Prioritizing Your To-Do List: Getting the Right Things Done

Summary: Planning what to do first can keep you from just spinning your wheels on useless tasks. (Tweet This)

If you are anything like me, you can't get to the bottom of your to-do list. It's one of the reasons I created this blog. What can I say? I'm just a boy who cain't say no. "Learning How to Say No" is a great article for another day, but today I'd like to talk about to-do lists and getting the right things on it done. (Update: Here's that article on "how to say no".)

More than a decade ago, I worked for a top 20 Internet company managing one of its most profitable properties: Search. It was a lot of pressure for me at 24 years old. Fortunately, the Vice President had a lot of confidence in my abilities and we really clicked. It wasn't too long after we started working together that we came across the problem that everyone encounters at one point or another. The VP had a bunch of things he wanted to accomplish and I was just one engineer. With limited time and resources, something had to give.

To-Do List - Get Things Done

Using a To-Do List to Get Things Done

I suggested that we try something very different. I told him to make a list of all the tasks that need to get done. Separately we tackled that list in two different ways. I went through and estimated how easy the task was to accomplish. He gave each task on the list a score based on how important it was to the business. We each used a 10 point scale - 10 was "easy" on mine and 10 was "very important" on his. Then we simply multiplied our scores and sorted on the result in descending order.

The bottom 30% of the list got tabled indefinitely. It was a lot of effort which wasn't important. The easy stuff with the big impact to the business bubbled up to the top 30% of the list. In a few days, I implemented all these features and the VP was extremely happy. The middle 40% took me another month, but it was a quiet month as the bosses moved on to torture harass supervise other projects.

Recently I was reading Never Check E-Mail In the Morning and Julie Morgenstern suggested a similar thing.

I decided to resurrect that idea, incorporate it with the ideas from the book and came up with a new way of managing my to-do list. As I've found in the past, Excel (or your favorite spreadsheet equivalent) is the right tool for the job.

Currently my metrics are:

  • Revenue Relevance - It's hard to downplay the actual money factor.
  • Time to Complete - My original idea of quantifying how hard something is.
  • ROI - This is the impact to the rest of the business. A guest post isn't going to directly bring in revenue, but it is very important to the growth of the business.

I have a couple of other columns as well. On a tip from Morgenstern's book, I have a Deadline column. In the blogging business there are few deadlines. This is more of an informational column for me. I can color-code the cell to green if it's more than one week away and gradually move it up to shades of red if it's overdue.

I like to have a Category column to sort by. This way, if I feel like my blog articles are in need of promotion, I can work on that. If I start seeing a number of finance tasks piling up, I can focus on those even if those other categories may technically be more important.

I also have a Notes column, which should be self-explanatory. I don't use it as much as I should.

In Never Check E-Mail In the Morning, Morgenstern suggested that the impact to the company's revenue should be the metric for "important to the business." At the time I was reading the book, it made sense, but in applying it to my business, I started to disagree. I'm keeping it in my spreadsheet for now, but I'm thinking of combining the ROI and the Revenue into the same column like I did 10 years ago. This means tasks with big revenue impact would just have a big a ROI impact as well. One of the problems I have with the focus on revenue is that it would push necessary evils tasks like security of my web server towards the bottom. It may not seem relevant to your revenue until there's an emergency - and that's often the worst time to deal with it.

I should also emphasize that this is my business to-do list. I've thought about shoehorning personal tasks into it, but I currently don't see how it would work. It seems like comparing the business impact of doing laundry can't (and shouldn't) be compared to writing blog posts. Laundry would almost always lose out unless it started to really pile up.

I think instead, I'd need to create a separate pages for each area in life. Perhaps one for health, one for chores. I'm going to have to think about how much I really want to run my life by a spreadsheet. Something seems a little too robotic there.

P.S. See the comments from 2011 below? That's from version 1.0 of this blog. This is version 2.0, so it is that much more awesome.

Photo Credit: Richard Dingwall

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Productivity, To-Do

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How To Be Productive

Summary: When we understand what slows us down, we can take action to eliminate the problem at the root. (Tweet This)

There are entire sections of the bookstore devoted to being more productive. I'm going to try to break all that down into a one tiny article. I'm lying, it's a huge article. I'm also going to cheat by linking to many other blog posts.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours of time curating hundreds of productivity tips. So it's guilt-trip time. Just imagine how much productivity I will have lost if you don’t read and use these productivity tips. The least you can do is invest a few minutes reading them, right?

I wish I could say that I've designed the perfect organization system for all this information on productivity. I am fairly confident that I have not. This guide will be evolving year after year as I get wiser and you continue to give me constructive feedback.

Get the Day Started on the Right Foot

Determine What Matters

Harvard Business Review tells you how to spend the first 10 minutes of your day. The suggestion is to determine what matters most for a successful day and creating a plan to execute on it.

"Production has really perked up since we installed the coffee pots."

It also means breaking down complex tasks to simple specific actions. For example, I never have "Work on Be Better Now website" on my to-do list. I have specific things such as "Write a few sections of an article on Productivity."

Part of determining what matters is eliminating the things that don't matter. You want to avoid getting bogged down with things that have little impact. I don't know anyone who wakes up and says, "I hope I accomplish email today!" Yet many people wake up only to check their email and begin their day responding to them. An hour later, you finish up only to have the responses from the first emails start to trickle in starting the whole cycle again. If you do this, don't feel too bad, I do it too.

Instead, we should start off your day by figuring out what you want to accomplish and writing it down. If you are really on top of your game, you might have done this before you went to sleep last night.

If you want to learn how I create my to do list read this article about using gamification.

Create Weekly and Monthly goals

Remember last week when I set goals for January 2015? For now I'm still going with monthly goals, but I am starting to think more and more about setting weekly goals. My suggestion: Experiment with each and see what works for you.

Schedule Your Day

One of the most important things is to have structure to your day. Many people have a lot of meetings that provide that structure. I work from home, which means that I have a very flexible schedule. Most of the time it is as wonderful as it sounds. A lot of the time it could use more structure.

Here are some tips that I've found helpful:

Plan to Take Breaks

It’s tempting to dive in and work, work, work. However, working too long without a break can cause burnout... and that’s not productive. Studies show the most productive people take regular breaks. That's really good news as it means you can get more done in less time.

The study cited above concluded that the ideal amount of work is 52 minutes, followed by a 17 minute break.

If that’s a little specific for you, many find the Pomodoro Technique helpful. It suggests that one should work for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. After a few cycles of this, you can take a longer 15-30 minute break. If you want to give this a try, you may find it helpful to download a Pomodoro application for your smartphone.

Take Productive Breaks

For me a break is "something different than writing articles on a computer." Perhaps it's better to call it a "change of pace." I've found a few "breaks/changes of pace" that are productive in a different sense.

I've found that a 15-30 minute break is perfect for walking/running with my dog, Jake. It gives me exercise and time to clear my head. It’s a great change of pace from typing at a keyboard all day. If I have 5 minutes, I might empty the dishwasher. If I have 15, I might also fold some laundry. I also try to schedule my shower as a work break.

Being "differently productive" during a work break is one of the greatest benefits of working from home.

Willpower is strongest in the morning

Studies show we all have limited willpower. You wake up with a bunch of it, but as the day goes on, it gets sapped. If you are like me by the end of the day, you just want to watch a Seinfeld rerun and sleep.

If you have a difficult task that you’ve been putting off, the best time to do it first thing in the morning. Once you complete it, you not only don't have it hanging over your head anymore, but you can be comforted knowing that the day is only going to easier.

Eliminate the Easy Stuff

Use productivity guru David Allen's 2-Minute Rule to slice through much of your to-do list. If it can be done in 2-minutes, simply do it right away. If you are like me having a long to-do list gets mentally exhausting. Having 10-12 items on it can be so overwhelming that I want to simply take the whole day off.

However, I find that even if I can finish 20% of them in 15-20 minutes, I will feel so much better. I get a tremendous boost from seeing the progress made as I cross off the items on the long list.

Limit Email Checks and Crush It Quickly

There is certainly a time for email. Most experts recommend doing email twice a day. Personally, I find that the best times are around 11AM and 3PM. By 11AM, I’m thinking about lunch and this gives me a transition to that. At 3PM, I’m thinking about a snack to carry me through to dinner.

Like many, I am an avid Gmail user. One of the fastest and most productive ways to churn through most of your email is to use This Email Game, which was once awarded Time Magazine’s Top 50 Best Website list.

Set Yourself Up For Success Tomorrow

Remember at the beginning when I said that you should create a list of things that you want to accomplish to start the day. What if you spent a few minutes putting it together the night before? Then you’d save yourself the ten minutes in the morning. You could jump right in and start doing that most difficult thing.

Productivity is a State of Mind

Clear your Mind

If you are anything like me, you've got a billion things running around in your head. Having all that in there is like a computer hard drive that hasn't been defragmented in years. It just clogs everything up. I can't focus on one task, because I've got all this other stuff going on in the back of my mind.

The solution: Off-load all that stuff in your head into a note taking application (Evernote is the most popular followed by Google Keep), a to-do list (my current favorite is Wunderlist, and/or a calendar (I use Google Calendar).

Get Motivated

Sometimes you just need that boost to get started. I like to focus on a few things that are quick and easy. It gets the productivity snowball rolling down the mountain.

Other times, I use music to get me going. For example, how can be a lump after listening to The White Stripe's Seven Nation Army:


I'm just starting to learn about meditation. So far it looks promising. The idea is to take a planned break. However, instead of the productive breaks I mentioned above, you simply focus on the idea of taking a break. It may sound like hippy, mamsy-pamsy stuff, but there's real science behind it.

Make Technology your Friend, not Your Enemy

As I mentioned above, I do much of my work on a computer. Unfortunately a lot of requires me having access to the internet. This means I'm always fewer than 5 seconds away from learning about the latest Boston sports news. (It's vital to know if Gronk has a hangnail.)

Here are a few tips and tricks that I've invaluable:

  • Pocket or Instapaper - Each of these applications save articles for later. So rather than have a browser tab stare at me saying, "Read Me!", I tell it goodbye. At the end of the day when I'm winding down, I can catch up on these at my own pace. With my smartphone, I can even catch up with them when I don't have my computer such as at the dog park.
  • Disconnect from the Internet and churn through as much as possible - This is often called the airplane trick. I don't know who realized it first, but people found that when they don't have access to the Internet on airplanes, they can churn through work. I've found that it works for me as well. While I often need the Internet to look up something for an article I'm writing, I've started to make a note of it and continue writing. I find that I get a lot more words written when I focus on writing. Funny how that is.
  • Track or Eliminate Computer Use - Personally I've been scared to take this step, but there are applications that will tell you how much you spend in certain applications. The most famous is RescueTime. MakeUseOf has a a couple of suggestions

Get a Second Monitor

While on the topic of technology, a variety of studies that show having a second monitor is very productive. Here are the best selling computer monitors on Amazon.

Putting it All Together

When we understand what slows us down, we can take action to eliminate the problem at the root. In a few minutes we learned:

  • why it is important to get started early in the morning
  • what tasks we should and shouldn't tackle in the morning
  • how to use technology to our advantage instead of distraction
  • how to get going when we lack motivation

... and much more.

Further Reading: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity - This is the definitive book on productivity in my opinion. With over 1300 reviews and an average rating of 4.4 stars on Amazon, it seems that most people agree. With a current price of less than $10, it represents a tremendous value in terms of investing in yourself.

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Productivity, Organization, and Simplicity

Summary: Don't live a complicated life that is inefficient and constantly full of clutter (Tweet This)

As I mentioned in our Welcome post, one day of most weeks, Be Better Now will cover topics relating to productivity, organization, and simplicity. This is an extremely broad topic... some experts have written many books on the topic. I'll try to boil down all the advice I find and things I learn into the best guide on the Internet.

In many ways the three concepts stack on top of each other. When you live simply, it is easier to be organized. When you are organized, it is easier to be productive. When you are productive you save time and money, two resources that you can apply in other areas of your life, such as getting healthy, spending time with family, or just giving your brain a chance to relax.

This is the synergy concept at the core of Be Better Now. When all the pieces come together, we are at our best.

Here are just a few of the areas that I expect to cover:

  • Digital Clutter - As a technology early adopter, I have hundreds of accounts with websites that I don't use. They all want my attention and access to my email box. Beyond that, my other blog has gotten popular enough that every company with a new product emails me asking for me to promote their product. The digital clutter expands from beyond my email box, to my desktop, and my computer itself.
  • Organize My Home - Each weekend I sigh when we think about the mess. You don't want to see my office desk, trust me. To put it simply, I have acquired things that have no homes. I need to be better at finding homes for these things or getting rid of them. I also need to be better at putting away those things that do have homes.
  • Getting Things Done - At the risk of using David Allen's copyrighted term, I need to find a way to cut through my "To Do" list. I don't think I have ever gotten it halfway completed. I'll do a lot of research on why that is, and what I need to do differently.

Each of these add up to quite a bit of mental strain and add stress to my life. When I should be relaxing and watching a movie, I'm thinking, "Ugh, I really should be doing [Project X]." It's time to slice through that and start being better.

In the end, I simply can't live the life I want to live if it is inefficient, constantly full of clutter, and complex processes that take up precious brain cycles.

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... and focuses on: