I was recently approached by someone who was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of things he needed to get done each day. His motivation was to do a really good job, but his productivity was poor – no matter how many hours he put in, there was always something else which needed his attention and he felt like he was going backwards. Each new day started with a backlog from the previous, and from one minute to the next he didn’t know from where the next curved ball might hit him. When we met he was in a highly stressed state, he wasn’t sleeping, which was affecting his performance, making him less rational than he might otherwise be, which was further feeding the stress.
While I am not saying that it was all the fault of his ‘to do’ list, I do think that scrapping it was the biggest single contributing factor in breaking this negative cycle. The trouble with such lists is that they do nothing to inform us how long each item will take, nor which should take priority; as a result you have no visibility, which makes us wonder if we are doing the right thing at any one time, leading to feelings of lack of control – a key factor in stress.
There is a different way
At this time of year we tend to come back to work re-energised from our winter break and motivated to get things done many of us will have compiled a trusty ‘to do’ list – lines/pages of actions arising from quality, non-stressed thinking over the holiday period and captured safely to avoid forgetting these nuggets. I’d like to encourage you to try out a slightly different approach – perhaps give it 4-6 weeks – instead of using a list, use a schedule. This is hardly revolutionary – I’m sure you already have a diary, which at least has appointments recorded, so all I ask is for you to extend this to the point where you start scheduling everything, (yes, everything!)
Start each week by producing a plan – using something like this:
- Block out & label the things that can not be moved (e.g. meetings to which you are pivotal and/or committed) & don’t forget to block out traveling time where appropriate
- Now think about the major things you want to achieve in the coming week. Break it down into tasks and block out appropriate chunks of time to work on them, (work on the rocks, pebbles, sand principle)
- Now block out time for all of the other things you need to do and label them. Don’t forget to schedule lunch and regular breaks.
Crucially, we can now to see when your week is full; if we want to fit in something else we make a conscious decision about what to sacrifice/move into next week, (prioritising). The other major benefit of this over a list is that the constant background worry about whether we are doing the right thing at the right time is removed, as we are reassured that we thought about this rationally at the beginning of the week. You’ll be amazed at how much headspace this frees up.
One objection I commonly encounter goes, “but my life is not like that, I have to react to situations minute by minute”. When we step back this is rarely the case, and if it really is so, then there is something fundamentally awry with the way we are working. That said I do understand that the idea of having the whole day committed can be a scary one and things can and do crop up, things which need your attention. For these people I propose blocking out an hour, maybe even two, and label that time “unexpected”. Let the team know that this is the time to bring up urgent/unscheduled things, (for other things get them to book out a free slot in your schedule), and if nothing crops up simply crack on with the next item on your schedule.
I’m pleased to say that having implemented this system “John” is much more relaxed and has better productivity and is more creative in his work, all this because he has taken back control – he’s happy, his boss is happy and his direct reports are delighted.
Give it a try
If you would like to talk about making your time more productive please get in contact. If you would like to download our Weekly Planner template for free (and without the need to leave your email address – just think of us when you need some help) use the link below.
I’d also love to hear how you get on.
About the Author: Fran McArthur is a coach, trainer, action learning facilitator, and no-executive director with more than 30 years of business experience. She typically works with executives, who lead organisations of £1 – 10m turnover and who wish to effect positive change, particularly those making a positive impact on the environment . She collaborates to help them to achieve their goals using her practical, common-sense approach
Your can contact her at
enquiries @yibp.co.uk or 07789 520205