Smart To-Do Lists: How to Boost Productivity AND Self-Esteem

By Guy Mounier, CEO at Aptivio | Updated November 1, 2020

When defining a To Do List in an application such as "Microsoft To Do" or "Microsoft Tasks", there are a few important tips to follow from behavioral experts to actually help boost productivity rather than procrastination, and in the process hurt your self-esteem.

What's inside this article:

Nir Eyal's Post on How to Organize your "To Do" List

Nir Eyal, the Author of "Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life" published a post recently on how to property organize your "To Do" list.

The key takeaway is to align your to-do list with your goals to avoid the never-ending list of "distractions". As such, you should first and foremost treat your to-do list as a backlog or a reliable digital memory of things you need to get done at some point.

Then comes the crucial part of planning your upcoming day and week. This is where you take control of the infinite list of urgent but non-important work, aka "distractions".

5 Steps to Take Control of Your Schedule

Below are the 5 steps that I distilled from the article, and my own experience as a Tech Startup CEO for the past 12 years, dealing with many conflicting requests for my time and priorities:

  • First you need to ensure your To Do List backlog is complete. It means that you eliminate any follow-ups from your Inbox ("Inbox Zero" target), or tasks in your CRM or Email application.
  • Second, you must categorize your Tasks by Theme, such as Personal Projects, Homework, Work, Relationships, Networking, etc. It ensures that you do not miss or dismiss critical areas of your life, and create a well-balanced plan.
  • Third, you are now ready to separate what is Important from what is Urgent. Flag all Tasks that require both "Deep Thinking" and are critical to achieve your goals as "Important".
  • Fourth, you are not ready to allocate Tasks to your day and week. Start with scheduling out the Important Tasks that you can take on during the week. Make sure they make it into your favorite Calendar application such as Office 365 or G-Suite so you block the time appropriately. Keep some timeslots open for the unexpected meeting, personal emergency, or overtime required to complete a Task.
  • Fifth, you may now add both Important and Urgent Tasks to your current day. Limit the number of "Urgent" tasks to the ones truly due the same day. Those tasks are often the ones that distract you from your core goals.

When dealing with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), procrastination, and the resulting anxieties associated with not being in control of your own agenda and time, I can share from personal experience that this method truly works. In fact, I had no choice but to find a system of organizing my to-dos and schedule, or I would not survive the grueling pressures of my job. When our agendas get out-of-control, and we cannot keep the commitments we make to ourselves and others, the impact on self-image and self-esteem is deeply felt.

What is Procastination and Distraction

What kind of identity does an ever-incomplete to-do list reinforce? Though there haven’t been direct studies, one can infer from existing research that it isn’t a positive one. Having a constant reminder that you didn’t do what you said you’d do cements a self-stereotype. We begin to see ourselves differently. Day after day, week after week, year after year, the fact that we don’t do as we say takes a toll. Eventually, we begrudgingly accept not following through.

“I’ll finish it tomorrow,” we tell ourselves. “What’s one more day?” We repeat this cycle until eventually, and subconsciously, the narrative begins to change from what we do to who we are. “I’m not good with deadlines,” we say. “I must have a short attention span.”

We buy into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This happened to me: I allowed myself to believe I was the kind of person who was “easily distracted,” and I therefore became increasingly distractible. I started telling myself I was “bad at managing my time” and began acting accordingly.

The Difference between Traction and Distraction

Understanding the distinction between traction and distraction is critical. By this definition, we cannot call something a distraction unless we know what it is distracting us from. Therefore, we can’t say we got distracted unless we have defined, in advance, what is traction for us at that moment in time. Playing video games or watching television can be an act of traction if that’s what you planned to do with your time. Conversely, working on a task most people would laud as “productive” can be a horrible distraction if it is not what you committed to doing with your time.

For instance, even when I knew I had a big project looming and needed to spend the morning working on it to meet my deadline, glancing at my to-do list gave me permission to escape into doing something (anything) else. Oh! My to-do list says it’s time to rearrange my desktop icons into color-coded, alphabetized folders!? OK! I guess I’ll do that real quick before I start writing that report I’ve been putting off.

When that’s done, I probably still won’t feel like doing the hard work of focusing on that report, so I’m going to reconstruct my to-do list so I know exactly what has to get done for the next six years of my life. Then I’ll get back to writing that report!...or maybe I won’t.

Before I staged a coup d'etat against my to-do list, I used to let my unfinished tasks invade my thoughts and leisure time. I’d sit down for a pleasant dinner with my family, only to start thinking about all the things left undone on my to-do list. Later, when I’d play with my daughter, the unchecked boxes tormented me and sometimes kept me up at night worrying.

How to Free Yourself from the Tyranny of To-Do Lists

To free yourself from the tyranny of the to-do list, you must break the habit of looking at your list to tell you what to do. So what’s the alternative? It’s time to upgrade your life OS and build a weekly schedule instead.

Planning in advance how you intend to spend your time is the only way to know the difference between traction (what you said you would do) and distraction (anything else).

Keeping a calendar is not only useful for work-related tasks. We can hold time for our important relationships and for investing in ourselves. The practice fixes all three faults of running your day with a to-do list.

Rather than reinforcing the self-image of someone who pushes unfinished tasks from one day to the next, unable to keep commitments, a properly built schedule reinforces personal integrity with every distraction-free time block.

Second, unlike a to-do list, which tends to lead us to work on urgent or easy tasks rather than important work, deciding how you will spend your time in advance has been shown to lead to fewer distractions. A schedule makes it more likely you will stay on track by adding the constraint of a fixed period of time. When you know you only have one hour to work on a task, you become more focused instead of letting yourself flounder.

Whether it’s taking care of yourself, your relationships or your work, make time for those things in your day,” says Nir Eyal. “Whatever it might be, when you have that time on your calendar plan, that’s traction, and everything else is a distraction.
2020 Employee Productivity: The Ultimate Guide

Learn Time Management Skills

If you’re worried about your team’s productivity levels, it might be a good idea to teach them a couple of time management techniques. They might be trying to juggle a lot of projects, but not spending enough time planning how to tackle them effectively. Here are two time management techniques we recommend:

  • Pomodoro technique: Set a 25-minute timer to focus on one task. After 25 minutes, take a short 5-minute break. Every four 25-minute sessions, take a longer break.
  • Time blocking: teach your direct reports to block specific calendar events when they need to work on specific tasks.

Avoid Interruptions (and encourage deep work!)

We live in an age of ever-increasing demands for our attention. In fact, a study by Udemy shows that 3 out of 4 workers admit they feel distracted at work, with 16 percent asserting that they’re almost always distracted.

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive,” says Cal Newport

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