I’ve been getting my entire daily to do list done almost every day for the past few weeks and it’s not because I’m putting less on it. Each day I have at least 5-10 tasks that I’m trying to get done in addition to meetings and other distractions. It’s a good-sized list.

Instead, I’m adding one key element to the margins that helps me focus.

In the margins of my to do list, I add what time I’ll be working on each task.

Here’s how I set-up my daily list:

  1. Write out the to do list first thing in the morning (or if I’m really firing on all cylinders, I do this the night before).
  2. List all of my meetings for the day with times and locations at the bottom.
  3. Focus on the open periods of time and assign them to each item starting with the highest priority item that can be done in that amount of time. I also pay attention to the times when I have the most energy, which is morning for me. If I have an important task that requires a lot of focus, I try to assign it a time slot in the morning.
  4. When you run out of time slots for the day, everything left on the list gets removed.

The to do list above is my actual list today.

How to Adjust Throughout the Day

Sometimes you’ll finish ahead of schedule, and if you do, you can always add an item back to the list or take a well-deserved coffee break. More likely, you’ll start running behind the second someone unexpectedly comes to talk to you. When that happens, pick up where you left off. If you don’t have time left for the task slotted, get the task for the next same-sized slot done. During the next slot, find the next highest priority task that will fit in the slot and do that. Since you’ve already added timing to your tasks, it’s easy to find the next most important to work on that will fit into whatever time you have left.

Why Does This Work?

  1. Your expectations for the day are more reasonable to begin with.
  2. You spend time thinking about your priorities and that knowledge sticks with you all day.
  3. The timing serves to timebox your work, which helps you decide how much work on an item is enough and when to move on to another task.
  4. You understand exactly where your day went wrong and can learn to correct issues or anticipate them in the future.
  5. The first time you finish something early, you feel so good that you gain momentum for the rest of the day.

In practice, I end up finishing all of my tasks for the day about 80% of the time and 50% of the time I finish them EARLY. The timing really helps me focus on the task at hand and churn through a seemingly bloated list.

What other ways have you found to get your daily to do list done?