Get More Done by Trying “To-Do” Less

to-do-1156681I don’t know about you, but I always feel like I will never have the time to do everything I need to do. Whether it’s always feeling a little behind at the office, coming home at the end of the day to chores and family needs, or trying to pack too much into a too short weekend, we all look for ways to get it all done. There are scores of time and task management tools that promise to help you organize all of your tasks so you can presumably “get things done”.  I have tried so many of them, with little to no improvement, except for being in possession of extensive detailed task lists with due dates that always seem to get pushed into the future. But I recently had an epiphany. To-do lists are like closets – only by getting rid of the big piles of stuff we’re keeping for “someday”, and freeing up space for the things that are most important, can we conquer our time.

I love organizing. I watch shows with organizers helping hoarders clear their homes. The Container Store is one of my favorite places to browse. I read books written by professional organizers. I have done a fabulous job of using bins, boxes, hooks, and other tools to get the most stuff into my closets and into my office. Friends have even asked me to come to their homes and offices to do the same for them. But I realized something recently. All that stuff goes unused because it takes too much effort to pull down the boxes, get what I need and put the pile back together. Have you ever bought something a second time because you couldn’t find the one you had? I have finally come to the conclusion that only when you eliminate everything but what is most important, and have these important things readily accessible, are you really organized. After several large charity deliveries, I now have empty shelves and I am actually spending more time doing what I really want to do and less time straightening my house. But could this work for my calendar as well as my closets?

One of the things that prompted the clear out was that I was reminded of this

Instead of saying “I don’t have time”, try saying “it’s not a priority”.

Instead of trying yet another system for getting everything done, focus instead on getting the most important tasks tone. Identify your top priorities. Be honest with yourself – what needs to get done, and what do you most want to do. Make a list of priorities – it should be short.  Then eliminate all tasks that don’t support those priorities. For example, let’s say one of your tasks is to learn a new skill during your lunch hour. Now look at your task list – how many lunch hour tasks are there? What is your priority? If you want to do the other things too, how much of a priority is learning that new task? This is a ruthless process, but only by being honest with ourselves about what we can truly accomplish can we truly get “more” done.

When you have identified your most high-priority tasks, make time for these tasks. It is easier to make time for two tasks than for twenty. One of two things will happen. You will have freed yourself from the noise of overtasking, and will accomplish what you need to, or something will get in the way and prevent you from completing your task. In other words, you allowed something else to become a higher priority. Analyze what made that task a higher priority – did you choose a new priority, or did someone else? This will tell you if you’ve mistaken “someday” for “priority”. This happens all the time – sometimes it’s hard to let go. It is a process. If someone else prompted the change, ask if they had the authority to do so. If they did, or you allowed them to, then it wasn’t really your time to manage – it was theirs.

I have had the task “start a blog” on my to-do list for something like 4 years. It was mostly just an idea, so it stayed there on my to-do list. But to be honest, it wasn’t really a priority. So it kept getting put off. Recently I decided to make it a priority. I eliminated other things I planned to do to make space for it. I let go of all the other idea-related tasks and actually start writing. It’s maintaining a vigilant focus on your limited set of priorities that makes the difference, and not letting yourself get distracted by the immediate want or the someday daydream.

By keeping your priorities front and center, and clearing the clutter to make space for only the most important tasks, you actually end up accomplishing more. Since less time is spent managing the clutter of your to-do lists, more of your time is spend accomplishing your real priorities. Unless spending time with time management tools is your priority, get more done by focusing less on how to pile more stuff into your calendar, and more on identifying and acting on high priority tasks.