Effective To-do Lists

The holidays are in full swing – which means that everyone’s to-do lists are overflowing with items to get done in short order. What is the most effective way to get everything done at work so that you can accomplish your after work list too? Experts now say that planing for possible interruptions may help people accomplish more in less time. The article below, posted on Quartz at Work tackles this topic. 

The most effective to-do lists account for interruptions

By Christina Le Beau

Write it down. Schedule everything. Assign blocks of time and color coding, sprinkle with magic dust, then hold your breath and hope there aren’t any interruptions. That’s the downside of traditional time-management planning: It’s only effective when things go…as planned.

Which, in today’s dynamic workplace, is pretty much never. The same variables that make work interesting and satisfying—unexpected challenges, complex responsibilities, a fast pace—also create constant disruptions. Some estimates suggest that employees are interrupted or forced to switch tasks an average of every three minutes. Unplanned breaks take a toll on productivity. They also dampen employees’ enthusiasm for the job.

Write it down. Schedule everything. Assign blocks of time and color coding, sprinkle with magic dust, then hold your breath and hope there aren’t any interruptions. That’s the downside of traditional time-management planning: It’s only effective when things go…as planned.

Which, in today’s dynamic workplace, is pretty much never. The same variables that make work interesting and satisfying—unexpected challenges, complex responsibilities, a fast pace—also create constant disruptions. Some estimates suggest that employees are interrupted or forced to switch tasks an average of every three minutes. Unplanned breaks take a toll on productivity. They also dampen employees’ enthusiasm for the job.

The authors found strong correlations between the type of planning used and employees’ job satisfaction and output. People who used traditional time management were more engaged and productive when they had few interruptions. People who used contingent planning were more engaged and productive no matter whether they were interrupted or not.

One data point: On days where interruptions were high (4.11 or more on that 1–7 scale), traditional time management was completely ineffective at promoting engagement and productivity. How often was that? Nearly 20% of the time.

The authors suggest employees prepare for each work day—the night before or the morning of — spending a few minutes considering the day ahead:

  • Do you expect interruptions?
  • Based on past experience, what kinds of interruptions do you expect?
  • How frequently do you expect to be interrupted?

If you expect zero or few interruptions:

  • Set a traditional, even ambitious, to-do list that prioritizes tasks.
  • Follow the standard recommendation to do difficult or creative tasks when you have the most time or energy, and more mundane items in the gaps between.
  • If you do end up with interruptions that day, learn from them and let that inform your subsequent days’ planning.

If you expect frequent interruptions:

  • Ask how you can minimize disruption in the first place by creating boundaries around your time. Maybe set specific timeframes within which you’ll check and respond to emails and texts. Send all calls to voicemail. Try an app that limits your time online. What about wearing headphones to deter people from talking to you?
  • Set a realistic to-do list that allows time to handle the unexpected. Research shows it can take 10 to 20 minutes to regain attention after being interrupted. Build in those blocks of time.
  • Consider specific types of interruptions and how you might address them. For instance, if a colleague asks for help with something and you’re in the middle of a project, ask if you can get back to them once you’re finished.
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