The shock therapy for your to do list

Once upon a time there was a CEO of a big corporation who was overwhelmed by the amount of work and was losing his work life balance. One day he mentioned his plight to a management consultant who happened to be doing some consulting work with the company. The consultant asked him how he spent his time at work. The CEO replied that he just came to the office and do whatever was there that needed to be done, and there were always more things than he had time to attend to. Hearing this, the consultant suggested that he prioritize his tasks and make a list of five things he needed to do every day, starting from the most important. His task was to focus on the most important thing of the day and finish it first. Until he finished task no. 1 on the list, he was not supposed to start task no. 2. And so on for the rest of the list.

At the end of the year, the CEO sent a thank you letter to the consultant, with a sizeable check enclosed in it. He said that one tip on time management liberated him and changed his life.

Nowadays the to do list has become a common tool for the busy professionals, whose common complaint is there are always too many things to do and too little time to do them. The question is, how well does the list work for them? Is it effective? The answer is, not for everyone.

The problem with many people is not that they don’t have a list, but they don’t have the right kind of list. There are two mistakes that people often make.

The first one is their lists are too long. I have seen clients with massive lists with 20-50 to do items on them. When you have that many things on the list, you don’t know where to start and stay overwhelmed. You will inevitably miss some important things and procrastinate on others. It’s impossible to accomplish 20-50 things in a day. Having all those things on the list just confuses the mind. Instead of helping organize things, it creates brain noise and further disorganizes things and adds to the chaos. If you are one of these people, I suggest the “shock therapy” of the rule of three.

The rule of three basically means doing the opposite of what you used to do. Instead of getting overwhelmed every day by a massive list of to-do’s, deliberately underwhelm yourself by putting only three things on the list. Put the other ten, twenty or thirty aside. Once you have got the three things done, then pick another set of three. When you do this, you get a sense of ease, a sense of clarity and a sense of progress, which reduce and eliminate the chatters in your mind. This in turn gets you into a relatively relaxed state of mind where you are most creative and efficient. You get things done quickly. You get a sense of accomplishment. And you start to have fun. Working and tackling tasks is no longer a drag, but something you can actually enjoy. After doing this every day for a week, it becomes a simple but powerful habit. And you will never feel overwhelmed again.

The second common mistake people make is a lack of priority. Not all things are equally important and urgent. Tasks need to be prioritized. The first thing on the to do list must be the “most urgent and important,” then the “less urgent and important,” and finally the “important but not urgent.” The “urgent but not important” category can be delegated or dropped from the list altogether.

If you can avoid the two most commonly made mistakes and practice the rule of three and prioritization, you will find your life becoming much easier and more pleasant. These are small things that make big differences.