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Must Do List

Some years back, I learned something I’ve applied in my life and in working with young professionals I have mentored over the years. It’s a relatively simple system. At the beginning of each day, we would write tasks we wanted to finish that day on a 3×5 index card, dating it at the top.

If you’re curious as to why we used 3×5 index cards, it was mostly happenstance. I’ve used 3×5 cards for years to make notes on because they’re inexpensive, they fit easily into a pocket, and they’re durable. They’re also easy to store and sort, which is helpful if you decide to go back through a stack to analyze and notice patterns. For people who process information visually, the “low-tech” cards might work better than note apps or spreadsheets.

So, now you have a portable little “To Do” list. At the end of the day, or the next morning, we would cross off any tasks that were completed. We then would carry unfinished tasks over to the card for the next day, and sometimes add another item or two.

I urged the people I mentored to create daily cards for a few weeks. What did we learn from doing this simple exercise? Well, it wasn’t pretty…

Examining the stack of index cards that had accumulated during a week or a month was extremely revealing. Despite our best efforts, we found we crossed off few items—far too few—and left many undone tasks remaining.

If someone finished just one major task in a day, it was cause for celebration. Completing two or three major tasks was considered a huge victory! Unfortunately, because we needed to add more items or tasks to the daily lists—and usually ended up carrying them over to the next day—our lists continued to grow. Looking at a longer list every day was most discouraging.

Then we hit on the idea to put only the most important things on the cards. This became our “Must-Do List.” To make the list, we would ask some qualifying questions:

  1. Is this item one of the top five things I must complete today, in whole or in part?

  2. What will the impact of completing this task be a year from now?

  3. How does this task fit with my vision and purpose in life?

The first question narrowed our list down considerably, This step was especially important, because we were lucky to cross one or two items off the list each day.

The second and third questions helped us put the task in perspective with the bigger picture. Minor tasks were quickly eliminated when we realized they wouldn’t matter in a year or didn’t align with our biggest goals.

We no longer carried minor tasks over, as with a traditional list. Instead, we added them to a separate running to-do list.

Now to be clear, we only put major tasks we needed to accomplish on the daily card—tasks that were meaningful and that enhanced our results and our future. But that meant our cards were no longer comprehensive guidelines for how to spend each minute of the day.

For example, checking email consumes large amounts of time and energy. It’s important that it be done at regular intervals, but it’s not a major task that would make the 3×5 card daily list. Attending an important decision-making meeting would be on the 3×5 card, yet attending an informal planning meeting might not.

What about those brief interactions with our coworkers? Relationships with others are a very important part of our work and our lives, but they wouldn’t make the list—and they also can consume a huge amount of time.

Many aspects of life require our time and are important, in addition to the specific tasks or projects we must complete. While we can’t overlook these things, we don’t put them on our Must-Do daily cards. The cards are used to allow us to refocus our attention on important results. It’s okay to still maintain a regular to-do list of tasks that should be done, but don’t affect your yearlong or ultimate goals. Many people like to write everything down.

Having a card of Must-Do daily priority tasks will allow you to divert your attention periodically or deal with the inevitable distractions, and still accomplish what matters most.

More on this subject in my next blog.

Adapted from the book Uncommon Sense by Bill Abbate www.billabbate.com

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