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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Rethinking To-Do Lists

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Mike Austin

Keeping a to-do list seems to be an almost universal business practice, particularly for managers who juggle multiple tasks. But many experts believe lists can be counterproductive, giving people a false sense of organization without the benefit of any real planning or prioritization. 

Daniel Markovitz, author of A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance (Productivity Press, December 2011), wrote that to-do lists set workers up for failure for five reasons. First, they provide too many options. The human brain can handle about seven choices before it becomes overwhelmed, Markovitz writes, so a 20-item to-do list is likely to be paralyzing rather than motivating. 

Second, to-do lists tend to include a range of tasks of varying complexity. The user is bound to tick off the small projects and let the most challenging ones languish. Third, to-do tasks tend to vary in importance, allowing people to take care of top priorities while letting lower priority tasks fall by the wayside until they become top priorities. 

Fourth, lists don’t provide context. To decide which task should be tackled, a manager should know the necessary steps for completion and whether or not the required time and resources are available. Finally, nothing about a to-do list prevents a manager from choosing a more tolerable task over the most important and often more difficult one. 

So if to-do lists are ineffective or even harmful to productivity, what is the best alternative? Markovitz recommends “living in your calendar,” or taking tasks off the to-do list, estimating how much time each one will take and blocking out time for it on your calendar. 

Other time management experts also embrace this approach. Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done (Business Plus, September 2011), writes that when we decide when and where to do something, the likelihood of following through increases dramatically. He recommends using to-do lists as collection tools, a kind of brainstorming compilation of things to be done. 

Once you’ve listed what has to be done, put those items on the calendar. When the calendar is full, tasks inevitably still will remain on the to-do list, but at least there has been progress toward completing the most important projects at the most productive time.

The calendar method also forces managers to engage in another effective to-do list practice, including fine-tuning the task at hand. It is common for to-do lists to include action items like “solve issue with Mr. Jones.” In the process of converting a list to a calendar entry, that broad objective should be separated into more specific tasks that will take a discrete amount of time. For example, “solve issue with Mr. Jones” could break down to “schedule meeting with Mr. Jones to discuss chronic lateness” and “draft and send notice to supervisor of recurring lateness issue with Mr. Jones.” Management issues tend to be complex and broad and solving them inevitably requires a series of actions that should be scheduled and accomplished separately. 

And since calendars, unlike lists, fill up, the calendar method will require managers to take time to compare their listed items against their priorities. As all managers know, there are only so many hours in a day. 

Elizabeth Newell Jochum covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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