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The Power of the List

By steve - Posted on 07 April 2009

There is a lot to know about time, project, and work management. But, to me, it all seems to come down to one thing: the power of the list.

There are some great websites (http://www.43folders.com) and books (Time Management for System Administrators) about time management and getting organized, but the two most important things you can do to get and stay organized are to "commit to the list" and to "commit to the cycle."

Doing these two things keeps me from bouncing around, forgetting things, working on the wrong priorities, worrying about what I should be doing, and feeling stressed by incoming work that is exceeding the outgoing work.

Here's what I do...

Commit to the List

What does that mean? Quite simply, commit yourself to noting everything you need to do on a list. How complicated you make this really depends on you, but nothing will get done unless you capture every request you get in some form.

Bare List

In its simplist form, your list should be a series of statements of what needs to be done: "Upgrade Zimbra on email server to latest version." If you did nothing but keep this list on a pad of paper and cross out the items you accomplished, you'd be better organized than most of the people you'll work with.

However, though I like the simplicity, I need a little more information to keep things on track. While the "bare list" keeps you from forgetting something (if you commit to putting EVERYTHING on the list), you'll be missing a few key pieces of information. Thus, you can upgrade your "bare list" to the "minimal list".

Minimal List

Now that you've started capturing all of the things you need to do, you'll find you want to know a little more.

Add these to your list and get even better organized:
* Priority (A, B, C)
* Task (the thing we need done)
* Who asked for it (initials)
* Date requested
* Date required (if there is an actual deadline)
* Notes

Wow, now that you have all this, and assuming you don't get everything done each day, how can you organize the list so that you can process, review, and sort it?

4 common ways to organize a Minimal List:
1. pad of paper
2. 3 x 5 cards
3. spreadsheet
4. organizer software (Outlook)

With a pad of paper, you simply write the titles of our columns across the top and fill it up with your items in pencil. Cross off things you finish. Rewrite your list weekly, when the page is full, etc. (on a regular basis).

3 x 5 cards work about the same, but work better when you find you are sorting your list frequently. When a task is done, draw a line across the card and stick it in a "done" file.

If your list changes frequently, you have a lot of things to do, or you want to sort your list often, a spreadsheet works the best. I use a spreadsheet to keep my to do list on. As I complete something, I change the priority to DONE and it sorts to the bottom of the list. I also use numbers for priorities on the items I'm currently doing (numbers like 1 thru 10) and A, B, and C for items I haven't started. The way Excel sorts, the numbers (my top rated tasks) will sort to the top and then the A, B, and C items.

Here's how I set my priorities:
1-9=Current tasks
A=Important and urgent
B=Important
C=Something neither urgent or important, but I don't want to forget about it (it will eventually become a B or A in the future)

What if something is just urgent? A lot of urgent tasks, usually aren't, but it might end up an A, if my getting paid depends on it (I guess that makes it important).

You can try and use organizer software, like Outlook, but I find the "task list" functionality on software like this to be underwhelming. It just can't handle the volume of tasks I work on. The reminder integration is nice, but I usually end up ignoring it anyway.

Anything more than this and you're leaving the realm of the minimalist and into true project management (where your job is manage the project, not do any real work...). You'll outgrow any of the suggestions I've made, but keep in mind the principles. Simple and straightforward always works better than complicated and murky.

The Cycle

As important as getting the list going is keeping it going. That is where I use my 2 cyles: Weekly and Daily.

Weekly

I've created a paper form with blocks for daily appointment scheduling, tasks by day, a task summary, top priorities, personal items, and calls to return.

Each Monday, I pull out my sheet from the week before and transfer any remaining issues to the new sheet. I review my electronic calendar and if a meeting or task involves an appointment, I write that down in the appropriate slot. If a task needs to be done on a certain day (not any particular time), I write it in the Tasks section for that day.

Any unscheduled tasks are grouped in a logical way in the Task Summary. My top 5 or so projects are written in the Top Priorities section. Finally, I write down any personal tasks in my Personal list and phone calls I need to return in the Calls section.

Why go through all of this each week when I have an electronic calendar, a smartphone, reminders, and a spreadsheet full of things to do? Well, the discipline of doing this gets me reorganized and focused on the tasks that must be done that week. I can reprioritize and set up my schedule based on the work I need to do. I still have time to handle interuptions and rearrange things as the week goes, but I've found this weekly ritual really helps me stay on track.

As I go through the week and complete one of my appointments, tasks, or calls, I get the satisfaction of checking it off on my weekly planner sheet.

After I transfer the previous week's remaining tasks to the next week's sheet, I file the old planner in a folder for (occassional) future reference.

I only put the tasks that I might work on that week on my Weekly Planner sheet. I keep detailed tasks in an Excel sheet that I can sort by project, type, priority, due date, etc. These only make it to my Weekly Planner when I think I'll actually work on them. I update the priority to DONE on my spreadsheet, once I've crossed it off my Weekly Planner.

Any new tasks or changes in status of tasks is updated in the spreadsheet.

Daily

Each day, before I start working, I review the Weekly Planner and see if I forgot to cross off anything from the day before. I then take a look at my appointments and daily scheduled tasks and look at my non-scheduled tasks. After I really understand what I need to get done that day, I start working on my tasks.

As new tasks come in during the day, and they always do, I decide if they should go onto the task list (usually), a dated task list (sometimes), or a specific time of a specific day (if it is date specific).

Summary

That's it! As long as I stay on this system, I am guaranteed to not forget anything or let anything "slip through the cracks".

I spend about 10 minutes on Monday and about 1 minute a day after that keeping on track (not counting adding new tasks, which are just part of my daily work).

I've attached an example of my Weekly Planner form in Excel format. Feel free to use and modify it to fit your own "Weekly Planner" needs.

AttachmentSize
Weekly Planner.xls31 KB

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