To-Do Lists, Strategic Thinking And Focus: The Art Of Defining Useful Tasks

This is the first guest post on Productive Catholic, and I must say that’s it’s pretty darn good.  If you want a great introduction on how to use tasks as a means to get things done, look no further.  Let us know what you think in the comments, and be sure to give Jean-Rémy a little love!

Being productive starts with focus, and achieving focus means beating procrastination. To stay out of distraction I need to do everything I can to eliminate thoughts that might steer me away from the task at hand. This is trickier than it sounds, but it mostly starts by writing down everything I have to do and think about to achieve my goals in some sort of system. Personally, I’m a big fan of Getting Things Done (GTD), but I understand why this system might seem overwhelming to some, and it doesn’t really matter anyway: just get some sort of system. Whatever works for you.

Whatever your system, though, storing things to remember for future reference is simple enough, but in my experience, many people get it wrong when the time comes to write a to-do list. This is why simple to-do lists don’t work (at least for men). Not only do they give us an insufficient idea of the priorities and deadlines, they also very often lack the necessary precision to tell us where to start, what to do here and now. For priorities, you can use contexts (a different list for things to do at home, on the computer, in the week-end, etc.) For deadlines, you’ve got a calendar. For the bit on precision, read on.

So what’s a task anyway?

In the context of a GTD system, to-do lists are essentially made of “next actions”, ie. the smallest next physical, measurable step you can take to make a given project move forward. It might be a phone call or an email to send, a page to write, and excel sheet to complete,etc. It’s best if it’s measurable in time, and achievable in one sitting.

I like to use this approach, because it really breaks down my projects in small, less scary steps, and when I open my to-do list I immediately have a list of things I can do right now, without too much thinking about the greater picture. The strategic thinking part has been done by my former self, therefore I know these things will get me forward in one project or another, because I planned it all while reviewing my system. Yes, I ‘review a system’. I am kind of a control freak, especially when it comes to managing my time. I defend my time and attention like a lion: they are precious gifts from God. But I digress.

The GTD way might not work for everyone, and that level of precision probably seems like unnecessary hassle. But making tasks precise and actionable is extremely useful, because it allows you to get on with your work as soon as you fire up your task list, confident that what you do now is getting your current projects forward without re-organising all your life in the back of your head at the same time (cognitive overload is bad for productivity, my friend. It’s the source of all stress). It’s a healthy separation of high-level organisation activities from the actual work, so you can actually do things well, just on time. So, whatever system you have, try to break it down to basics.

Breaking it down, and defining the outcomes of your tasks: make something now

So how do we go about breaking down a project (however big or small: a project might range from subscribing to a gym to completing a PhD)? Well, this brings us back to our idea of actionable next actions, doable in one sitting, and measurable in time.

In addition, one question you might ask yourself is: “what’s the outcome?”. What do I get from completing this actions, and when can I tick that to-do list item? Is it when I’ve written a paper, produced a mind-map about that thing I’m trying to learn, obtained an agreement with a colleague? It can be whatever suits you, but try to make sure some concrete thing, some artefact, will come out of it. I use that so I feel guilty for not producing that artefact. And I’ll know what to do about it if I couldn’t produce it: either just get on with the task and make it, or refine the task, generally by splitting it in several parts.

The zen of to-do lists

Hopefully, these ideas will help build a better to-do list, and to separate the moment when you figure out what to do on each project and the moment when you actually do something. The ‘strategic thinking moment’ might be every morning, twice a day, or just once a week depending on the information load you have to sustain (I try to eliminate from that workload everything that isn’t absolutely essential, so I only do it once a week, usually on sunday afternoons or monday mornings). The “doing something” part, well… that’s you life. Experience it to the full.

Make the smart decisions now , so you don’t have to panic about it later. Build a better to-do list.

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