Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 habits to adopt to be better at your job in 2016. See the full list here.
Few things are quite as fulfilling as scratching that last item off of your daily to-do list—except when it’s Monday’s list and you finished it on Thursday. But, believe it or not, there are some people who actually get through their daily to-dos on the actual day they intended to finish them.
“You need to make the list to set yourself up for success,” says self-proclaimed “compulsive list maker” Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Be More Productive, Highly Successful, and Less Stressed.
Not surprisingly, people who get through their lists each day share some habits that help them do so. Here’s what they know that can help you get through your daily lists, too.
Sherry Chris, CEO of Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate, gets a head start on her daily tasks by planning the night before, including choosing her outfit for the next day. She rises at 5 a.m. to tend to social media so it’s not calling for her attention later in the day, she says. “That can not only be a huge time waster, but a distraction that detracts from the ability to focus on the tasks at hand,” she says.
But not all of us are morning people, Rizzo says. For some people, rising before the sun just isn’t sustainable. You need to look at when you have energy and blocks of time to organize and focus on certain projects that need your full attention. By understanding what types of work you do best at different times of the day, you can organize your list to suit your style.
When Debbie Good, clinical assistant professor of business at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, teaches time management to her MBA students, she has them account for every minute of two full days in 15-minute increments. Many are surprised at how long they really spend on certain tasks, she says. You might think you’re only checking social media for 15 minutes, but it may be four or five times that long.
Use an app or good old pencil and paper to look at how long you’re spending on the things you do each day, she says. Once you have a good sense of how long various tasks take, you might even note those amounts on your list to help you track how much you’re trying to cram into your day, she says.
Rizzo adds that it’s a good idea to pad those times—perhaps adding 10% of the time you think it’s going to take you or an extra half-hour, depending on the task. When you pad your time estimates, it’s less likely that an unforeseen task or unexpected request is going to derail your day, Rizzo says.
Good says you also need to look at your list within the context of the day. If you’ve got a day filled with meetings or need to spend time on a big project with a looming deadline, you simply can’t expect to plow through as many tasks as you would if you have a few free hours. Map out your day according to the time limitations you have, so you can plan to do various tasks within the appropriate windows you have, she says.
Within your overall list, you likely have a bare-minimum collection of tasks that have to get done to keep your boss, coworkers, customers, and other VIPs happy. Those items should be prioritized. Then, once you’ve completed them, you can begin to work on other tasks with the knowledge that you got the most important things done, she says.
Jen O’Neal, founder and CEO of vacation rental site Tripping.com, is an avid list maker, and “gets a ton of pleasure out of crossing things off,” she says. So she lines up a few of her simpler tasks for first thing, so she has a feeling of accomplishment very early in the day, which motivates her to keep going and fights that feeling of being overwhelmed.
Face it: There are probably a few things on your list that you don’t need to be doing, either because they’re unnecessary, or because someone else could do them, Rizzo says. Take a hard look at what you’ve planned for the day, and look for items that can be delegated, outsourced, or deleted altogether, she says. You may think it’s quicker to just do it yourself, but you’re creating an unsustainable environment if you try to do everything on your own.
Also, if you have those tasks that seem to roll over day after day, you need to address them. If a list entry has been bumped more than three times, you need to either set a deadline and get it done, or table it for now with a reminder to revisit the task or project later on.