Wednesday, March 23, 2016

To-Do or Not To-Do: That is the question

Do you have a to-do list?
Photo by Davidd/Creative Commons
Do you keep a to-do list?  Do you pay attention to it?  It might seem like we talk about to-do lists a lot, but in speaking with small business owners and freelancers, the most successful ones are those who keep a to-do list and work it every day.

We talked earlier about being an actor or reactor and if you don't have a to-do list, you will find yourself reacting more than intentionally acting.  A client calls, you react.  A supplier needs something, you jump on it.  Printer stops working?  You stop what you're doing and deal with it.  Your day isn't planned, so you end up drifting through each day without focus or a plan.  At the end of the day, you're stressed and you feel like you've been working hard all day and accomplishing nothing.

The to-do list is the #1 business process that can mean the difference between success and failure, but it's underutilized effectively.  Here's what happens when you have a to-do list and work it every day:

  • Feeling of accomplishment.  Every time you complete a task, you check it off and you can actually see what you've gotten done that day.
  • Feeling of control over your life.  Because you're planning what you're doing, you really are in control of what you do instead of feeling like events are controlling you.
  • Less stress.  Stress and frustration are, in part, caused by the feeling of being out of control.  If you can see what you're doing and have a plan on how to do it, you're in control, so your stress and frustration levels automatically dissolve.
  • Ability to plan for the future.  Once you get used to working with a to-do list, you'll find you have more time for actual planning, both for your business and your personal life, because you build that into your to-do list.
  • Your business grows.  I spoke with a small business client yesterday, who told me the whole reason their business didn't grow was because they were reacting to their clients instead of having processes in place to logically, step-by-step, take care of their clients' needs.  Now those processes are in place, business has boomed and they're able to grow logically, in a step-by-step manner.  It all started with a to-do list.
So how do you make sure you're doing your to-do list correctly?  Here are my top tips for keeping and working a to-do list:
  • Write it down by hand in a notebook.  It's ok to also have task lists on your computer or mobile device, but the very act or writing it down by hand will embed it into your mind and will make the feeling of accomplishment bigger when you physically cross things off.  Keep a notebook specifically for your to-do lists so you can look back and see how much you've done over the week, month and year.  Congratulations!  You've taken back your business!
  • Break it down into must-do, should-do and can-do, with each category holding only five items at the most.  Be specific.  Each day, you realistically will only be able to get five things done intentionally.  You'll probably do a lot more than that, but limit yourself to only five.
  • Block out time to focus and work your to-do list.  I tell clients to block out 45 minutes five times a day to take care of one item on their to-do lists without interruption.  For that 45 minutes, turn off the phone and email and just focus on that one task.  If you can't finish it in 45 minutes, take a 15-minute break then come back to it for another 45 minutes.  During your 15-minute break, check your email, return calls and check in with what's going on around you.  A few times a day, walk away from your desk during a 15-minute break, even if you just walk outside your front door and stand in the sun for a few minutes.
  • Review your to-do list twice a day.  Start each day setting up and reviewing your to-do list so you know what's going on for the day; it'll put you in the right frame of mind and will let you focus on what's most important for the day.  At the end of each day, spend 30 minutes going through what you accomplished and setting up the next day's to-do list.  The reason for doing it twice a day is that things can change overnight and priorities shift, so it gives you a set time to review and change gears if you need to, while still remaining in control of your day.
  • Take one hour over the weekend to review your week and plan the week ahead.  Most clients use an hour on Sunday afternoon to look at what they've accomplished the previous week and then look ahead to the coming week.  They find it gives them a more positive outlook, not just of their businesses but of life in general, because they now have a feeling of control.
It might seem like I'm talking a lot about control, but when you're an entrepreneur, your work can take over your life, leaving you tired, stressed and burned out.  By starting and ending each day with a to-do list, you'll reduce your stress level and avoid burn-out, while growing your business through controlling what you do each day.