In survival training courses, you learn what to do if you find yourself stranded in the wilderness. Nothing but your wits to survive until help arrives.
Are you going to be there overnight? You’ll need shelter. And water. Is anyone injured? They’ll need first aid. What time of year is it? You might need a fire. And away to signal for help might be useful…
There’s so much to do and so little time. You can’t do everything—not all at once—but you learn how to systematically think through your situation, prioritize the tasks, and make steady progress.
Does that sound like a useful skill that would help you stay on top of the competing demands for your time?
Unfortunately, this isn’t something that’s widely taught. If you want to know, you have to seek it out. Even Charles Schwab paid Ivy Lee a princely sum to learn this fundamental productivity tool:
Make a list. Then work your list.
The list Ivy Lee was talking about was what’s known as a today list. It’s not a list of everything you need to do—that’s a master task list—just the tasks you’ve selected to accomplish today.
If you could only have one time management tool at your disposal, it would have to be a good to-do list.
Each day is different. Your today list should be fresh each day, reflecting today’s priorities.
There’s just one problem: tasks become sticky. We put more than we can possibly do on our today list. Things take longer than we expect. We get lazy. We procrastinate.
How do you keep yesterday’s unfinished tasks from sticking to your today list?
Everything that’s still unresolved from yesterday still needs a decision:
- Are you going to drop it?
- Are you going to defer it again (this time, intentionally)?
- Are you going to do it?
Don’t blindly drop everything. Some of those tasks represent commitments that need fulfilled or renegotiated.
In Time Management Ninja, Craig Jarrow shares this experience of a manager who used to report to him:
Each day this individual would come into my office and ask, “What do you need me to do today?” While he was saying this, he would rip the top few sheets off the yellow legal pad.
One day, I asked bluntly, “What about all the tasks on those pages you just threw away?”
He nonchalantly said, “Oh. Those were yesterday’s tasks.”
I was shocked to learn that he started every day with a blank slate of a to-do list. There was no follow-through, accountability, or continuity to his task list. If it didn’t get done in a day, it was discarded and forgotten.
I was suddenly aware of why this manager had a reputation of forgetfulness and not being counted on by his peers to get the job done.
Today is a new day. With it comes a new landscape. Deadlines are different: some are closer, some are passed. Your opportunities have changed.
- That book you need to get from the library? The library is closed today. Reschedule that errand for tomorrow.
- That new job you wanted to apply for? The deadline to submit your resume is today, so it’s now or never.
- The water bill? Due yesterday. Might want to knock it out right now before you forget and the late fees start piling up.
- The mess in the garage? You won’t have time for that today, so that gets pushed off until next weekend.
- The sale on paint? Ended last week. On second thought, the walls don’t look that bad. They’ll do for now.
Just because a task was on your list yesterday doesn’t mean that it gets to be there today. It might be, but it has to justify its place again.
Any of yesterday’s opportunities that have become today’s emergencies will probably go at the top of your list. Next, put the stuff you had been planning on doing today. If you can’t let go of yesterday’s tasks, make sure they don’t get in the way of what you need to do today.
The average American has fourteen undone tasks that they’ve carried forward, either through emotional attachment or a simple backlog of things that genuinely need to be done.
To get through these tasks, Jarrow recommends this simple tip: do one a day. In a year, you’ll have knocked out 365 of these sticky tasks, keeping them from slowing you down and causing more problems.
A task list is the most fundamental productivity tool you’ll use. A today list is the list you’re probably going to look at the most often. It should reflect what you’re actually working on today.
Yesterday’s tasks that stick to your today list when they shouldn’t be there are just slowing you down. Either drop them, defer them, or do them. Don’t let them crowd out the tasks that will forge a better tomorrow.