Your To-Do List: Knowing Where to Start

By Ali Luke

December 21, 2010   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

You’ve got a long list of tasks that you want to get done today, or this week. Some are big, some are small. Some are important, some are trivial. Some are urgent, some aren’t.

Where do you begin?

Different experts will tell you different things. The truth is, though, that there’s no “perfect” way to manage your to-do list. Ultimately, you’re either going to get everything on it done, or you’re not. The trick is to maximize your chances of getting it all done – to develop a system which works for you.

Here are four methods, all equally valid. Give one or two of them a try, and see what seems like a good fit. If you’ve already got a system that works, leave a note in the comments to share.

Start With the High-Energy Tasks
You might hear these tasks described as those with “the most resistance” or as “frogs”. They’re tasks which you feel a bit daunted by, ones which you’d quite like to put off.

They might be unpleasant (e.g. phoning an angry client) or actually quite enjoyable (e.g. writing your novel). Either way, they feel hard.

By tackling with these high-energy tasks first, you get a great start on your day or week, and you’ll often have a strong sense of achievement and momentum.

Start With the Easiest Tasks

On the flip side, you might prefer to start off with the easiest tasks. If you find it hard to settle down and work, or if you end up procrastinating a lot, these easy tasks can help you “warm up”.

Easy tasks are ones which don’t require much energy. You don’t have an emotional investment in them – they’re not scary or worrying at all. Easy tasks might be fun, or they might simple be routine – like clearing out your junk email.

Start With the Most Important Tasks
If you could only accomplish one or two things this week, what would you pick? Those are your most important tasks – the ones which really make a difference in your work or in your life.

Important tasks might include writing a report, finding ten new clients, or getting your small company’s website online.

By tackling these tasks first, you’ll know that you’ve made significant progress – which encourages you to carry on working. Plus, if you don’t complete your whole list, you’ll at least have done those 20% of tasks which get you 80% of your results.

Start With the Most Urgent Tasks
The urgent items on your list are the ones with a looming deadline. They might be vitally important (like getting your presentation finished before the big meeting) or pretty insignificant (like taking back your library books before you get a fine).

Urgent tasks often weigh on your mind. By tackling them first, you get them out of the way and you can carry on with the rest of your work without worrying that you might run out of time.

Which of those four methods works for you? You’ll probably find that you use a combination of methods – perhaps you tackle the important, urgent tasks first, or you start off with something easy but urgent so that you can get it off your mind.

Whatever technique you use, though, it’s not going to give you more than 24 hours in a day! Although we often talk about “time management“, we can’t really change how much time we have – we can only alter where we put our attention. So, as well as finding a good way to tackle your to-do list, make sure that you’re taking a long hard look at any tasks which might not need to be on there at all.

Ali Luke

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