We all lead busy lives. It goes hand in hand that the more responsibility you have in the workplace, the more items seem to find their way onto your plate. There are countless articles, studies and journals out there that highlight the most effective ways to stay productive when times get busy. I saw something the other day that prompted me to add something into this mix.

In a recent blog on post on the Entrepreneur website Melissa Chu highlights 5 actions that need to be stopped in order to be more productive. In her summary she states that “We see productivity as getting more done, which means spending more time and effort on our tasks. But it's just the opposite. In order to achieve more, you need to focus on less.” This is a lovely utopian ideal – but in the real world – we still need to oversee, delegate or prioritise which tasks are worthy of our time.

The challenge that we have is that every individual, in every business, is unique. Some thrive on pressure and some need peace and tranquility to be at their best. So how can anyone really provide help in what is the best for you? Personally, I believe in the old adage of ‘if you want something doing, give it to a busy person’ (which a quick Google tells me this is from Lucille Bell of ‘I Love Lucy’ fame). To make this a little more scientific - an article on Harvard Business Review by Francesa Gina stated that you actually need to have some stress to work effectively. “According to what is known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law,” performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress) but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases.”

I have not always done things this same way – it has taken me years to work out what helps me gain the most control and manage my time.

One of the suggestions within the HBR article was to ‘Increase your Control’ of the work you do. For me, that is a better suggestion than Melissa’s advice of ‘focus on less’. As the MD of a regional hub in an International Research Company I have to juggle lots of moving parts. I have found the best way to increase my control is the humble to do list. However, I have a few ways of organising my to do list that I thought I would share. These techniques may not be for everyone but it certainly helps me prioritise my work and avoid procrastination. But before I do, a quick discussion about how I came to this technique

Paper vs Digital

I have tried both. I have tried apps. I have tried Microsoft tools. I have tried specific ‘To Do’ list notepads. The truth of the matter is that there is nothing better than the tactile relationship between your pen, your action point and a big line that runs down the middle of it when it has been achieved. That said, when travelling it can sometimes be hard to get your pen out. And if you truly have lots to do you end up with a seemingly endless to do list. Which brings me to my next point.

Long list vs Achievable list

If I was to write down everything that I wanted to achieve and when I wanted to achieve it I would have a huge list. I would also have a never ending list as I think of tasks, I think of new strategy and I evolve my thinking. Paper is concrete – once you have committed to something it is down. Digital you can amend easily. For this reason – I use a paper to do list for all my weekly tasks and a digital to do list for longer term strategic goals. When I need to, I move the strategic goals from the digital to the paper copy. Which brings me to my next point

Small wins vs Important Wins

The goal of ‘increase revenue’ is probably one that many of us have. That task alone is easy to state and hard to achieve. It is an important win – but at best you can tick it off once in a year? As such, breaking this down into ‘small wins’ is important. What are the specific tasks that you will do in order to achieve the big goal? Not only will you be able to have more ‘wins’ but they will be more likely to be done. Which is always a good feeling.

The Solution – A grid system & multiple lists

My solution is to have a grid system for my paper to do list – and a tab system for my digital lists.

Digital To Do – Longer Term Goals

I break this out into business areas. Marketing. Strategy. HR. Tech. Sales. Each tab has a list of all my ideas, thoughts and tasks to be completed. I make sure that I review this once a week and bring forward any items into my Paper To Do. I use ‘One Note’ for this.

Paper To Do – Weekly / monthly goals

I use a Grid system as below.

This allows me to sort my tasks by priority as well as how long it take to do the task. I alternate between the Involved and the Quick so that I can ensure that I have always got a few items ‘achieved’ every few hours as well as making sure I achieve the items that require my time. For these – I tend to head offsite, A coffee shop typically, and close down my emails so I don’t get distracted.

I have not always done things this same way – it has taken me years to work out what helps me gain the most control and manage my time. However now – I not only manage to stay more productive at work – but I ensure some quick wins are included to get me through each day. I have always been open to new ideas and techniques though – so if you have some other ways of managing your time – I would always be happy to listen. That said….I did meet my deadline for completing this blog. Which is another item I can tick off the list.