Traditional To-Do lists trap us in the “Urgent Zone”

Most of us deal with different type of tasks that land on our table every day. Our basic instinct is writing the tasks down in a traditional ToDo list and set them by priority. This is where most of us stop – trying to handle this ToDo list one by one. As the list never gets shorter, we usually find ourselves handling mainly the urgent tasks, leaving the important tasks aside. Let’s face it, the urgent tasks always take place at the top of the ToDo list, not letting us get to the non-urgent tasks. This is perfectly natural – after all, if we will miss an urgent task, someone would probably hold us accountable for that in the very near future.

So how can we get out of this trap? I want to share with you a practical method that I use for quite a few years and which is pretty simple: instead of holding one list, we should hold 2 lists – urgent list and non-urgent list – each one is handled a bit differently. Let’s drill down on how we should use each of those lists.

Urgent task list

The urgent task list is something we need to look at and handle daily. Example of such list can be:

  • Check whether we have received a problem report from our Beta customer for the product that we need to release next week. (if we will miss that, our product might not be released next week)
  • Get approval for a budget for a New-Year celebration. (assuming we are a few days away from the new-year, missing the date would make this task irrelevant).
  • Set a meeting with one of our peers for getting his approval for our product certification before he leaves to his 4 weeks vacation (his vacation is 2 days from now).
  • Check-in the code today before the official version is being built tonight.

Those kind of tasks should be monitored daily to make sure we get them done and/or monitor their progress closely. Missing daily attention on those would probably cause us miss the goal.

I use to keep those in Microsoft OneNote. I have a folder named “Daily” which I open every morning and look at. Once an urgent task lands on my table, I immediately add it to the Daily urgent task list.

Non-urgent task list  (AKA the important task list)

We all have the list of tasks that are important, but not urgent. This is the abandon list, the never-done list, the wish-list, the list we wish we could do, but we just don’t have enough time to do. It’s not our fault – we work really hard, but we just can’t find the time for it. If only our boss would offload some work from us and allocate us some spare time, then there would be a good chance we could reach those important tasks.

Let’s be honest with ourselves – those are just a bunch of poor excuses. If we want to do something, it is up to us. We might not always realize it, but we do have control over our time (at least much more then we think).

The first step is to acknowledge that we need 2 lists – urgent and non-urgent. Personally, I hold the non-urgent list in an Outlook search folder called DoIt. As most of my tasks are coming through email, all I need to do to add a task to the non-urgent list is by categorizing it as DoIt. A site note: when I say non-urgent task list, I actually means to a list that contain important tasks (as opposed to non-urgent-non-important tasks).

Once a week, I have reoccurring meeting in my calendar that I named “Weekly Review”. In that meeting I’m going over all my DoIt tasks (my important to-do tasks) and integrate a few of them into my next week schedule. Meaning, I’m setting a meeting for a task to be done. The meeting can be with other participants, but mostly those meetings are just self-meetings – I’m scheduling a meeting with myself for accomplishing a specific task.

At first glance, a self-meeting sounds a bit weird – why should I schedule a meeting with myself? I can do it any time without pre-scheduling it. Well, the problem is that although we can, we usually never do. Once we have a self-meeting scheduled in our calendar, we have higher commitment to make that task done.

Let’s fast forward to a self-meeting time-slot: we are sitting with our computer, working on our important task. Suddenly, someone steps into our office/cubicle with a request that would consume our time. At this point, we know that if we will give that person our time, it would be on expense of achieving our current important task. Most chances we would direct that person to someone else that can help him or request him to meet us at a later time. BTW, in most cases, that person would be perfectly fine with such an answer and would appreciate us for protecting our time.

Let’s take the same scenario with one difference – we don’t have our self-meeting in the calendar: we are sitting with our computer, having a free slot to work on whatever we want. Suddenly, someone steps into our office/cubicle with a request that would consume our time. At this point, we know that if we will give that person our time, it would be on expense of our time, but nothing specific that we have pre-scheduled. Most chances we would help that person on the spot, losing the control over our time.

Think about it :)

IM your Email and Meeting

Did you run into the need to start a group chat conversation based on an email or  a meeting? It happens to me all the time and I just discovered how to do it using the great integration between Microsoft Lync and Outlook. It was always there (I think…) and I guess I just didn’t take the time to look for it.


The scenario

Let’s start with describing why we need this. I’ll give 3 main scenarios that I run into (almost) every week.

  1. I want to start an Instant Messaging (IM/chat) with a person on a specific topic that was just discussed over an email thread. I want the title of the IM to be meaningful and describing the email discussion.
  2. There is an ongoing email thread on a topic and I want to move the discussion from the email to an online IM. Why? Because I have decided I want to give the topic an extra attention and that a group IM with the entire distribution list (or part of it) would be the appropriate way accomplishing that.
  3. I have arrived to a meeting on time and I see that many people are missing. I decide I want to reach out to them using IM, for requesting them to join the meeting (…and then tell them that the last to arrive the meeting would bring a cake for the next meeting).

IM an Email

Let’s start with the first scenario, where we want to IM a person regarding a specific email (where that person was on the distribution list).

  • Go to the email
  • Go to the person name on the distribution list
  • Right click it and select IM
  • IM session on Lync would be opened with the email title

The second scenario is starting an IM with the entire distribution list of the email.

  • Go to the email
  • Go to the Respond tab
  • Select “Reply All with IM”
  • Group IM session on Lync would be opened with the email title


IM a Meeting

The third scenario is starting a group IM containing the meeting distribution list (or part of it).

  • Go to the meeting on your calendar
  • Open the meeting
  • Are you the meeting organizer?
    • Yes: click the “Contact Attendees” button
    • No: click the Respond button
  • Select “Reply All with IM”
  • Group IM session on Lync would be opened with the meeting title
  • If you need to remove people from the IM, this is the time to do it (before you type the first letter in the IM session)



That’s it – simple and useful. Such a cool feature.


How should we handle a calendar invitation?

We are all receiving meeting invitations on weekly basis, but we do not always know how to handle them properly. Here are a few techniques for properly handling a meeting invitation while avoiding any re-scheduling  loops.

We have received a meeting invitation, now what? One thing we can’t do is ignoring it – it won’t go away. Therefore we need to accept it, reject it or tentatively accept it. There is also the proposed-new-time option. Let’s do some drill down.


Accept it

Accept a meeting if you really can attend it. Do not accept a meeting and then don’t show up. It is not appropriate. This advise seems trivial, but unfortunately I see many people hitting the Accept button for every meeting they receive without even looking whether they can attend or not.

Using Outlook 2007 and above, when receiving a meeting invitation, a view of the meeting time slot in the calendar is being displayed on the reading pane. This means we can easily know on the spot whether we have a meeting schedule conflict or not. Use it that information.


Note: if you access your emails through a smartphone, do not handle your meeting invitations through it, since you don’t have an easy way to determine whether you have a conflict or not.

Decline it

Once we reach the conclusion we either don’t want to be part of the meeting or can’t be part of the meeting, we should decline it.

Decline is kind of insulting (it might sound funny, but it is). Therefore, we should always use the “Edit the Response before sending” option, while explaining the reason for the decline. The organizer invited us for a reason. If we decline it, we should state at least why.


Tentative it

In case you are not sure you would be able to attend the meeting, state it. Again, I recommend using the Edit option for this case, explaining why we chose tentative.

Propose a New Time

When we choose Decline or Tentative because we are not available on the proposed time slot, we should propose a new time for the originator to select. By making an offer (as wait for the originator make a new offer) we have better control over our time. When making an offer, we should explore what other time-slot possibilities are there that would match our preference while taking under consideration the other participants availability as appears in the calendar.

When my calendar schedule is tight, I take it one step further (after the new proposed time) – I create a “fake” calendar meeting (only with myself) on the proposed time, named “placeholder for…” (e.g. “placeholder for Roy design meeting”). This would make sure no one would schedule a meeting for me on that time slot. The reason I do that is the gap in time between the moment we have proposed a new time and the moment the organizer has changed the meeting schedule – during that time frame, another person might invite us for a meeting on that new-proposed time slot, which would cause a conflict.


Run Meetings the Right Way

Many books were written on how to run meetings – it is definitely a challenging task to accomplish. The guidelines in “Invite the Right Way” would definitely get our chances higher to make it happen. But still, we have the responsibility to run the meeting the right way as well.

I would like to share with you a few guidelines that would help us move forward with our meeting goals.


Be assertive and focused

If we are the meeting owners, it is our responsibility that the meeting would be focused on the objectives and agenda. If people get off the road, we should help them get back on track. One of the strongest phrases that would help us accomplish this is “let’s take it offline”.

Offline is not a bad word – it means that a specific discussion is important, but not important for the current meeting objectives and therefore should be discussed in another time and/or with a different forum.

You know what, I wasn’t accurate enough when I said “if people get off the road”. I should have said “when people get off the road” because it happens all the time in most of the meetings I have participated in. It is not because people have bad intensions – I guess it is just because every one of us has different interests and understanding when coming to a specific meeting, and this is usually not aligned with the meeting owner objectives.

By the way, this is why small meetings are more efficient – you have less off-the-road incidents…

Sum it up 5 minutes before end

This is highly important note to remember. I have seen great managed meetings turn useless only because no one took the time to summarize the meeting at the end, for making sure all participants are on the same page and all aligned with the summary.

How to do it? We should stop the discussion 5 minutes before it ends. Yes, even if the discussion is not over yet and even if people really really want to speak up for 2 more minutes. We should cut the discussion and start summarizing it. After the summary, the meeting ends and we should thank everyone for participating. If a follow-up meeting is needed, we should say that a follow up meeting would be scheduled.

If we won’t summarize the meeting on time, the meeting would end without making sure that all participants are on the same page, which means people might follow up on the meeting summary offline, arguing that this is not what was discussed and agreed during the meeting. Then, we would have to open up the discussion again…

Send a meeting summary

People forget. We forget. There are so many tasks and meetings during our work week – we just can’t hold all the details in our head. This means that no one would remember the meeting summary 2 weeks from now. If no one would remember, it is like if the meeting didn’t happen at all, and the last thing we want is doing the same meeting all over again.

We should write the meeting summary on the same day or the following day the latest. An easy trick to summarize an email is:

  • Go to the Calendar
  • Right-click on the meeting
  • Select “Reply All
    By doing that, the meeting participant list appears in your email distribution list automatically.
  • Add to the email title the following suffix: “- meeting summary (yyyy-mm-dd)
    For example, suppose I have done a meeting called “Project X: design for feature Y”. The summary title would look like “Project X: design for feature Y – meeting summary (2016-01-08)”
  • Write the meeting summary and press Send

Easy, right?


Invite the Right Way

All of us are scheduling meetings at work . However, we don’t always know how to do it right for the meeting to start off on the right foot. Here are a few guidelines for helping us doing so.


Do we need it?

Yes, this is the first question we all should ask ourselves. Do we really need that meeting? If we can close it in a corridor discussion or over an email, then we shouldn’t schedule a meeting.

On the other hand, I see many emails with endless back-and-forth threads that practically scream for a meeting to occur.


We need to make sure that the distribution is proper for the meeting, meaning we have all the key people for achieving the objectives of that meeting. Missing a key person might require a follow up meeting and/or email discussion.

Many times I see that after a meeting occurs, an email thread starts by a key person that was missing from the meeting, ending up with re-explaining the meeting notes over an email, which is usually not effective (otherwise, the meeting wasn’t needed in the first place).

Keep the forum as small as possible. Big meetings are not effective (unless it is a lecture).


Each meeting MUST have an objective. If possible, also add agenda to the meeting – what you want to cover in this meeting. Objective + Agenda = Objenda.

People must come to a meeting with understanding of what the meeting is all about. Describing a proper objective allows people to decide whether they are necessary for the meeting or not, and whether they should delegate the meeting to someone else that is more relevant then themselves.

This should make sure the forum of the meeting is the proper one.


Set the proper length for a meeting. Don’t set 30 minutes for a meeting you know would take 1.5 hours.

Try to schedule your meetings for 50 minutes, allowing people to reach their next meeting on the schedule.

If you set a meeting after lunch, take a buffer of 10 minutes. For example, if in your organization people usually eat 12:00-13:00, don’t start a meeting before 13:10. Otherwise, you would find yourself starting with a partial forum. This would start the meeting off on the bad foot.


The default outlook reminder is 15 minutes. I find this inappropriate as it is too long of a notice for people.

  • People usually turn off the reminder and by the meeting start time they already forgot about the meeting.
  • The ones that use the reminder Snooze option, need to do it 3 times till the meeting starts. Annoying!

I recommend using the 5 minutes reminder. People get it once and they start preparing to the meeting immediately as it is a few minutes away.
How to do it?

  • Go to File
  • Select Options
  • Select Calendar
  • Under “Calendar options” set the “Default reminders” to “5 minutes