To do? Or not to do? That is the question.

There has been a lot written about the to-do list. Some people swear by them, some people just use them as a torture device to write down all the things they feel they should be doing – but haven’t.

This article by Amjad Ali (@ASTsupportAAli) covers some of the more traditional approaches to to-do lists, which I won’t be covering in great detail

Amjad highlights the basic flaw in which many people approach them. They include the wrong things on the list. They think of all the tasks they have been given or feel that they need to do and write them all down. Perhaps prioritising them in terms of urgency or difficulty or importance or time they will take.

Not everything needs to be on your to-do list. In fact, putting too much on your list will prevent you from achieving what you actually need to do. Again, Amjad also highlights Decision Fatigue (Ego Depletion) as a major problem that results in poorer decision making the more decisions that you make. So just limit yourself to two or three items for your list.

This short blog post covers something that Amjad didn’t. At least not in this way. He didn’t fully cover how you to select what should be on your list.

If you are in the luxurious position of being your own boss, then this is relatively easy, as long as you have identified your goals, the results and the actions you need to take to achieve them. Just write down three things that will move you closer to your goal and focus on them.

Unfortunately, few of us are in that position, so our to-do list comprises of the things that other people want us to do, in addition to our own personal goals. So how the hell do you decide what to do?

The simple answer is to change how you view your time. Most of us complain that we don’t have enough. I was certainly that way. So instead of making a list of actions that you should do, think about how you use your time. After all, it is the one thing that you can’t get back. It is yours and how you spend it should be up to you, beyond your contractual obligations.

Establishing a routine is key. You will have time commitments, so log them. Identify how much time you need to complete routine tasks, allocate the time for that as a regular fixture in your day or week.

The time you have left is yours to do with as you wish.

Yes, this is oversimplified, but by focusing on the time you have rather than the tasks you have to do you change your relationship with those tasks. You reduce the decisions that you have to make. It isn’t what do I do on my list, it is this the time I have put aside for this aspect of my role.

Now some of you will argue that you still have lots to do and that the time might not be enough. Not so. Now you can pass the decision making on what needs to be done back to the person who gave you all the tasks in the first place. You are in the position of being able to show your line manager the amount of time that you have available and ask them for their priorities.

“This is the time I have available, what would you like me to focus on?”

Everyone knows where they stand and it can actually reduce stress levels for all concerned.

Once you understand that time is precious, you just have to learn to say “No” to unnecessary drains on your time. Particularly to the people who also generate work for you, but who are not necessarily your line manager.

People who ask for favours but rarely return them, people who slip a piece of paper on your desk when you are not there and expect something to be done. Most of these can be refused. If you kowtow to this, you are working to their priorities and not your own. They are time vampires and will suck this valuable resource away from you.

Note-leavers are particularly bad. You actually have no real concept of how important something actually is. Let’s face it, if they can’t be bothered to speak to you about it, it can’t be that urgent, can it? There is a method of dealing with this that some of you might not like. I call it the Pile of Doom.

Simply place all these pieces of paper in a pile on your desk and leave them there untouched until someone actually comes and speaks to you about it. Then you can weigh it up against your priorities and either agree or refuse based on the amount of time you have available to achieve the things that you want to do. If no one arrives to speak to you about it, it can’t have been important after all and you haven’t wasted your time.

If, at the end of the week, no one has come to speak to you about it simply move the pile to the Drawer of Doom. If they come running to you in a panic demanding you complete whatever it was immediately, just give them a blank look. They have no idea whether you received the note or not. Perhaps they will be better organised in future. Empty the Drawer of Doom every half-term or term. You will eventually train people not to leave you with actions without speaking to you first.

Some people will try and spend your time in ways that they want by sending you an email. I find a useful response is to send them a link to an online calendar where they can book a time with you to speak about whatever it is. If you have scheduled your week already, this may be for a week’s time or even longer. You will soon find that they complete the work themselves or become more organised and give you more notice, so you can schedule it into your routine.

I was once told by a leader when I approached them about the workload I faced, that I needed to manage my time better. They were right, but not in the way they meant. It is my time, not theirs, and I have since become much more selfish about how I spend it.

Amjad’s article encourages you to create a to-do list that works by not overloading you with tasks, but a to-do list doesn’t indicate the impact of those tasks on your time. Don’t be a slave to your tasks, be the master of your time.

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