How to Manage Your To-Do List

Be honest with yourself, how often do you tell others (or yourself) that you're simply too busy to get something done? It amazes me how often I hear this from current and potential clients. In reality though, you're not too busy, you're just prioritizing other tasks; often because they're easier, more familiar, or just not as tedious as the stuff that really needs your attention.

Our mission at Searles Graphics is to help non-profits and small-to-medium-sized businesses grow by providing ways to market your business utilizing the resources you have available to you. What that means is that when someone tells me they don't have time for me or something I need from them, they're choosing to work on something other than growing their business. This makes sense if you just hit a crazy busy time and just need to get the work out, but when it becomes a mantra there's something seriously wrong.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners all-too-often wear "I'm too busy for that" like a badge of honor. Why? That's like saying you're too busy to eat (I've actually heard that one too). There's not a single person that has the luxury of being too busy to eat, it's just not an option. It's the same with your business. If you constantly put off things that really need to get done, you'll never go anywhere.

Anybody that's ever started or run a business knows that you're always busy and it never stops. There are always things that you'd like to do that will simply never get done because they're just not important enough. The most valuable resource an entrepreneur, business owner, or manager has is their time, and there will never be enough of it. Accept that now.

Most (if not all) of my interactions with my clients center around obtaining approval to move forward with something that's going to help grow their business, or trying to help them solve problems they're having in their business. One of the reasons our clients hire us in the first place is so we can take something off their plate; whether it's devising and implementing a social media marketing strategy, managing content marketing initiatives, designing ads and print materials, or building and maintaining a website. Still, you'd be amazed how long it takes to get someone to take five minutes out of their day to click a link to review some changes to their website and give approval to push those changes into their production environment.

Remember this: Every time you choose (it's always a choice, by the way) to do something you're also at the same time actively choosing not to do something else. When you continue to put off the same things time and time again, it simply means you're choosing not to get them done. Sometimes that's ok, but more-often-than-not it's because you simply don't want to do the things that really need to get done and it's easier to stick with the things you're more comfortable with.

Personally, I often have trouble focusing and concentrating on a specific task. My mind wanders frequently throughout the day. Things happen to get me thinking of something else that needs to get done, a new business idea that presents itself, new opportunities to try to capitalize on for a customer, emails that never stop, etc. What's helped me tremendously in keeping these tendencies at bay is to maintain a to-do list.

Any time I find myself not focusing, I simply turn back to my list and tell myself I can't think about anything else until I accomplish the task I'm currently working on. If the thing that distracted me is important enough, it gets added to the end of my list before I return to the task-at-hand. In the evening, I go through my list and plan out what I need to do tomorrow in order of priority. Working on your list the night before is a great way to prioritize what needs to be done without worrying about the email(s) that came in overnight that seem like a high priority in the morning, but almost always can wait until you accomplish one or two items on your list.

As for prioritization, I've seen people prioritize tasks in a lot of different ways, but I like to use a bit of a mashup of some different approaches. I generally use the following rules of thumb (a good portion of what I talk about here comes from this prioritization article). At the moment I also use Any.Do to manage all of my to-do lists, but I may be in the market for something a little more customizable soon.

The first key to an effective to-do list is to make sure all of the tasks can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. If it's going to take longer than a couple hours, it needs to be broken down into smaller items.

Next, begin the prioritization process by starting with any items that are immediately revenue generating. If you have an opportunity to generate cash for your business, that's number one. Mark each of these as an A-level task. If you find this is taking up all of your time and you never have any bandwidth left for the rest, you're under-staffed - it's time to hire somebody.

Next, identify any items that will have a significant negative impact if they don't get done that day and mark them as an A-level task as well. Following that, it's your B-level tasks or those that have a mildly negative impact if they don't get completed that day. Include with your B-level taks any items that have a high-potential for generating revenue for your business (such as completing proposals, etc.). C-level tasks have no negative impact if not completed that day.

D-level tasks are those that can be done by somebody else (D stands for DELEGATE!). This is where most small business owners (myself included) have the most trouble, so make sure you approach each item on your to-do list with an eye for what can be delegated to someone else. Finally, your E-level tasks are those that can be eliminated completely from your to-do list. Don't bother doing anything other than crossing them off.

After categorizing each item, rank them within the category (A-1, A-2, A-3, etc. - or if you're using software to manage your to-do list, simply put them in priority order). Go through this process every night and I promise you'll find you're no longer too busy for most of the items you previously thought couldn't get done.

Photo: Flickr | Seth MacEntee

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