Why Lists are STILL Relevant

Every Monday morning, I make a list.  Whether mental or written, my list helps me reflect on and organize the week’s priorities, tasks and activities.  In his best-selling book, “Getting Things Done”, productivity guru David Allen calls this process a Weekly Review.    He suggests we take at least 60 minutes each week to examine our commitments.  The idea, Allen says, “. . . is to put yourself in the driver’s seat”, rather than be led by your commitments.

I have practiced this habit for more than 10 years.

If I forget to make the list, my week is far less productive.  Usually by mid-week, I realize I accomplished some things, but not those that would have given me the most bang for my time.  In other words, the tasks I unintentionally choose are less impactful than those I must complete to reach my overall goals.  Of course, you know months are made up of weeks and years are made up of months.  So these misdirected “accomplishments” could potentially derail my entire month or year, if indulged for long.

When that unwelcome mid-week realization emerges, I immediately pull out the 4-subject, spiral bound notebook I use to record my activities, meeting notes and to-dos and draft the list.

If you have never used lists to help organize your workday – or perhaps, in the age of smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices, you believe lists are dinosaurs – it may be time re-consider.

Even before the term “productivity” was coined, people used lists.  Why?  Because our brains aren’t equipped to handle the deluge of data to which we subject it.  Sure, we can retain vast amounts of information in our long-term memory, but we’ve taken things a bit far.  For instance, consider:

  • In today’s information crazed world, the internet grants access to mountains of data on any topic that tickles your fancy.
  • There are literally thousands of television channels offering entertainment and education about everything from how to buy a house to the most morbid ways to die.
  • We send approximately 200 million e-mail messages per minute every single day!

While we have great capacity for storing data, we just can’t juggle more than a few ideas simultaneously.  Change Management Consultant, Sarah From of Do Your Best Work puts it like this, “Try to hold too many things in your conscious mind at once, and your prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the part of the brain engaged in conscious thought, interaction and decision-making – will become overloaded.  You’ll inevitably drop some things and lose track of others.”

Sound familiar?

At some point, we made the decision to free up our brain’s real estate by making lists.  We learned that making lists decreases stress:  You no longer worry about forgetting!  It also increases your productivity and keeps you organized.  In fact, you are probably already using, sorting and prioritizing lists – even if only mentally.

It’s a part of our decision-making process:

  • When you go to the movies or even stay in with HuluPlus, Netflix or Redbox, you choose from a list of available film options.  You probably sort those films by your mood (Feel like laughing or crying?) or your company (You skip the R rated films when you’re with your 12-year old niece).
  • When you park at the mall, you identify a list of available parking spaces.  Then, you choose the best one based on proximity, size (can your Yukon Denali fit in the compact spaces?) and other factors.

And if you’re like me, you make lists of your household bills before paying them each month, foods to re-stock the fridge on your next grocery run, or names of team members who skipped your last staff meeting.

See what I mean?

Since you’re already applying this highly effective productivity tool, why not amp up its efficiency?  Here are 3 smart ideas to help your lists deliver more impact:

Lists Have Little Impact Without Prioritization

Prioritizing is a powerful “next step” to incorporate into your list-making.  Years ago when I worked as an Operations Assistant for a global retail specialty chain, I’d occasionally get overwhelmed with the many responsibilities my job entailed.  When that happened, I leaned on a particular District Manager, Sue who was good at coaching me through my insanity.

When I called Sue, we’d first make a list of my open tasks.  Then Sue would ask one question:  If you could complete only one task this week, which would it be?  We answered that one question again and again, until a prioritized list took shape.  By prioritizing my to-do list, I was able to identify and complete the more impactful tasks and projects first.  Finally I’d thank Sue and happily execute each task, in order.  Disaster averted!

Lists Have Greater Impact When You Track Your Progress

Staying focused is the one habit which separates you from achieving your goals or NOT achieving your goals.  After you’ve outlined a plan of attack, one way to stay focused is to track your progress.  Back when Sue rescued me from administrative overwhelm, she encouraged me to re-examine my list as I worked to compare remaining tasks with the amount of time left to execute them.  Doing so kept me engaged in the task at hand, and forced me to focus on what’s next.  By tracking your progress in this same way, you will know when to enlist others to help or advise your manager or client if say for instance, a critical report won’t be completed within the expected timeline.  Plus, checking off completed tasks gives you a sense of accomplishment.  Who doesn’t need lil’ motivation here or there.

Lists are More Effective When You Share Them

When someone (other than you) holds you accountable, you’re more likely to accomplish what you intended.  Because I shared my lists with Sue, I was motivated by her support and encouragement.  Even today, my team gathers each week to review progress on tasks and projects we committed to finish.  The practice provides opportunity to share best practices, hold one another accountable, celebrate successes and learn from our mistakes – together.    You might also share your intentions with team members, so they can help recognize patterns and ask you about your progress.

In today’s information crazed world, lists are an incredibly relevant productivity tool that can help identify and focus your energy on the tasks with the biggest impact on reaching your overall goals.  We need lists to help us organize and process the deluge of data which invades our brains every day.  Even if you already use lists, you can enhance the power of lists by prioritizing, tracking and sharing your intentions.

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