The To Do List!

todolistWith thanks to Rachel G. who gave me the idea of writing this up!

Over the years I must have tried any number of Time Management techniques – I have to say that whilst I’m much better these days at fitting what I need to do in to the time available, but it’s taken a fair amount of time to get the simple fact through my head that there are only 24 hours in a day and no matter how hard I try I can’t ‘manage’ that time – no matter what I do it still passes me by at the rate of 1 minute per minute.  I can’t stockpile it, slow it down, speed it up; just work with it.

During teh 80s I tried to run with a diary, then a Filofax; in the 90s it was a Time Management System.  They didn’t help me much at all.  Then, sometime in the early 2000s, I came across the solution to my pain which I’ve worked with ever since.  The simple To Do List – and today I’m going to share with you the secrets of my listing success! 🙂

The Book

Despite having a Blackberry (I love the calendar function) I still use a hard backed A$ notebook as my main day to day journal.  Apart from making notes in meetings, containing my To Do lists and being my general working notebook, it’s also the place where I initially record my dreams first thing in the morning and any bright ideas I have.  Each of these notebooks last me between 6 months and a year, and I label them up according to the first and last day recorded in them.  I have a stack of old ones upstairs!

The Time Slot

I was terrible at being on time for appointments and estimating task duration and completion dates.  My wife realised the problem; I tried to fit too much in to the time I had available, and was making unrealistic expectations of myself.  So, I started working on the concept of a ‘time slot’ for tasks.  the commonly used slots are as follows:

  • 0.5 hours – absolute minimum time for ANY item in the list.
  • 1 hour – simple programming tasks – simple bugs, basic functions.
  • 2 hours  –  programming tasks that involve modifying screen layouts, new database tables, etc.
  • half a day – any task requiring time away from home, client meetings.

Fitting my tasks within the day in to these slots sometimes results in me underestimating what I can get done, but it gives me ample time to deal with unexpected problems, making tea, combing cats, playing with Twitter, etc.  It also means that I can usually under-promise / over-deliver.

The List

The actual list consists of….well….a list of tasks that I want to get done within a day.  I try to write things down in order of importance (rather than urgency).  The first thing I do is take a look at yesterday’s list; anything that wasn’t done I’ll consider bringing forward on to today’s list.  Otherwise, I’ll try and split jobs from the previous day’s list as follows:

  1. Not that important, more of a ‘nice to have’.
  2. Something that I am waiting on someone else for – i.e. I need information or resources to do it.
  3. Something that I am prevaricating over.
  4. Something that is now no longer relevant.

If it’s in category (1) then I’m likely to just leave it on the previous day’s list and make a note for today to ‘take a look at yesterday’ if I have time.  If (2) then I check whether I have the resources; if I don’t then I’ll waste no more time on it but list it.  If (3) then if important I’ll prioritise it.  If (4) then it just gets dumped.  I also take a little time out to determine why I’m bringing stuff forward.  For example, did I hit snags with other tasks that caused me to over-run?  Did I try to fit too much in?

Once I’ve got the list I go through it and attach a rough time to each item, and prioritise based on the ground of urgent/important, important, urgent.  If the amount of time taken is longer than the working day, then stuff gets carried over to the next day’s list.

I’ll often put the list together the night before the day to which it refers; that way I have the list ready to go when I hit the desk.

The ‘Special List’

This is a list not attached to a particular day but that consists of things that need doing at some time over the next few weeks.  It gets prioritised and ‘timed’ like my daily list.

And that’s it!

I work through the list, sticking with the priority order I’ve set as far as I can.  If I get bogged down with soemthing, I allow myself to flip around the list a little, but will attempt to clear all the urgent/important and important stuff that I’ve allocated to myself for that day.  I don’t get myself too hung up on the list; some days there’ll be stuff that’s not finished; other days I’ll get the chance to eat in to the ‘Special List’ a little.

Things to bear in mind  If something takes significantly longer or shorter than I estimated, I’ll note the actual time donwn, but NOT less than half an hour.

If you want to try this technique out, then the following may prove useful:

  1. Old books are a guide to timings; I often estimate jobs by looking back at how long previous jobs took.
  2. If jobs keep getting moved around the lists, take a good hard look at them to see whether there are any subconcious reasons why you aren’t tackling them.  Take a look at my article on Banjo playing JEDI.
  3. Don’t try and fit too much in to the day.
  4. Sometimes you may get benefits from ignoring the priorities you initially set and just getting jobs ‘knocked off’.  This works well in terms of your lists getting shortened but just remember that the aim is to get the jobs on the list done, not make the list look good!

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