How To Create a To Do List You Actually Stick With and Do

This post is Day 7 of 30 Ways In 30 Days To Redesign Your Life With Photography. This series seeks to provide you with practical steps to get you from wherever you are today, to exactly where you want to be – this year! If your goal has always been to take your photography to a whole new level, hang on and start enjoying a new lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of.

“My issue is with setting “to do” lists. I can set great goals and even know exactly what I need to do to get there – no problem. But when it comes to actually carrying out the steps I know I should take – I fail. I find items just staying on the list day after day.  I’d be interested in hearing how you go about making your to do lists and how you make sure you complete everything.”

As I was gearing up for today’s post, I went over to Google to see how many results would rank under “to do lists”. Close to 600 million entries appeared for this search phrase. And the suggested related searches ranged from “printable to do lists”, “to do lists iphone”, “to do lists templates” and “to do list software”. Obviously there are many issues related to just a standard to do list, and it really comes as no surprise.

As a society, we’ve achieved overload. We try and accomplish more in one day than people were doing in a month a few decades ago. It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century. We are at information overload, and we simply don’t know how to control it all.

Add into the equation the need and desire to get more done. Our families have demands, friends have demands, jobs have demands, and then we add in the desire to start up a new venture. Something has to give, and it can only be sleep for so long before our health pays the price.

I once attended a seminar in which the presenter said something that really stuck with me.

Everyone has 24 hours a day. Some people learn how to use those 24 hours more effectively than others. You and Bill Gates both have the same timeframe; Bill has figured out how to get more done within that time frame, and therefore is more productive throughout the day.

When I heard that, I went on a quest to find out how I could get more done every day, and enjoy every minute of the day as well. I’ve taken a ton of organization management classes over the years, and have read a lot of books on the subject. While I don’t consider myself an expert on the subject, I do know how to get things done. And what I’ve discovered is:

The key isn’t to get more done in a day;
the key is to get more top level tasks done in a day, and ignore the rest.

The Wrong Kind Of List

The problem with most to do lists is they do little to motivate you to take action. Typically they are:

  • Too big – with so many tasks you could never hope to get everything done
  • Too mundane – if things bore you, you’ll never take action
  • Too trivial – the outcomes don’t amount to much, so why do them
  • Too complex – where on earth do you start

Or just fill in your own “Too…”. If you really take a good look at your to do lists, chances are you can come up with a “too…” pretty quickly.

A to do list isn’t supposed to be everything you can think of. A to do list needs structure. It needs to motivate you to take action.

Instead of creating a to do list, you may be creating a different type of list instead. If you have complex ideas, you may be developing a goals list. If you have mundane tasks, you aren’t reaching to the core issues that will help you move forward. And if you have so many tasks you don’t know what to do, chances are you’ve allowed your list to get completely out of hand, and have no idea what to do next.

A to do list should only be a list of things to move you forward within a one day time period. Any more and it becomes too large to handle. Any smaller and there is no motivation.

Take a look at your current to do list, and let’s create your five and one planning sheet.

Your Five and One Planning Sheet

I learned a simple trick years ago, and its worked for me ever since.

Start with your list of goals. Goals should usually be broken down into different time frames. We’ll start with a year long goal of “book 24 wedding clients” as a goal to work with for an example.

As a wedding photographer, “booking 24 wedding clients” should be a pretty easy concept to grasp. And you should also be able to see how we can break it down even further into monthly goals – “book 2 wedding clients per month”.

Now that you have a monthly goal, you should easily be able to create 5 objectives that will accomplish that goal. In this case, they might be:

1. Join the local association of bridal consultants.
2. Create a new sample album.
3. Attend the local bridal expo at the end of the month.

And so on.

Now that you have your 5 objectives, create 5 steps that will help you achieve that objective. For the “Join the local association of bridal consultants” objective, 5 steps may include

1. Visit the website for local contact information.
2. Place a call to the current president.
3. Put this month’s event on the calendar.
4. Fill out the application and bring it with me to this months meeting.
5. Schedule a coffee meeting with the president to find out how to become active within the group.

You can measure this goal at the end of the month by knowing you are a paid member. If you’ve met with the president and joined a committee within the organization, you know you’ve reached your goal. It’s easy to see, and easy to do.

I have a binder on my desk in which I place these goals on a sheet of paper, and file them by month. I can quickly assess what my goals are, and how well I’m doing to achieve results.

Every month I have 5 objectives, and 5 steps to achieve each objective. Some are easy – calling and making an appointment takes a few minutes. Others may take longer, and need to be sub-divided again into more steps. Keep defining your objectives by 5 steps until you have specific, easy to do steps you can accomplish. These are the items you put on your “to do” list.

Focus On The Important

Every night I look at my objectives and place the top to-do items on my list for the next morning. If I don’t accomplish something today, it goes to the top of my list tomorrow.

I don’t put my to do lists on sticky notes or scraps of paper. Instead I file them in a notebook to track forever. I can always go back and look at my lists for future inspiration, or to congratulate myself on things I have accomplished. Instead of scribbling a line out when it’s completed, I highlight it or put a check mark or happy face beside it. Then I move to a clean sheet of paper the next day, and list out my new to do list.

As you are coming up with your to do list, you may end up with a number of tasks all interrelated to your monthly goals. Your to do list can quickly grow larger than you think you can handle.

If you find yourself with a to do list growing larger and larger, a quick way to navigate through it is to rank your to do list by A’s, B’s and C’s.

A’s are the items that absolutely have to be done. They are vitally important to accomplishing your objective. Without accomplishing these steps, you can’t move forward.

B’s are the items that are important to the objective, but won’t cause the objective to be delayed if they aren’t accomplished.

C’s are the busy work. They are the things you might like to do, yet don’t make any difference to the project.

Once your to do list has A’s, B’s and C’s listed, cross out all the C’s. They are simply busy work, and are immaterial to the outcome. Don’t do them. List your A’s at the top of the list, and do those first before anything else. Only if you complete your A list should you start in on your B list. If your B’s are on the list for more than a few days, eliminate them.

Easy to do. And now easy to accomplish.

Give Yourself a Reward

One final way to guarantee your success with your to do list: give yourself a reward if you accomplish your objectives. Don’t do it on a daily basis – try monthly instead. If you’ve kept a notebook, look back at your objectives and steps. Did you accomplish what you set out to do?

Create an incentive page and place it at the beginning of your notebook. List two or three incentives to help motivate you along the way. If you complete 100 percent of everything on your list, set up something you love but don’t always get. Maybe a massage, or a night out to the local theater. If you complete 90 percent or more, reward yourself with something smaller – a dinner out to your favorite restaurant.

Make sure you make it an event, and let your family/friends know why you are heading out on the town. Make it a party.

It may seem funny to do it this way, but it does help with your own inner motivation.

And after doing it this way for years, I can tell you it works. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

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