Personal Productivity and Your To-Do List

“My to-do list is so long that it doesn’t have an end; it has an event horizon.” — Craig Bruce, Canadian Software Engineer.

“According to USA Today, an astonishing 95 percent of companies don’t share their strategies with employees.” — Joel Garfinkle, American inspirational speaker.

Efficient time management requires the establishment of a dependable routine. The modern office worker can tap a variety of tools when constructing such a productivity framework, with the simple to-do list arguably the most important tool in the chest. But this begs a question: What rules do you apply to determine what goes onto your daily to-do list in the first place? In other words, how do you decide what you should be working on each day?

This question goes to the very heart of personal productivity. So let’s look at a few factors that can help you determine what to focus your attention on, so you don’t waste time and endanger your career with missteps.

Your Job Requirements
Start by asking yourself, “Why am I here?” What, precisely, did the company hire you to do? Acquire a thorough familiarity with all the requirements of your job—not just the ones published in the job description, but the informal ones as well. The latter do exist in most jobs, and it may take you a while to discover them all. If your job has published performance objectives, learn them by heart—and don’t assume they’ll remain static from year to year or even month to month. They may well evolve as time passes. If you stick to the same set-in-concrete routine, you may end up damaging your workplace productivity.

If you aren’t entirely sure about everything the job requires of you, don’t hesitate to ask your superiors. Try to ask probing questions, to get beyond the “official” requirements and into the nitty-gritty details that HR may not have informed you about when you interviewed for the position.

Another good source of guidance will come during your annual performance reviews, when your boss rates how well you do your job. As necessary, ask him or her to provide pointers to help you refine your personal productivity. Take notes, and make a sincere effort to implement what you’ve learned.

Know Your Company Strategy
Do you have a clear idea of your company’s grand strategy? Studies show that very few rank-and-file workers do; and this is one situation where what you don’t know can definitely hurt you. If your company’s mission is largely a mystery to you, then I suggest you make a deliberate effort to learn it. At the very least, study annual reports and presentations to shareholders and investors. For a more personal touch, make an appointment with your department head, and ask them to make a presentation on the subject to your team.

Once you understand the general corporate strategy, tighten the focus to your department and team in order to clarify the more immediate aspects of the company’s goals. You may discover your boss has specific policies he or she focuses on, while other teams handle different aspects of the overall strategy. In any case, start incorporating what you’ve found into your daily schedule wherever possible.

The Master List
Most of your daily to-do list will consist of tasks funneled to you on a regular basis during meetings, emails, phone calls, and direct verbal communications with your superiors. These are the urgent tasks you need to tend to ASAP to keep your productivity at work moving along smoothly. But while they may rank as important in the short term, you can’t allow them to overwhelm the long-term projects and issues that, while not especially urgent, you must accomplish in order to achieve true workplace success.

This is where the concept of the master to-do list comes in. Think of it as a “brain dump” file containing all the things you want to do eventually, but that you need not take care of right away. Many of the strategic goals of your company, department, and team will end up here, along with “someday” ideas like revamping old workflow systems and inventing new ones, or your intention to learn a new programming language. Your master list keeps your daily list from overflowing into uselessness, and it may consist of dozens or hundreds of entries as a result. Whenever something important comes in that lacks urgency or has no set deadline, add it to the master list.

A master list should be a living, evolving document that guides your long-term workflow; you can’t let it turn into a dead-file for forgotten tasks. To keep it at the top of your mind, review it at least weekly. You can use the Category feature in Outlook or your email program to group like items or projects. Leave time in your schedule for strategic, long-term projects. For example, you might schedule one timeslot a day for working on a project requiring thinking or concentration, or you might find spaces for three a week. Whatever works for you is fine, as long as you keep your master list firmly in mind. When the block of time arrives, turn everything off and resist the urge to check email or open a browser.

The Bottom Line
The average daily to-do list contains a mix of items with different priorities, originating from a variety of sources. By necessity, it will be weighted toward urgent but relatively unimportant items, with a leavening of non-urgent but essential tasks—i.e., the things that count most in the long run. An effective to-do list takes both into account, folds in crisis situations as they occur, and deletes the trivial.

Make absolutely sure that the crises and daily minutiae don’t overwhelm the long-term tasks. Purely reactive busyness will get you nowhere if it’s not underlain and supported by the solid bedrock of job requirements, strategic goals, process maintenance, and other important but non-urgent items. Handling all these proactively, in combination with daily routine, results in honest-to-goodness personal productivity.

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  1. […] Productivity Pro expert Laura Stack says efficient time management requires the establishment of a dependable routine. So, how do you decide what you should be working on each day? […]

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