Mental to-do lists

Mentally run through your list of tasks for today or if it is late, for tomorrow. How many things are on it? 3, 5, 8, 15? Is it manageable? Will it be clear to colleagues how you’re committed?

Now pick 1 and start thinking about all the things you need to do to make sure it happens. What may trip you up? What needs to be in place before you can tick it off your to do list? How many items on THIS list?

That is just one thing on your to do list. What about the other items. Multiply them out. Still confident it will all fit in a day … ? Does it start to feel a bit mental?

This is the planning quandary. A list of things to do is often more of a vision than a plan: nicely chunked, easy to remember and sounds manageable. Consider the detail and the dependencies and the timelines expand. I do this all the time when I say I am “just going to make a quick cup of tea”. It always takes longer than I imagine because I forget:

  • Asking colleagues if they want a cup of tea
  • Checking to see if the milk is still okay / trying to figure out which milk belongs to my team
  • Bumping into someone I’ve not spoken to yet this week in the kitchen
  • Remembering I need to nip to the ladies while I am out of the office
  • Realising I can’t carry 5 cups of tea at once and needing to make several trips

Here’s the thing: there is a level of planning appropriate to different situations. I don’t believe for a second that people don’t plan. We ALL plan our time, especially at work. But what we struggle with (and believe me, I definitely belong in this camp) is the appropriate level of planning at any given time. Especially when we are collaborating with others.

So when do you need the chunky vision and when do you need to split out more discrete tasks, create a finer plan and get a clearer idea of your real timelines?

Scoping a project: Keep this light and get at the vision! This is what you want to ACHIEVE with this project. Get a sense of the overall and don’t get bogged down in the detail.

Specific project, underway: If you’re now committed to doing it, plan it in detail. Use your vision as a guide and detail tasks and dependencies to get a realistic idea of timelines. This will give you an idea when you need input from collaborators or stakeholders. You’ll also have a clearer idea what stuff you can chop if you end up pushed for time and the impact it’ll have on your overall progress.

Your week ahead: again, keep this light and stick with the vision. Be clear what you want to have ACHIEVED by the end of the week. Your plan will then serve you to get there.

Your day: Use your weekly vision to help you plan our your day. If you have a lot to get through in the day, list out your tasks and the order they need to happen in. This will help you see what is realistic and where you need to ask colleagues for help or delegate.