It's about time: Successfully managing a to-do list

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By Brett Owens

You probably have hundreds of things that needed to be done yesterday. These items might be listed on your current to-do list, inside an e-mail in your inbox, or scrunched up in the back of your brain. Maybe it’s a combination of all three.

How can you streamline your to-do list so you can effectively prioritize what you need to do without spreading yourself too thin?

Get everything in one location


If you think your e-mail inbox is the one location, think again. Keeping action items in your inbox is the kiss of death because you’ll spend all day living in your inbox, reacting to things as they come in. You’ll never get anything done.

When going through e-mail, strive to maintain a zero inbox. File e-mail messages after you read them. Don’t leave them in your inbox, where you’re likely to reread the same e-mail multiple times.

If action is required, note that on your to-do list. Don’t have that set up yet? No problem.

Setting up your to-do list


You can set up your list electronically on your PC or mobile device, or if you want to go old school as I do, use a handy pen and notebook. Whatever works best for you is fine; just make sure you only have one master list. You don’t want an electronic and paper-based list, and you don’t want an electronic list on your mobile device and one on your PC unless the two lists are synced up. Pick the one that works best for you and go with it.

Personally, I carry a spiral notebook with me everywhere I go. Often, people will crack jokes that I look like I’m heading to 7th grade chemistry class, but my notebook works best for me. I benefit from the act of physically writing things down – it imprints the items on my brain more effectively, I think. If I don’t have my notebook handy, I’ll use a notepad application on my Android phone. The contents will be manually transferred to my notebook next time I have it nearby.

Structure your list strategically, then tactically


It’s important to start with the most strategic important items first. If you don’t give them a priority, they will get drowned out by fire drills. It’s easy to fight fires all day long, but this exercise can turn into weeks and months if you’re not careful.

The best way to make sure strategic items get the nod is to write them in while your list is empty. To do this, I like to hierarchically divide my to-do list into three categories:

  • Monthly items
  • Weekly items
  • Daily items

Make your monthly to-do list strategic


At the beginning of each month, take some time to brainstorm a to-do list for the coming month that is very strategic. Think of things you can do that will have the greatest impact on your firm or company if you accomplish them over the next month. You want to come up with the real needle-moving activities.

Three or four very impactful items are plenty. That boils down to one a week. If you knock them off, you’ll be in a much stronger position this time next month.

Well-constructed systems can eliminate manual labor and pay you back continually month after month going forward. For example, at Chrometa, we are very fond of building systems and processes for automating work we do that is highly manual. For example, we used to respond to student requests for free licenses manually via e-mail. This took too much time, so we created a form on our Web site to handle this process automatically. It validates their student e-mail address and automatically sends their free student license code without us having to do a thing.

Your weekly to-do list


At the start of each week before the Monday morning zaniness hits, I’ll review my monthly list and break it down into things I want to accomplish that week. A good way to do this is to take one item from your monthly list and break the item down into its component steps. These are now your weekly items.

Also on your weekly list will be bigger-picture items that are too large or complex for a single day – things you have to do. They might not be as strategic as the items on your monthly list, but they still have to get done. If you can’t delegate it, it will go on your weekly list.

A weekly list often will have more items than a monthly list because it’s a blend of strategic and tactical action items. I find six to be a good limit for my weekly list because this number helps me keep focus on the things that truly matter and need to get done.

Your daily to-do list


At the start of each day, you should quickly compile a daily to-do list. You’re probably getting the hang of this by now; your daily list will be a breakdown of a couple of items from your weekly list.

As always, start with your most strategic items, then include the tactical items you need to get done. Like the weekly list, I limit my daily list to six items. This allows for plenty of time for interruptions. If your list is larger than six, it can be somewhat demoralizing if these inevitable interruptions derail your ability to tackle most or all of your list. This only serves to deflate your ability to get more things done, so I like to keep the number small and manageable.

Always delegate, remove items


For each item you add to your list – especially the tactical items – you should ruthlessly question whether it deserves to be there.

Can it be delegated? If it’s an activity that can adequately be performed by someone for $10 to12 an hour, by all means, unload it from your plate.

Can it be removed altogether? Picture the item completed. If the anticipated result is very low or nonexistent, just cross it out. I’ve found the best way to work effectively has been for me to selectively ignore most activities that have low impact.

If you constantly ask yourself whether something really matters, you might be surprised at how many things you only do out of habit – and not because they really matter. Remove these and you’ll free up a lot of your time for more productive activities.

Bottom line


The key to effectively managing your to-do list is to give preference to strategic items that will truly move your company forward. Start with the big picture and work down from there.

If a tactical item can be delegated or ignored altogether, by all means do it. Keep your focus on the big picture and you’ll work more efficiently and effectively.

About the author:

Brett Owens is CEO and cofounder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, CA-based provider of time-tracking software that records activity in real time. Previously marketed to the legal community, Chrometa is branching out to accounting prospects. Gains include the ability to discover previously undocumented billable time, saving time on billing reconciliation, and improving personal productivity. Owens also is blogger and founder at and, as well as a regular contributor to two leading financial media sites, and

It’s About Time is a series of articles devoted to practice management techniques that focus on efficiency and productivity. The next article will discuss how much time your staff should spend on social media activities.

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