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 :)

Published by

Erez Morabia

I’m an engineer and a leader in the computer software industry which is passionate about leading teams, embracing new technologies and improving soft skills for work efficiency.

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

  1. Great post :-)
    Thanks for sharing.
    Another thing that usually happens is that many of the important (“non-urgent”) tasks become urgent after a while… (while our goal is to minimize the urgent tasks list). Which makes it even more important to handle them as soon as possible.

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