Use Lists to Be More Successful

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June 2015
by Paula Rizzo

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Through my blog about lists, I’ve learned that CEOs, managers, and directors in a wide range of industries use them. And I’ve learned that different techniques work best for different people. So, as you consider the techniques outlined below, also consider how you might need to customize them.

To-Do List Tactics

I use a to-do list as my master command center throughout my workday. It’s filled with tasks, notes, reminders, and more, all segmented so I don’t confuse myself.

I write a to-do list for the next day every night before I leave my desk. No matter what time it is or whether I’m running late for an appointment, I make my list. And I do it on paper, although doing it on a device is possible too. Sometimes I start writing this list during the day, as I think of things. It gives me a roadmap showing me where my day will go. It helps me feel less stressed first thing in the morning, and it helps me get started on what needs to get done first.

Each to-do list includes a separate column for personal stuff. My steno pad has a line down the middle. I use the area on the left side for work to-dos, and the area on the right side for notes about personal errands, phone calls, and so on (this is where I write things like “Go to the ATM” or “Pick up dry cleaning”).

Here’s my to-do list process:

  1. Write the date at the top. This helps when you need information later.
  2. Detail every single thing that has to happen the next day, including the stuff you do every day. Distractions crop up, so you may need this extra reminder. Plus, it’s fun to cross things off.
  3. Prioritize by deadline. I write my list in the order that things need to happen, and I put times to the left of my notes about appointments.
  4. Add tasks as needed. Sometimes after I’ve left work, I suddenly remember something that should be on my to-do list for the next day. I immediately set a reminder in my calendar that will pop up at a time when I’m free to put the task on my list. When tasks I didn’t anticipate come up, I add them too, or, if something won’t fit in, I see if I can do it the following day or ask someone else to handle it.
  5. Remind yourself where you are in your list. I set aside a spot in the lower left-hand corner of my notebook for “place holders.” If I get interrupted, I make a quick note of exactly what I was doing so I can get right back to it when time permits. This little trick has saved me time and again.
  6. Leave some room for notes. I take notes on everything: phone calls, TV shows, magazines, tweets, and so forth. I use the upper right-hand corner of my list paper to take little notes throughout the day.

Lists for Meetings

How many meetings have you been in where nothing gets accomplished? It’s happened to me too many times. Now, inspired by Joe Duran, the founding partner of United Capital, I use checklists. He says checklists have made his meetings “half as long as they used to be” and at least twice as effective.

Let’s be clear: a checklist is not an agenda. The items on a checklist seldom change. Checklists for Duran’s staff include items such as updating last week’s meeting items, reviewing client strategies, and going over upcoming events. Those items are on the list every single week even if there’s no need to talk about them that week. “Without a checklist it’s almost impossible to have consistency,” Duran explains.

Lists for Colleagues

Evernote is a great tool for keeping lists, among other things, in one spot where everyone involved in a project can use them. It is available on multiple platforms, such as your smartphone or your computer, and it’s cloud-based so you can

access information and updates anywhere. (For details, see “Using Evernote to Be More Organized, Informed, and Engaged” in the July 2014 Independent.)

Asana, Basecamp, 5pm, and similar services are helpful too. Tech expert Carley Knobloch told me about Asana when I featured her on my blog. She takes her to-do list and imports it into Asana and then assigns tasks as needed. Everyone who finishes a task checks it off a list and everyone else on the team then knows it’s been done. Now I use it too.

Low-tech solutions can also be helpful. In the very first newsroom I worked in, we used a huge whiteboard to keep track of stories. The assignment editor would list which stories reporters were being sent out to cover and also list each reporter’s cameraperson, destination, and deadline.

Handwriting to-do lists for employees is another alternative. Lindsey Carnett, CEO and president of Marketing Maven Public Relations, once told me that she starts to-do lists for each of her employees: “I create my master list, then have members of my team add their lists for themselves, which helps them organize their respective teams and prioritize tasks, making sure nothing falls through the cracks.”

The Sublists Syndrome

Once you have a task on your to-do list, you need to accomplish it. I suggest making another list. (I know, I know . . . I will single-handedly kill off millions of trees, but, as mentioned, you can go digital.)

Let’s say your task is to write a book. That’s a big to-do item (believe me, I now know) that needs to be broken down into steps with a list that identifies every single thing that has to happen.

For example:

  • Brainstorm ideas.
  • Ask people what they think of selected ideas.
  • Tweak the ideas.
  • Learn how to write a book proposal.
  • Write a book proposal.
  • Get or decide to become a publisher.
  • Write the whole book.

You may have even more sublists to make. When writing a book, for instance, you need to break down how and when you’ll have time to actually write it. See what I mean?


About the Author:

Paula Rizzo, the senior health producer for FoxNews.com at Fox News Channel and the founder of ListProducer.com, is an Emmy Award winner who attributes much of her success to compulsive list making. This article is derived from her new book Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Be More Productive, Highly Successful and Less Stressed. To learn more, go to ListfulThinkingBook.com.

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