One of the questions I ask people when we’re talking about to-do lists is “do you write in tasks so that you can check them off?” There are a fair number of people who admit with some embarrassment that yes, in fact they do that. And I smile and say, “yup I’ve been known to do that too.” I want those check marks – that symbol of having used my day productively. Yet, it’s simply one-way to have the validation that the day was productive.
We all want to feel like we are accomplishing things – both those that are necessary and those that help us feel like we are moving forward. The way that we feel about our to-do lists can vary. It also varies over time – there are times I love my to-do list and times when it simply fills me with dread. As with everything, there are many variables that affect our behaviors and feelings.
My biggest struggle is to feel productive – how many tasks are reasonable to accomplish? There’s this nagging feeling like I could have done more, “if only…” With all the variables of life, what is realistic for a person to do in a given day?
I’ve looked into this, from extensive reading to polling my friends and family. The answers vary dramatically as well as the response that it’s hard to quantify – “it depends.” There was a flaw in my polling – often we each view our tasks differently. Does doing the dishes count as a to-do? Does taking a shower? You can see how defining a reasonable number of to-dos can be challenging.
Tasks take a different amount of time to complete. In a to-do list each item takes a line and can appear equal, even when they’re not. Ideally everything on your active to-do list needs to be able to be completed in one step. This means that projects are kept somewhat separate – like the brain dump to-do list, and only the next step goes onto the smaller daily or weekly to-do list (see my discussion of this in: Decide on the Next Action).
When it feels like I’ve been struggling with accomplishing my tasks, often I will write an estimate of the time I think each task will take. This allows me to see how much I have set to do and gives me the chance to move things to another week (I currently make weekly to-do lists from the brain dump list). Sometimes I will even take a list of tasks completed and note the time spent on each – this provides me with a realistic view of what I accomplished.
Too often I see people discounting the things they did do, as they view those things as minor or mandatory. Nevertheless, everything we do takes time and energy – it counts. During the times when I wasn’t really keeping a to-do list, at the end of the day I would sometimes write down everything I had done that day – another way for me to see what was accomplished.
Unfortunately there is no easy answer about how much you can realistically accomplish on a given day. One thing to consider is how long the things on your to-do list will take – do you have time on this or that day? Based on Harold Taylor’s planner, I recommend limiting your daily to-do list to no more than 3 tasks, above and beyond all those things you do each day anyway. Those 3 tasks can be whatever you choose and of any length as long as they are able to be completed within a reasonable amount of time. Test this and see how it works – when does it work for you and when does it break down?