COMMENT:

Ask most people about how they manage their 'to do' lists and you'll find that few use lists (if they have them) in a way that gets the best results.

Most begin with the easiest tasks. Why? 'I like to cross things off'; 'It gives a sense of satisfaction'; 'I'm getting up momentum for the harder jobs' …. the reasons are many.

Problem is, at the end of the day the 'easy things first' operators typically run out of time for the big or more difficult jobs.

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The following very simple process helps maintain focus and clarity, reduces distractions and gives far better results. (You can do it on both digital and paper calendars.

Personally, I prefer paper – it's fast, simple, and I'm quite visual. However, there is no 'right' way – use whatever medium works best for you.)

1. At the beginning of the day (or the night before), make a list of everything you want to do, in no particular order.

2. Then identify the top five tasks. Number them 1 through to 5, wherever they are on the list. Don't bother to number the rest – just the top five.

3. Start at No. 1. Don't stop until you've finished, gone as far as you wish to go (you may have set a time limit), or as far as you're able to go.

4. When interruptions come, as they always do, ask yourself, 'Is this more important than the activity I'm working on?' If not, add it to your list, put it out of eye-range so it doesn't distract you and stay focused on the more important activity.

However, if it is more important, put the other task aside, work on the new job, and when completed go back to your list (considered and thought about before the day started bossing you around!)

5. Each time you move down the list, review it quickly. If something that's jumped on the list is of higher priority than the activity you'd planned to do, give it lead position. The others won't go away, but because they're on the list instead of jostling for mind space you can keep them under tight rein - they won't distract you.

6. If there's any day left once the top five and relevant queue jumpers have been handled, go back to the list and number off another five. This saves time at the beginning of the day prioritising things you may never get to.

There's no one right way. I find the system just outlined works really well, but you might come up with a variation that's just as effective for you.

A variation

Innis, one of my clients, used to be constantly time-poor. 'I kept everything in my head', he said. 'I'd change priorities and activities as I went. Consequently, things got a bit out of hand.'

He's adapted the 1-5 method, using time slots instead of sequential numbers. Now, at the beginning of the day he writes all his desired tasks down and allocates specific times, keeping the list nearby as a prompt. The big benefit is clarity.

He's on the road a lot. Having a clear list means he's better prepared with all the paperwork and gear he expects to need for the day. There's no more chasing around for forgotten items.

Benefit – he's got more time to get on with high value work. However, if he's under-estimated the time needed or something really urgent comes up from left field, he doesn't stress. He knows he's done the best he could.

A small amount of thought and recording at the beginning of the day has generated huge benefits. He's gone from being constantly frazzled into an effective member of the team.

Keep your planning simple and, most importantly, write it down and prioritise your list every day.

- Robyn Pearce (known as the Time Queen) runs an international time management and productivity business, based in New Zealand. If you'd like a conference speaker, time management training for your firm, or to receive your free report 'How To Master Time In Only 90 Seconds' and ongoing time tips, check out gettingagrip.com