse the way we manage our to-do lists. This does not mean we stop doing the loud, urgent tasks—we still need to do these—but we don’t want to allow them to dominate our day. We need to become more strategic about things.

What I mean by this is to use the power of the modern-day to-do lists to make sure each day our most important work comes up at the top of our lists. And when I say “our most important work”, I mean those tasks that move our goals and project forward. While these may not be the loudest tasks on our to-do list, they are still the most important if you want to take back control of your time.

Your to-do list allows you to create repeating, or recurring, tasks. This means, if you have a long-term project, you can set tasks related to that project as a recurring task. For example; if you have a long-term project that requires around six to twelve months to complete, you create a recurring task that comes up every two or three days telling you to work on that project.

Now those of you using the Time Sector System will have the specifics of what needs to happen next in your project note in your notes app. Your to-do list will tell you if it’s time to do some work on that project. When you see that task, you then go to your project note and everything you need to work on that project will be there. Links to files you are working on, reference materials that need reviewing, and any important emails related to that project.

When we get caught up in the day-to-day noisy tasks, that needs to be a trigger for us to stop and take a big picture view of what’s going on. All great productivity systems are built on the foundation of our long-term goals. The things we want to accomplish over the next five, ten, and twenty years. The sooner you start working on these, the easier they will be to achieve.

If your goal is to lose 20 pounds in weight by the end of the year, starting in January means you need to lose less than two pounds per month. Start that project in September and now you have to lose five pounds per month. A much more difficult goal to achieve.

Likewise, if you want to retire with $500,000 in savings, starting that goal when you are forty-five is going to be a lot harder to achieve than if you begin when you are thirty.

The sooner you start your long-term goals the easier they will be and they will be a lot less demanding on your time.

It’s the same with your projects. If you have a project to redecorate your house this year, planning out the project so you are doing one room a month, means you are going to need a lot less time to complete the project, than if you leave it all until the last two or three months of the year.

With the Time Sector System, you would plan out which rooms you will redecorate each month—you can create a table for this in your notes app,— and then each weekend you would have a recurring task that tells you to continue redecorating your house. You can then plan out what needs to be done. You may need to buy paint when you are out doing the grocery shopping, or you may need to arrange to borrow a paint stripper. You would see that when you did your weekly planning session and you can make the call so you have the paint stripper ready for your next session.

The problem is our addiction to instant gratification. Completing those busy work tasks—the tasks we have convinced ourselves are important—gives us that dopamine hit we crave. Doing a little bit of decorating every weekend doesn’t give us the same hit. Twelve months to redecorate our house is just too far away.

This is why visualisation of a completed project or goal helps. Collecting images so you can save them into a vision board, keeps the goal alive.

On top of those goals come your areas of focus. The things you have identified are important to you. Again, any recurring tasks related to these need to be set up in your task manager as recurring tasks. Self-development tasks such as taking a course, reading the right books, and other forms of learning need time allocated to them. Same with some form of exercise every day—whether that’s a thirty-minute walk in the evening or going to the gym every morning at 6 am. None of these things will happen unless a) you prioritise them and b) schedule the necessary time for them.

The problem is, if you don’t allocate time for these long-term goals, projects, and areas of focus, then the void you create will be filled with less meaningful things like hours scrolling through your news and social media feeds, busy work tasks that are like those empty calories from junk food—they initially make you feel full, but soon you’re feeling empty and lacklustre.

I know it can be hard to prioritise your personal goals and projects over your work projects. Usually, your personal goals and projects only benefit you and so you feel guilty doing so. But if you are not taking care of your health today, when you health starts to go, you quickly become a burden on the very people you care about. If you are reckless with you finances today, who’s going to have to support you when you can no longer work?

Taking care of your personal goals and your areas of focus is never a selfish act. You become a much more pleasant person to be around, you have more energy, so the work you do do for others is done with more attention and to a higher standard. Your self-respect improves and that can only benefit other people and more importantly you become an inspiration to others.

The goal with your task manager is to have 80% of your daily output focused on your goals and areas of focus. This may seem very high, but many of these daily activities are things you would normally do anyway such as your morning routines and daily exercise as well as your core work—the work you are paid to do.

By restricting busy work tasks to 20% you are forced to prioritise which ones you do. By constraining yourself in this way you avoid the temptation to do things that are not important and there’s no vacuum demanding to be filled by low value, junk tasks that leave you feeling empty.

One trick you can do that can be very effective is to group similar busy-work tasks together. Responding to low value emails, and messages during a communications hour. This is where you block an hour each day for dealing with your messages. Because you’ve got an hour, you begin with the high importance messages and once those are done, get as many of your low value messages completed.

Often what you’ll find is Parkinson’s Law will come into play—that’s where the work you have fills the time you have available. In this case if you have twenty emails to respond to in an hour, it will take an hour. If you have fifty emails to respond to in a hour, it will take you… You guessed it, an hour. It’s strange how that rule seems to come into play so many times.

The mot important thing to remember is your goal tasks come first, flowed by your areas of focus, then core work and finally everything else.

The key to becoming better at managing your time and feeling more fulfilled and satisfied at the end of the day is to make sure you have your priorities right. I know how difficult this is, but if you become consciously aware of what is important and what is not, you are going to find yourself moving in the right direction.

The strange thing about low value, busy work tasks is as fast as they arrive, the faster they disappear. They may be very important to someone at 3pm on a quiet Thursday afternoon, but by 5pm that person is stressing about something else anyway and the thing they were asking you to do at 3pm no longer needs doing.

I hope that help, Timothy and thank you for your question. Thank you also to you for listening and it just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.

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