A to-do list is essential for effective time management, but a poorly written one is nothing more than a reminder of what you haven’t done. If your to-do list isn’t working for you, check whether any of these is the problem:
- It isn’t with you. If you can’t access your to-do list, it’s useless. Whether you choose a digital or paper format, you must be able to add items, update priorities and remind yourself what to do next throughout the day.
- It’s too long. You need two lists: one complete list of tasks and one just for today. Your daily to-do list should have only three to five top priorities. If you have time to do more, you can always refer to your master list. Limiting your daily lists forces you to think about what is most important and what you can realistically accomplish.
- It’s too broad. Each item on your to-do list should be a specific task. That allows you to accurately estimate the time required and prevents the tendency to put off items that seem too daunting. Break down a project such as “Prepare speech” into its components, such as “Research speech topic,” “Write speech draft,” “Revise speech,” “Create slides” and “Rehearse speech.”
- It’s incomplete. Often people leave off the “little things” that add up to a significant amount of work. Handling those small tasks in batches allows you to allocate time for them and have a more realistic picture of what you do each day.
- It’s unorganized. In addition to flagging top priorities, include time estimates for the tasks. Then if a meeting ends early, you can easily see what you can complete in that extra 20 minutes.
- It’s unedited. Before you begin any task on your list, ask yourself “Am I the best person for that task?” Delegate first, rather than waiting until you realize that you are swamped with unfinished work.
To listen well you must resist the urge to pipe in your thoughts and experiences about the topic before the speaker finishes making his or her points. Practice following—rather than leading—the conversation with these four strategies:
- Encourage. Silent nods and other gestures of support indicate that you want to hear more.
- Inquire. Phrase questions so the speaker continues talking about the topic.
- Elaborate. Express your comments based on the speaker’s perspective.
- Redirect. Whenever possible, turn the conversation back to the speaker and away from you.
— Adapted from “Dr. Ray Guarendi on Following a Conversation,” Brainzooming, http://brainzooming.com.
When someone asks you a question in a negative tone, avoid the urge to respond in the same manner. Instead, include the question as part of your answer and neutralize the questioner’s negativity. Examples:
- “Why can’t you finish the report by noon?” Answer: “The noon deadline is as important to me as it is to you. To meet it, I need the sales data before 10 a.m.”
- “Why didn’t you use a spreadsheet?”Answer: “That’s a valid question. I based my decision on the complexity of the task you gave me.”
- “Why wouldn’t you want to work in sales?”Answer: “I’m pleased that you’ve considered me for a position in sales. Whether that would be a good experience for me depends on the company’s reorganization plan.”
- “Why aren’t you studying for the certification?” Answer: “I appreciate your interest in my studies. But studying for the exam and fulfilling my work requirements at the same time would strain me severely at the moment.”
You ask a coworker about the status of a project, and he starts talking about how his dog kept him up all night. Pulling a simple answer from someone who rambles on and on with seemingly no interest in making a point can test your patience.
Here’s how to help ramblers focus:
- Repeat your question. If the rambler veers off topic, cut in at the first opportunity and repeat what you asked, without sighing or fidgeting.
- Frame your answer. When you pose a question, offer two or three alternatives that reveal the type of answer you seek. Example: “Did you determine why that account expired. Was it because of a miscommunication, poor service or some other cause?”
- Explain why you need a quick, succinct answer. Example: “I’m asking you this because I have only 20 minutes to prepare for the meeting and I need those facts.”
- Ask for “the short version.” Genially request a “30-second overview” rather than a full analysis. Specify exactly what you need to know. Example: “Let’s have your bottom-line assessment of the top three downsides of pursuing this strategy.”