Pretty much all of us create some sort of daily list for the tasks we need to do. I personally prefer to use Todoist as my overall task management application but there are plenty of options that work just as well, so I urge you to use whatever works for you.

The thing is, if you’re like most people your task list isn’t actually a task list but is more a collection of things you hope to have time for in a week.

Reality Check

You may feel like you’ll get more stuff done if you build an ambitious task list, but chances are, you won’t.

To illustrate what I mean, think of your life as a highway, and all the things you need to do are the travelers on that highway — the traffic on the road.

When you’re running at about 90% capacity, everything works smoothly (the traffic flows smoothly). For teams/projects, studies show they’ll run smoothly at about 75% capacity. But when conditions change and one project takes a few days longer or you need to take a sick day that small change creates a huge productivity cascade if you’re at more than 75% capacity. This is a part of Chaos Theory called The Butterfly Effect, which holds that a small change in one area has huge consequences in other areas.

When you’ve got a task wish list that’s scheduled to capacity this is exactly where you sit. A 10-minute delay in starting your day means you won’t get to your first task as planned, which affects your second task…and all other tasks. By the end of the day you’ve got at least two hours of work still to do, and you felt rushed/flustered all day.

The problem is, your task list wasn’t based on an objective approach to your available time in the week.

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Task Lists

There is a smarter way to manage your lists and your time. The first step is to define your ideal week. Michael Hyatt has a great post on designing your week and even provides a template you can use.

When filling out your weekly calendar, start with your highest-priority items. Once you’ve set up your big items you can start to fill in the little things. Remember to leave about 25% of your week open, which will give you the flexibility to deal with the distractions that will inevitably arise.

How do you define your highest-priority items? You’ll have to decide, but typically these will be your top 2 or 3 goals for the week. By example, here are my 2 main goals for this week:

  1. Finish the little extra items from Client #1
  2. Launch Client #2

That’s it. If I get those 2 things done, my week has been a success.

[Tweet “What are the 2 or 3 things that, if done, will make your week a success?”]

Then daily use these 7 tips to have a productive work day.

Embrace Distractions

If you’ve left 25% of your capacity open and unscheduled, then you can embrace the distractions that come up. For example, if my wife is in the vicinity of my office and she decides to stop by with the kids, 90% of the time I can take time out and enjoy a few minutes with my family.

If my wife is sick I can come home early, or take most of a day off with no negative impact on my overall goals for the week.

This is because I build in proper margins for the week from the outset. Interruptions are like taxes — you know they’re coming, so plan for them.

photo credit: nukamari cc

3 responses to “Is your task list more like a wish list?”

  1. Dipak C. Gajjar Avatar

    Hi Curtis,

    That’s very well explained.

    Thank you.

  2. Jimmy Smutek Avatar

    I think this is one of my favorite posts, Curtis. Learning how to be an effective self employed person has been a journey for me. I’ve had a huge problem in the past with trying to build the “perfect” schedule and, the second one thing goes off course my entire day is derailed.

    I have a 4 year old and my wife and I both work from home, so it’s really hard to avoid distractions. When I do get distracted, It’s more like a dragon effect than it is a butterfly effect, for me.

    One thing that’s helped me has been to just lighten up and let go a little. That’s not to say I’m going to spend the entire day playing robot wars with my boy, but rather it’s a recognition that this rigid schedule that I’ve imagined for myself isn’t really conducive to my productivity or my overall well being.

    I get more work done, I’m more productive, and I feel better when I let go a little. This means that I do occasionally take time for a robot battle with Simon, or a morning walk, or a day at the beach with my family. After all, those are some of the perks of being self employed.

    Thanks for this great post, I love the concept of defining the ideal week. I’m off to check out some of the other links in your post. 🙂

    1. Curtis McHale Avatar
      Curtis McHale

      Oh I have a 4 year old and a 1 year old and I had to stop working at home once my wife stopped working out of the house and the kid (just the big one) wasn’t at Day Care during the day. I rent an office 6km from my house to work from 99% of the time.

      I also take time with the family. Just a few weeks ago my oldest was a pain and my wife wasn’t feeling well so I just took the day off to be at home and support the family. You certainly do need to take that time. Way to many self-employed people just ‘work’ (and really it’s busy work) but don’t plan down time.

      The best thing about working at home when my kids were really little was not missing the first steps and such. Got to run downstairs and see them.