We all like a moan after a long, tiring day at work – but deep down we know that if were just a bit better organised, things wouldn’t be so bad. We’d be more prepared for the tasks thrown at us, more able to deal with unexpected complications, and less likely to panic when there’s a deadline looming.
Swedish business guru David Stiernholm knows this too, and that’s why he’s a struktör – someone who helps people get a handle on everyday disorder, allowing them to develop positive habits and better focus.
“The beauty of being structured is that even the simplest and smallest of changes often have great effects on productivity – not to mention the positive emotional and mental effects,” says Stiernholm.
He uses these principles in business, but they can apply to anything from creating a training programme to planning an event or writing a book. Follow his eight-point plan to replace chaos with structure.
1. Get Your Plan In Place
Improving your habits should be regarded as a project like any other. So your first task is to decide on eight half-hour time slots when you will work on your structure project – like meetings, just with yourself. The first slot is the one in which you schedule the next seven, so congratulations, you’re already on track!
In this first meeting, find a way to reward yourself as you progress through the programme. If there’s some gadget or thing you want, make a voucher, divide it into eight tokens and give yourself a token every time you complete a section. Or have a visible display where you mark off the points. One of my clients got a box of extra-large matches and wrote a sub-goal on every one of them. For every goal she attained, she lit the match and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment while the match burned out.
2. Choose Your Tool
Where do you record the tasks you have to do? Perhaps some of them are emails marked unread or flagged, with more on Post-Its or in a notebook, while still more are in some kind of to-do list app. This is a common mistake. The more places you have for your notes, the harder it will be to identify what you need to focus on right now.
Get a piece of paper and write down all the things you have to do as they come to your mind. Start with what you have to do today, this week and so on, and continue as far ahead in time as you feel is helpful.
Decide where you will keep all your to-do tasks from now on. It doesn’t matter if this is a digital tool such as Outlook, or a notebook, or even sticky notes on a board. Once all your tasks are in one place you will instantly know what needs to be done and when – and that you are not missing anything crucial or urgent.
3. Clarify Your Tasks
I once worked with a fashion entrepreneur who had originally been a midwife. One day a mother-to-be who had an unusual rash on her stomach visited her. My client thought, “We really should look into that” and wrote “Important! Belly!” on a sticky note, pasting it on the front of the patient’s medical record. After a few days she found that patient’s record in a pile. She had seen a number of other bellies and now couldn’t recollect what she’d meant. The devil’s in the detail when formulating to-do tasks.
Go through your list and formulate the details of every task concretely and thoroughly. If you first have to do one thing and then another before you can check a to-do task off the list, divide it into two separate tasks. Make sure that each task contains a verb, and beware of verbs such as “fix”, “make sure” and other ambiguous descriptions of what you intend to do – you could end up obscuring an entire project behind vague phrasing.
4. Create Your Categories
The value of having a single to-do list is clear. The downside is that looking at a long list of your tasks can seem overwhelming. This is where good structure comes in: by categorising, you will avoid being distracted by seeing tasks that you’re not interested in dealing with right now, and it will be easier to concentrate on the task ahead.
Where do you need to physically be in order to do the task? How long will the task take to complete? When does the task need to be completed by? For example, if 20% of your tasks can be done during your commute, you will only be looking at a fifth of the whole list when you check it on the train.
Digital to-do list tools let you categorise tasks by checking a box or using labels or tags. If your to-do list is in a physical format, you can use written symbols, split your notebook into sections using tabs or dividers, or simply use highlighter pens. Start by choosing just one way to categorise your to-do tasks, and add more categories gradually – otherwise you will perceive this method as difficult and complicated, and go back to remembering things instead of writing them down (because “it’s just faster that way”).
5. Take Time To Recap
Unexpected things happen all the time – and when they do, schedules and plans get disrupted. We intend to make a change and create an ambitious plan for doing so, but something unforeseen throws us off-course. Tasks previously considered to be priorities may suddenly no longer be as important as a newer, more urgent task.
The danger is that you feel discouraged instead of motivated, and conclude that your work situation is simply impossible to change. So you should do your best to expect the unexpected. Instead of a new structuring task, treat this slot as a “spare” one and use it as an opportunity to get back on track if you have fallen behind with any of the previous tasks.
6. Hunt Out The Millstones
Checking tasks off your list regularly lets you experience the rush of having taken another step and accomplished something. But most people have some tasks that remain on the list for days, weeks or even months. They just sit there, fermenting and brewing frustration, and I refer to them as “millstones”. Every time you see them uncompleted, you feel disheartened and the list loses some value. Plus the longer you put these off, the harder it is to get started.
Find your millstones and for each one, formulate the next possible step as a to-do task. Make it small, so small that you feel almost embarrassed to write it on your to-do list, and then it will be easy to do and you will be on your way, feeling motivated – which is much better than stuck and passive. You could even get such a boost that you feel like tackling one or more every day.
7. Time To Get Streamlined
There are lots of places you can store documents. If they’re physical, they could be in magazine files, hanging file folders, an inbox on your desk or just piles; if they’re digital, they could be on your desktop, on a shared file server, on a USB stick or in a cloud… or multiple versions of any of these.
You might know your way around them, but if you’re ever away or sick, no-one else will. The other danger is distraction – the more files or piles you have, the more likely you are to catch sight of one while you’re working on another and think of something else you need to do.
Choose one (or preferably more) of these storage places. Then choose three of whatever you are storing in that place. Then file it somewhere else or, even better, throw it away. You’re instantly more streamlined.
A study reported in the Harvard Business Review showed that in an eight-hour work day, approximately 70 minutes are lost to distractions. If you can decrease that time loss by only a tenth, you’re getting back the equivalent of 3½ work days a year.
8. Look Back To Look Forward
By doing this you will have realised a lot of things about the way you work and it will give you a very important structure tool: foresight. If you can create an ongoing routine that works for you, you’ll be able to anticipate upcoming events.
Decide how often you need to pause and review your list and categories, when to do this so it works best for you (Fridays so you can “close” the week and relax over the weekend, or Mondays to start the week proactively?), and schedule these slots in. Create a checklist of what you’ll go through during them. You’ll find this gives you more latitude – which means you won’t be caught out by imminent deadlines and you’ll be less likely to finish things at the last minute.
Super Structured: How To Overcome Chaos And Win Back Time by David Stiernholm is out now, RRP £12.99 (LID Publishing). Buy on amazon.co.uk
Killer Strategies For Mastering Your To-Do List
The world of work is changing, according to Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew, founders of online careers hub The Muse and authors of The New Rules Of Work. Follow their advice to fast-track your career progress and find more time to do the things you love.
Winning the war against time isn’t about trying hundreds of online tools claiming to help professionals be more productive. Yes, those tools can help, but fundamentally, it’s about rethinking how you use time. And this starts each and every day with how you organise your tasks.
Employment network LinkedIn compiled a survey that revealed just how much our professional to-do lists are in need of a makeover. It turns out we’re great at listing the things we need to do, but not so good at actually doing them. In fact, almost 90% of professionals admit they’re unable to accomplish all the tasks on their to-do list by the end of an average workday. So if you’re sick of tackling the same stale to-do lists every day – and coming up short – here are four key strategies to change all that.
1. Keep A Single Master To-Do List For Work
Let’s be honest: if you wanted to get a complete view of all the tasks you had to get done for work right now, chances are you couldn’t find it all on a single list. Instead, you probably have a few Post-its here, a saved draft in your email there, notes jotted in stickies on your computer, and maybe a checklist app or two on your phone, right? But if the goal is to actually get everything done, having a single place for your work-related tasks is a must. So pick your method of choice, and start consolidating.
The list can be a handwritten one inside your trusty planner, a document you keep on your desktop, an app on your phone, or whatever else – this isn’t about the medium, it’s about the thought process.
Just make sure that whatever method you use, you can add to your list from anywhere. This means that if you use a desktop app, you’ll want to set up a system to capture to-dos that crop up while you’re away from your computer, such as assignments you get while in a meeting, or the phone call you remember during your commute home that you need to make tomorrow.
Our preference is to email these reminders to ourselves, then delete the email once we’ve transferred them to the master list. But simply writing them down on sticky notes and transcribing them to the file works too.
2. Follow The 1-3-5 Rule
One way we have transformed not only our own productivity but also that of our entire team at TheMuse.com is by following the 1-3-5 Rule, which Alex developed. Here’s the gist: on any given day, assume that you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things, and narrow down your to-do list to those nine items.
Sound scary? Well, it is, at first. But like it or not, you have only so many hours in the day, and you’re going to get only a finite number of things done. Forcing yourself to prioritise by creating 1-3-5 lists means the things you accomplish will be the things you choose to do, rather than those that happen to get done.
Of course, the number of tasks themselves can be flexible. If you spend much of your day in meetings, for example, you might need to reduce the number of tasks. Or if your position is one where each day brings lots of unexpected to-dos and assignments, you might try leaving one medium and two small tasks blank in preparation for the last-minute requests from your boss.
This doesn’t mean you need to limit your master to-do list to just nine things. Rather, you should keep two kinds of lists: one large “kitchen sink” comprehensive list of everything you have to do at some point (all in one place), and another that is shorter and gives you your marching orders for what needs to get done today.
We recommend that before leaving work in the evening, you take a few minutes to define your 1-3-5 for the next day, so you’re ready to hit the ground running in the morning.
Planning ahead like this also means you’ll be able to have more informed conversations with your manager when he or she drops something new on you that needs to be done right away, as well as the tools to re-prioritise your other work. For example, when a surprise presentation falls into your lap, try, “Sure, I can get that to you by 3pm, but the Q1 reports won’t be ready until tomorrow then, since I’d scheduled time to work on that today.”
3. Complete One Significant Task Before Lunch
This one can be tough, but it works. Take one of your big or medium tasks and tackle it first thing in the morning, even before checking email, if you can. Trust us, there’s no better feeling than crossing off a major task before lunch.
Motivation expert and author Brian Tracy calls this “eating your frog”, a nod to the famous Mark Twain quote: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
Kathryn often identifies her “frogs” for the next day – the most difficult tasks or the ones she knows she’ll enjoy least – the night before. That helps mentally prepare her to tackle them in the morning, and it keeps her from putting them off until the next day, then the next day.
4. Block Your Calendar
If you find that you always overestimate how much you can get done in a day, try allocating time for each of your to-dos on your calendar, just like you would when scheduling meetings. Once you’ve defined the tasks on your to-do or 1-3-5 list, try scheduling them, blocking off the appropriate amount of time for each.
The important thing is to be realistic about how long each will actually take. Writing that important email to a client might take 15 minutes, for example, while preparing the Q1 strategy for your team may require a few hours.
It’s easy but dangerous to fall into the trap of letting critical work products be relegated to moments left over between meetings. As economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything”.
Unless your job description is just to take meetings (and we are guessing it’s not), time blocking is a great way to ensure you’re making time for real work: the things that move the business forward and that clients pay the company to produce.
When you try this, also make sure you block time in your calendar for catching up on email, brainstorming or other important-but-not-deliverable-oriented tasks. If your responsibilities allow it, try blocking an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon to work through your inbox – and then discipline yourself not to spend the time in between handling emails, when you’d planned to be working on something else.