What To Do When Your To-Do List Gets You Down

By Virginia Brown
Follow me on Twitter: @3manypuppies

I started a new job recently and absolutely love it. I’m so excited to bring my specialized knowledge to a big, successful program to see how I can make it even better than it already is.

That said, I’m the quintessential to-do list creator. I think change is fun, everything is easy and we can get it all done right now. I’ve spent my entire professional career trying to slow myself down so that others can come along with me and that I don’t bite off more than I can chew. But that’s another blog post.

One of the ways I make myself slow down is by using to-do lists. Yes, I am the sort of person who LOVES crossing things off. In my defense, I am NOT the kind of person who puts things I’ve already accomplished on the list, just so I can cross them off. You guys are weird.

Putting that list down on paper makes me understand how much I’m working on, how I need to spend my energy and when to shut my big old mouth so I don’t take on more and more and more. Keep in mind; it’s important to actually do what you write down when using to-do lists. I update my list every week. In my last job, I kept all the old ones. A file of almost four years’ worth of to-do’s. I loved having that file as I packed up and moved on to my next gig.

At my newest job, however, I ran into a problem. My to-do list, with two columns and 11 point font, was three pages long. And I didn’t know what to do. It was too hard for me to even read to the end, much less decide what I needed to be focused on at that particular moment.

So I took a step back and remembered a valuable lesson from an amazing boss, who actually reads all the business books I mean to: do what’s important. And she got that advice from Stephen Covey's book First Things First. I hear good things about all these books that I’ll never read.

Covey presented the Time Quadrant Matrix that creates a prioritization method for getting good work done. It weighs the importance of a task versus its urgency. As well as providing the grid image shown here, Sid Savara has a great blog post describing the matrix. This matrix is older than I am, and yet it still felt revolutionary to rediscover a tool I already knew.

Thus I took my ridiculously long to-do list and put it in my new fancy excel grid. None of you will be surprised to learn that a huge number of items fell in the not important and not urgent section. So I took most of those items off my list, just like that. Thankfully I have the ability to make those decisions without my supervisor’s input, but even if I needed her feedback, talking through my priorities organized by those I think are unimportant and non-urgent would have made it simple to discuss their removal in lieu of focusing on more important and more urgent items.

Those unimportant tasks will probably still exist in six months. If they occur to my boss or me then, I can reassess if they’re worth my time. But for now my to-do list is a beautiful one-pager, sorted by the grid with the important items at the top. And now I know just how to start each day.

Because different people have different methods, please share some of your strategies for managing your to-do list or prioritizing your things to do?

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