In the unending challenge to juggle more things to do than time to do it, I tried something different this week. I always work with short to-do lists, but this week I tried a different tactic. I kept open in a window in front of me on my computer a simple prioritized list using the Windows Sticky Notes program, and determined to tackle the items in order, getting as many done during the work day as possible, then setting up the list for the next day before leaving work. That’s basic to-do list management – nothing new or special.
I’ve used Outlook’s task list for a long while, but the problem is that so much time in Outlook is spent in the inbox or calendar that the task list can get lost in the competition for attention. Sticky Notes allowed me to keep another window prominent throughout the day as a reminder. (The fact that I used Sticky Notes is irrelevant. A simple list in any program will do.)
However, since a crazy quantity of incoming emails usually distracts me from getting as many to-do list items completed as I should, I also made an item on the daily to-do list of spending just one hour cleaning up emails. I limited time in my inbox to that hour daily this week. If I was to actually take the time to handle all the emails that have come in to my inbox the past few days, it would take several hours per day of my time to address them. The problem with doing that is that spending so much time handling emails keeps me from doing the more important work that I’m really hired to do and must do in order to make my greatest impact.
Here is a key lesson: Email is a to-do list that others create for you.
We can’t allow others to create our to-do lists. We must make them ourselves and not let others change them. Of course, those we report to always have the option of mandating a change in our priorities; that’s understood. But especially for information workers in an environment where interruptions are frequent, we must set up some boundaries and processes that help us keep the focus on doing the most important things.
Have I accomplished everything requested by others this week with this approach? No, I haven’t. But I’ve completed some very important items that have been on my to-do list for too long, and that were previously shoved aside by spending too much time on email. My inbox has consequently swollen in size as I write this, growing daily as unexpected items come in that others want my help with or feedback regarding. Sadly, most of those will have to wait. I intend to keep on getting the big-ticket important things done, devoting no more than one hour per day to responding to the other kinds of emails. I suspect the world won’t end, even though some sending those emails may think it will. Ultimately, I know it will take an additional body on my team to do everything that is expected of me, so I have to get the important things done first and let the rest slide.
Bottom line: don’t let others create your to-do list or divert you from the one you’ve created.