When you’re a solopreneur, juggling customers and projects effectively is essential to your success. If you’re an aspiring solopreneur, you’re likely trying to juggle a life, a day job, and a side hustle, as you work towards turning your dreams into reality.
If you want to reach your goals, it’s critical that you can keep on track and tick off those To Do list tasks like a ninja. But all too often the list ends up growing and growing, without nearly enough checkmarks on the ‘completed’ side of the equation.
So how do you wrestle that To Do list to the ground? These 5 hacks can ensure your To Do list is working for you, as much as you are working on it.
To Do List Hack #1 – Right-Size It
There’s no point having a To Do list which includes items that span days and weeks and months. My anxiety level rises just thinking about this!
A list like that won’t help you focus. If you get overwhelmed just looking at your To Do list, you’re on the wrong path.
Create a Work Inventory
If you need to have a long list of every possible item on your plate, go ahead and create one. But don’t use this as your To Do list. Consider it more of a “work inventory”.
Keeping a written inventory of the work you need to do over the next week or month or even months can be useful, especially if it helps “unload” it from your mind. Writing it down can definitely alleviate those random thoughts that like to swirl around your mind at 3am!
A Work Inventory also gives you a 360 degree view of everything on your plate. You can keep it high-level, and use it to help you keep your goals and objectives in sight, while you work from a more tactical To Do list on a daily basis.
To Do List Hack #2 – Break It Down
But if you want to create a To Do list that actually helps you get things done, it needs to be tactical and focused.
Plan it day-by-day, not weeks and months in the future.
Your To Do list should have the life span of one day. Each item on the list should be items you can accomplish within a day.
But what if one of your To Do items takes days of effort to complete? That’s when you need to break it down into smaller tasks.
Let’s say you have to design a new web site for a customer. Add “Design web site for Customer X” to your Work Inventory, noting when it’s due. But on your To Do list, only write down the individual tasks that will help you get that project done. Maybe you have to meet with the customer to understand their brand, prepare a project plan for the work, get the customer to sign-off on the plan, create wireframes for the customer to review, get the customer to sign-off on the wireframes, draft comps for the customer to review and sign-off, and so on. And depending on the overall size of the project, even these tasks may break down into smaller items.
Basically you want to keep breaking it down until the items that are on your plate can be completed within hours not days.
But Be Realistic – We’re Humans Not Machines
One of the critical factors in being able to plan and manage your work is being brutally realistic about it. Maybe even approaching it with a healthy dose of pessimism.
The world doesn’t allow us to work on anything for a solid 8 hours.
Aside from the very human reality of fatigue, we never get an 8 hour block of time without interruptions. Am I wrong?
When was the last time you could sit (or stand) and work for 8 consecutive hours, without needing to take a call, respond to an email, consume food or water, or take a mental break?
When you inject reality into your To Do List, you have a much greater chance of completing your objectives.
Create Tasks You Can Complete in Two Hours or Less
I love the idea of the Pomodoro technique, but the small blocks of time don’t work well for me. 30 minutes is just long enough for me to get my head in the game, focus, and start to actually produce something. So taking a break after 30 minutes would guarantee that I would never accomplish much of anything.
But, the approach is sound. Work, focused and relentlessly, for a period of time. Then take a short break. Rinse, repeat. How long each period of work should be is a bit of an individual thing. I like 2 hours. After a bit of trial and error, I’ve found that this is what works best for me.
If I work in larger increments before taking a break – say, 3 hours – then I end up getting more fatigued, more prone to distraction, and less inclined to keep plowing ahead after the first two blocks of work. Anything less than 2 hours and it feels like I’m spending as much time taking breaks as I am working! And while that’s a pleasant way to spend the day, it’s not exactly productive.
With 2 hour blocks, and short breaks in between (15-20 minutes), I can accomplish what I need to accomplish without feeling completely drained at the end of the day.
What if you have a task that you know will take about half of your day to complete? Same rule. Break it down, even if it’s an “artificial” partitioning.
What I mean by that is, even if it’s legitimately the smallest parcel of work that you can make it, and it will still take at least half your day, make it into a series. “Begin first draft of final report” becomes one task; and “Complete first draft of final report” becomes the second task.
Why bother with this type of artificial task creation? See above. This allows you to work for a couple of hours; take a short break; then move on to the next item on your list.
It may seem ridiculous to approach it this way, because of course you know that it’s all the same task that you’re working on for those four hours. But it’s amazing how much of a difference it makes mentally to be able to move through your day, crossing tasks off your list every couple of hours.
It keeps you focused, while giving you a consistent sense of accomplishment. It’s that sense of accomplishment that keeps you motivated enough to keep going. Your essentially creating your own positive feedback loop. An essential for a solopreneur!
To Do List Hack #3 – Work The List
This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Let’s say you have 3-4 tasks per day, that you plan to work through. There’s nothing more deflating than jumping to the last item on your list, without having accomplished the other tasks preceding it.
It’s a list that you created less than 24 hours ago, and you can’t even follow your own plan?! Yet we’ve all done it. Changed the game plan on game day because we’re tired, or not motivated, or any other dozen excuses. And that’s what they are, excuses.
But, as noted above, we’re humans, not machines. Reality is, you may wake up, look at your list, and just not be able to convince yourself to jump into task #1 (the one that you thought should definitely be tackled first when you wrote that list the night before!).
If (when) this happens, then don’t just ignore the first few items and jump right into task #4. First, take the time to adjust your list.
Yes, I know, it seems like a waste of time. Because you know that you’re doing the list out of order, and so what does it matter?
It matters. Take the 2 minutes to revise your list. Make task #4 the first task of your day. Then look at the other 2-3 items, and think about what order you want to tackle them. Make those revisions. And then work the list.
Focus on one task a time. Complete the task. Cross it off the list. Take your break. Move on to the next task. Work, accomplish, rest, work, accomplish, rest. Positive feedback loop. Well done!
To Do List Hack #4 – Yes, Use an App
Writing a list on note paper, or post-it notes is wonderfully nostalgic. But not nearly as effective. Do paper notes send you reminders? For that reason alone, go with an app.
Some people like to just use what they have on hand, and send themselves emails or use their Outlook or Google calendar to keep track of their To Do lists. I used to do this.
But ultimately, the emails just became more email clutter and were no more effective than a paper list. The calendar lists were a little more helpful, in that they provided a nice little pop-up reminder, but they just muddied up my calendar far too much.
I’ve since tried a number of different apps, before settling on one that I love (Swipes). There are so many good task managers available, and you should be able to find one that suits you without too much trouble. The key is to keep it as simple as possible. You don’t need a tool that does everything; you need a tool that does this one thing very well.
Task Management App – What To Look For
As I said, keep it as simple as possible. Here are they key things needed to effectively use an app for your To Do list:
- Quickly create a task and set a reminder for it
- Easily mark a task as complete, with a tap or a swipe
- Quickly snooze and shuffle tasks
That about does it. The rest is gravy. There’s nothing wrong with more bells and whistles, as long as you don’t end up spending more time fighting with the tool than using it.
To Do List Hack #5 – Honor Your Commitments
It doesn’t matter what process, organization, approach, technology, or system you put in place if you end up doing any of the following. These bad habits will stop your progress before you even get out of the gate:
- Not making your list at the end of every day. That’s right, lists don’t generate themselves. It doesn’t matter how busy you are, you can set aside 5 minutes every day to organize yourself for the next day. If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “not true, I’m far too busy”, well, then you’re lying to yourself and maybe you need to start working on that first.
- Not reading your list at the beginning of every day. See above. Lists don’t read themselves. And this is as close to a zero-effort task as you can get. Easily accomplished while getting your morning coffee.
- Reading your list and immediately blowing off the first item. Revise the list if you must, but don’t succumb to the temptation of ‘winging it’. Work the list, and it will work for you. Helping you to stay on track and get more work done with greater efficiency are the ultimate goals!
- Ignoring your To Do list completely. If you can somehow manage to stay focused, be amazingly productive, produce the right things in the right order, address all of your priorities, and hit all of your objectives without any kind of task organization, then congratulations! You don’t need a To Do list! But most of us need a little guidance as both a reminder and a kick in ass.
Making a plan and committing to it, even something as small as a To Do list, is an important step in realizing your goals.
At the end of the day, all approaches, processes, tools and strategies must rely on the human factor to make them work.
But as long as you can offer an honest committment to your goals, they can help you achieve them!