Is your to-do list setting you up to fail?

#failure. In my early twenties, I was launching a new business. I was a solopreneur trying to do it all. It if there was a hash tag associated with my daily to-do list #failure would have been it.

Fast forward 10 years. I am coaching people around personal productivity and project management and I notice that my clients consistently overestimate the available time they had during their day. They fail to factor in all of the interruptions: the e-mails, IMs, water cooler conversations, phone calls, cubicle invasions by colleagues, special requests from clients, and texts from the kids. When I invite them to factor in the typical interruptions in their days they are shocked to find their eight hour workday had shrunk to around three hours, or less. This was the actual available time of their day that they could be totally proactive and in control of their tasks.

It was a sobering exercise, but it’s a game changer. Most of my clients acknowledged that they were in the habit of beating themselves up at the end of the day for daily to-do lists that they now realized were totally unrealistic. It was a wish list not a to-do list.

Many of my clients quickly realized that there were only three or four things on their list that absolutely had to get done by the end of the day. These tasks, and only these tasks ended up on that days to-do list. Everything else that needed to get done was put on a running to-do list from which the daily to-do list was pulled. Other critical tasks that had deadlines attached were suspended out into the future on their calendar so that they would have a reminder days ahead of the deadline to focus on this task.

This was not rocket science but it was incredibly empowering for to realize that while I couldn’t do everything on my list every day I could do the most important things. The key was choosing wisely and being realistic about what I can actually accomplish in the span of the day. The other important lesson I learned while helping my clients was to celebrate the small successes at the end of the day. To avoid burnout, we also had to recognize that we had a life outside of our work and that life was critical to our well-being.

Over time, I created my cardinal rules for personal productivity and time management and created calendar reminders that would keep me accountable and on track.

  • Find a way to manage your interruptions. Determine what you will say “No” to.
  • Focus only on the things that you can actually work on that day.
  • Break big chunks of work into small baby steps that can be accomplished within 15 or 30 minutes.
  • Set your phone alarm and take a stretch break at least four times a day.
  • Make appointments with yourself to focus on one project, exercise, or call friends and family.
  • Set ground rules with your family, or partner, as to the number of times they can phone, message, or text you in a day.
  • Disable all sound alerts for e-mails, texts, notifications IF you can. Check e-mail three or four times a hour instead of 6.
  • At the end of the day celebrate what you actually did accomplish, even if it wasn’t on your to do list.
  • Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can do and that you do make a difference in the world.

Do whatever it takes to make you feel accomplished at the end of the day. Recognize that the unplanned tasks and interactions that fill the rest of your day can be as or more important as what you had actually planned.

Make sure that the things that you do say “Yes” to relate directly to your strategic objectives, your values, and your wants and desires. Anything else is somebody else’s plan for you, not your own.

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