To-Do List – what makes some successful task managers

to-do-listEveryone has a to-do list. Even if you keep it in your head, everyone has one. I use a simple app on my iPhone that syncs with the same app on my iPad and on my desktop to manage my to-do list. This is a recent replacement for a technology I used for 30 years, 3×5 note cards (preferably un-ruled) that stuck out of my shirt pocket.

Regardless of the to-do list technology employed, I am sure that your to-do list is almost always longer than can be fulfilled and increasingly filled with “overdue” tasks. Mine is chronically creeping in that direction.

A recent article on Brain Pickings ( “A Brief History of the To-Do List and the Psychology of Its Success” by Maria Popova reviewed some recent research ((1)) ) that touches on two useful points. Continue reading

  1. mostly focused on a chapter about to-do lists, the third chapter, titled “A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey,” in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister []

Too Much Information – learn to control those interruptors

A continuing hot topic here is the surge of interruptions that consume our work day (and evenings, too).

I have talked about this earlier in these postings, Seize Your Time – gaining control over Too Much Information and Multitasking, Too Much Information, Interruptions, and High Performance

Many people see their emails, instant messaging, Twittering, Blackberries and iPhone (to mention just a few interrupters) as beasts that they must satisfy instantaneously and continuously. Everything is in real time.

The first question to be asked is, “Do all of these interruptions really have equal claim on my time?” If you work in a customer service call center, then truly that ringing phone does have claim on your next free moment. But, in reality customer inquiries can be filtered and sorted for action as appropriate.

A second point to be considered is how inefficient and unreliable all of these little interruptions make us. Despite all of the blather about “multitasking”, human beings really can only do one thing at a time. When we are “multitasking, we are really performing a whole series of tasks sequentially. The brain is expending lots of energy and taking extra time to keep track of which tasks are in queue and what the status is of the last one we worked on and the next one we pick up. Worse, in most ways, is the fact that all of this is making us perform at a lower quality level. All of the back and forthing introduces errors and the interruptions are preventing us from really devoting enough time to energize our creativity and problem solving aptitudes.

Multitasking is a fraudulent idea.

Lets take a line of thought about emails and see if we can develop some actions that you can take that will bring at least this interrupter under your control.

Look over the emails you have received over the last day to week. How many of these really required instant action –  did the sender expect you to be sitting at your computer waiting for the email gong to put you into action? Did the sender really think that they were emailing to the equivalent of a customer service center where they could expect that someone would immediately read their email and respond? What would have been a reasonable response time for these emails? Today? End of Business Tomorrow? Do all of the emails requiring response in less than a day come from a predictable set of people? If so, do they really need this, or is it just a bad habit that you have encouraged? Perhaps, you can set some new expectations for them.

But, lets say there are some people who require responses in less than a day. Set up an email filter (“Smart Folder” in the Apple MAC world) where these emails will automatically be sorted. Now when you go to your email application, you only need to look at that folder. Everything else can wait until one of your regularly scheduled trips to the email box.

And that brings us to the next step. Set up a schedule for checking and responding to email. For most, first thing in the morning and at the end of the day will do it. Then, you have to stick with it. For me the challenge is my iPod Touch. I carry it around in my pocket and there is an enormous temptation to take it out and look at my emails.

Take this one step with emails. Don’t worry about all those other interrupters. Rome was not built in a day and you will not change your multitasking habits over night. Prove that you can gain control over just your emails. See what the results are. Then, you can move on to the others.

Remember, time is the one resource you have that can not be bought or inventoried. To be productive and sucessful you must make the best use of this most valuable asset.

Multitasking, Too Much Information, Interruptions, and High Performance

Last week I ran into a little book (it really is little, 135 pages in a 5″ x 7″ format – very easy on the hand and eye), The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done by David Crenshaw (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco 2008).

The initial chapters take up the question of humans as multitaskers. For those who need to be reassured that the common sense answer to this question is, in this case, more than common, that it really is the sensical answer, take the time to follow the narrative. Yes, this is one of those business books written as a story. In most regards I have come to think of the first such approach that I know of to writing a business book in a narrative story format, The Goal: a process of ongoing improvement, by Goldratt, wishing it had been the last. But, I digress.

Crenshaw introduces the notion that because we really are capable of only one task at a time, the appearance of multitasking is really a series of “switchtasking” in which we shift our attention back and forth among a number of tasks. This process incurs significant inefficiencies due to the housekeeping overhead of our brain keeping track of where we are starting and stopping with each task.  Significant errors also occur as a result.

The proliferation of information devices over the last decade has multiplied the opportunities for interruption and created environments which are perpetually competing for our attention. Email, cellphones, voicemail, instant messaging, text messaging, faxes, and more clutter our desks, pockets, belts, pocketbooks, backpacks, hands, and, ultimately, our brains.  As Crenshaw aptly states, “The reality, though, is that these things will make us productive only if we learn to take control of them….If you and I don’t set up a schedule and protect our time, we allow ourselves to be run over by the traffic of information.” (page 61).

Crenshaw goes on to suggest a strategy for doing just that, establishing a schedule. I have written earlier about the need to avoid Too Much Information.

In Crenshaw’s approach to meetings which calls for establishing “recurring meetings” where people regularly need to meet with you, I think that an opportunity for a deeper understanding of what is happening is missed. The first step with meetings is to examine the reasons for the meetings. Altogether too often meetings are symptoms of poor underlying business processes, especially decision making. Many meetings turn out to be about how a decision is to be made, what information applies, what are the boundary conditions and parameters, and so on. These meetings should be replaced by sound business processes that make the decision making faster, closer to the end user, and more reliable. Other meetings will turn out to be program or process status meetings. These too should be replaced with better business processes and visual status reports. In general a manager should view every meeting where they do not add significant, singular value as a symptom of opportunities to improve processes.

Crenshaw’s approach to developing a time budget seems to me just a re-run of the age old time management gurus’ spreadsheets in which we keep track of all activities for a number of weeks and then analyze them for waste. In my experiences personally, and with clients, this approach does not work well. A significant number of people simply will not maintain a log of their activities in sufficient detail and at enough length to really be useful. More troubling, very few are able to act on the results of the analysis.

I have come to relie on a Seize Your Time approach which I have written and spoken about frequently. Basically, this works as follows:

Take out your schedule for the next week. Block out two hours during which you will post on your door a sign saying, “Do Not Disturb”, turn off all communication devices including your beloved Blackberry (iPhones, too) and work without interruption on some valuable project that will move your organization forward.

You can read more about this in my Time Management postings and podcasts.

One area in which Crenshaw strikes on a rich vein of truth is his discussion of “business systems” and “personal systems”. Here he points out the fact that the “personal system” of the business leader becomes de facto the “business system” of the company.

Many business managers and owners act as though magically their behavior is disconnected from the behavior of their company. They engage in the delusional notion that people throughout their company do not notice how they behave, how they make decisions, what their priorities are, what their values in dealing with people and other companies are, in fact, almost everything they do or say (mostly do).

Fortunately, this is not true. Why “fortunately” you might ask. The answer is that the behavior of the leader of small and medium size businesses has dramatic and reliable impacts on the performance of the company. And, since we do know what constitutes high-performance in business leaders, the leader can learn the appropriate behaviors, actively model them in their own performance, and see the results cascade through their firm.

I applaud Crenshaw for taking on a popular buzzword and small-scale plague not only in business life, but also our day-to-day world. Multitasking is indeed a myth. I would be tempted to be more vigorous in my rhetoric and say that multitasking is a fraud and a thief.