If I ever hope to get anything done, then it has to go on a list. Over the years, I have used a number of to-do lists and organized my to-do lists in various ways. For a long time, I had a single giant to-do list. From time to time, I would unload my psychic ram and put everything I could possibly think of that I had to do on this list. All my tasks were mixed together in no particular order – personal and work. It soon became another part of the clutter of my life, as if I had dropped all the contents of my closet onto my bed and was sorting through that every day to decide what to wear. There were so many things in so many different categories that I never knew where to start.
My giant to-do list also tended to remain a giant list. Instead of shrinking, it expanded, the number of items tending into the very large prime numbers. To remedy this, I broke my to-do list into two – personal and work. This was quite an improvement, but still I felt like I could be more efficient with the whole thing.
I had been planning my weeks for a while, and I realized that these weekly plans were actually another to-do list – one that listed things that I would actually do for that week. However, my planning was still off because I was not getting all of those things done. And sometimes, I was not getting the most important things done, because I was focusing on those tasks that were easy to do in an attempt to whittle down the list and make it less stressful.
I had also tried the MIT approach, listing my three most important tasks for the day and making sure that I accomplished those before anything else. That system worked well on a daily basis for getting, as it suggests, the most important things done! But what about everything else that wasn’t an MIT? How could I decide when to do the lower priority items as well? Or how could I prioritize my entire multi-tasked, multi-faceted to-do list at one time? And did I really need all those items on there anyway?
Enter the Three-Pronged To-Do list. I stumbled upon this when preparing for a two-week trip away from the office right before school started. Anyone who has children knows that the couple of weeks leading up to the start of school are some of the most hectic of the entire year – right up there with the holiday shopping season – so there was a lot to get done. And because procrastination is part of human nature, a lot of it still was not done one week out from said vacation.
I originally had grand plans of how many things I would get done before we left, but as the departure date approached, I got the sinking feeling that it just wasn’t going to all happen. I needed a more strategic approach. I needed to figure out three things:
What do I ABSOLUTELY have to do before I leave for the trip?
What WOULD I LIKE to do before I leave for the trip?
What CAN WAIT until I got back?
The first list – Things I MUST do before I leave
When you have a departure date, there is a new meaning attached to the word MUST. For example, you MUST have a valid passport. No valid passport, no plane boarding, no vacation. It’s pretty straightforward. It would be no use to put this off until you return from your trip. These kinds of tasks have expiration dates. If you don’t consume them by a certain date, they go bad and you have to throw them out. When you think of tasks in terms of things that MUST be done by a certain date, it really whittles down to a few key things.
The second list – Things I WOULD LIKE to do before I leave.
There were a series of tasks on my list that I had originally put on the MUST-do-before-I-leave list, that I later realized upon closer analysis should be on my WOULD-LIKE-to-do list. It would be tremendously terrific if those things were done before I left, but if they weren’t I could still get on the plane, have an awesome vacation, and take care of them when I got back. Self-imposed project deadlines fit into this category- finding someone to take care of your cat and water your plants does not. It’s really quite eye-opening when you look at your list in this way because you realize that you have been putting a lot of pressure to get some pretty mundane things done RIGHT NOW with a feeling of impending doom, when in reality, those things really can wait until the next day (or two weeks from now). Not that I am encouraging procrastination – just prioritization.
The nice thing about whittling down the MUST list is that you leave space to throw in a few items from your WOULD LIKE list once you finish the MUSTs. If everything is a MUST, then nothing is a MUST if you know what I mean.
The third list – Things that CAN WAIT until I get back.
That presentation that you need to make three weeks after you return? That can wait until you get back. Sure, if you’ve got nothing else on the WOULD LIKE list, you can throw it on there, but my guess is that there are a few more pressing items on that list. The nice thing about the CAN WAIT list is that combined with the leftovers from your WOULD LIKE to list, it creates a to-do list for you for when you return and can’t remember what your computer password is or what floor you work on (that is the mark of a true vacation). Let me tell you that this to-do list is quite handy to have, and if I were you, I would lock it up in safe place (but remember where you left the key!).
You don’t need to be going on a two-week overseas vacation to make these lists work for you. They can be a helpful way to help you prioritize your work every week and help you conquer those feelings of overwhelm that crop up from time to time when you feel like you can’t get it all done. In those moments, being able to separate what really needs to be done now versus what can truly wait until later is invaluable.
What’s on your to-do list?