As an entrepreneur, how can you be productive and ensure that you are focusing on the right areas? Every entrepreneur is a self-starter; it tends to come with the territory. Being an entrepreneur also means that you don’t necessarily have a daily playbook to follow. Many entrepreneurs are breaking new ground and learning through trial and error. It can be daunting, and even a bit scary, to determine where to focus your energy on any given day. Should you have your team spend the day creating marketing copy for that new product, or reaching out to customers to get feedback on an existing product? It can feel as though there is never enough time to meet all the demands of the business.
One tool many entrepreneurs use to get organized and improve focus is to create a To Do list. This can be a very helpful tool. Unfortunately, in my opinion, about 85% of the population is using the To Do list in a completely ineffective manner. Here’s why: most people are using their To Do list as a measure for self-worth…and this is a huge mistake.
Biggest Mistakes with a To Do List:
1. Confusing quality with quantity. Many people incorrectly associate self-worth with checking things off their To Do list. If I am able to complete a lot of things in one day, it must mean I’ve done a good job and, therefore, I’m a good enough person. Right? We all want validation. Here’s the problem with this – it means that you’re likely to waste your time on low impact, easy to complete tasks just to feel good about what you’ve accomplished. How many of you have spent time on something that was easy and quick, but not very strategic? Was this because you were avoiding the harder, more impactful thing? We waste time on menial chores and tasks just to have a sense of accomplishment. Over time, this makes us much less effective at our job. Truly successful people find a way to outsource many of these less strategic tasks
2. Using the To Do list as a form of torture. Do you have a tendency to create a very long To Do list that you can never complete in a single day? Do you then feel bad about never getting to everything on your list? If so, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Many of us do this out of habit, and it’s an important habit to break. Here’s the deal with this subconscious self-flagellation: it wastes a TON of energy. Every time you even THINK about a task on your To Do list that hasn’t been accomplished, it drains your energy. So if you have a list that’s 20 items long, and you spend a few minutes every hour stressing out about how you haven’t tackled item #19, you are using an incredible amount of your energy and mental stamina just keeping track of, and feeling bad about, all the things you haven’t done. This negative thought pattern tends to hold you back and make you much less productive. Plus, it generally feels crappy. So let’s agree to be done with it.
The Secret to a Successful To Do List.
Here are some straight forward and easy to follow steps to creating a powerful and productive daily To Do list:
1. Keep it simple. Your To Do list should have NO MORE THAN THREE THINGS on it for a given day. Some of the most highly successful people I know only allow ONE ITEM on their To Do list each day. This is where the rubber meets the road on focus and prioritization. If you could only do one thing today to move your business forward, what would that thing be? Make this the #1 item on your To Do list.
2. Write your To Do list the night before. This helps you start your day with clarity. You know exactly which item you need to complete by 10am the next morning.
3. Tackle the first item on your list first thing in the morning when you are fresh. Now that you’ve effectively prioritized your To Do list, you need to get the biggest, most important task completed before moving on to anything else. It’s important to be proactive rather than reactive. You need to make yourself and your goals a priority. This starts by completing your most high level, strategic action FIRST, before checking your email or responding to phone calls or other requests. People and technology will always be there to distract you. One study found that Fortune 500 CEOs averaged only twenty-eight uninterrupted, productive minutes a day! To be truly successful, you must be able to set boundaries and make your biggest strategic goals your daily priority.
4. If you have a hard time limiting your To Do list to a maximum of three items, or your mind keeps wandering off thinking about all the other things you “need to do,” I recommend doing a mind dump. Take five minutes, no more, and write down every single thing you can think of that you need to do in the next week. This can be personal or professional. Write it all down just to get it out of your head. Then put that list away. This is NOT your To Do list. This is a data dump, a psychic release. Your To Do list is the list of your 1-3 most important items that you created the night prior. Re-focus on this list after doing your mind dump by putting the mind dump list in a drawer and forgetting about it. If you aren’t taking action, worrying is just wasting your energy.
5. Sometimes small is big. Be strategic about your energy. Occasionally, a small and menial task that isn’t highly strategic will start to take up an incredible amount of mind space. Maybe you haven’t put this item on your To Do list because it’s not one of the three most important tasks to move your business forward, but over time, you notice yourself thinking about this one small, annoying thing because it’s really bothering you. Maybe it’s that stain on your carpet at home, cleaning off your desk, doing that ROI analysis, or buying that late wedding present for a friend. Sometimes, a small To Do becomes a huge energy suck because we’ve put it off for so long that it truly bothers us. In this case, it IS one of the three most important things for you to do that day because releasing all the anxiety you have built up will move you forward more than anything else. Ask yourself now – would doing a task you are avoiding take less energy than you are spending on the avoidance? Is there something you’ve been procrastinating that would free up a lot of energy if you just went and did it? If so, put that item on your To Do list for tomorrow. And DO IT. You will discover a new source of energy to apply to the next strategic item on your To Do list.
If you follow these five steps, you will increase your productivity whiledecreasing your negative mind chatter. It’s a win/win. Try it out for yourself and let me know in the comments section below what you think!
This article first appeared in Forbes.