Part 1 of this series emphasized the importance of Lists in the planning process and how to build a ‘Master list’. In this post, I’ll try to explain how to break this list down into categories to ultimately determine ‘What tasks belong on your to-do list’.
There are 4 simple, yet profound questions that you should ask yourself about everything you do or plan to do.
- What is it that you’re doing?
- Why are you engaged in this activity?
- How are you going to do the task?
- When will you do it?
Today we’ll focus on the first question – What? As in, ‘What tasks belong on your to-do list?
Status symbols of success
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), one of history’s most perceptive social scientists was referred to as a ‘visitor from another world’ for his vast learning and original insights. Early on in his career, Veblen coined the popular economic terms ‘conspicuous leisure’ and ‘conspicuous consumption’.
Veblen, in his treatise, ‘The Theory of Leisure Class’, asserts that the higher social classes engaged in fairly useless leisurely pursuits while the middle and working-class worked diligently to produce material goods and services to support society.
Here’s what that means. Before the 19th century, the symbol of success and wealth was someone who rarely worked and had plenty of time to engage in leisure activities. Royal families and aristocrats, even when engaged in seemingly important issues such as governing kingdoms, did it in a way that blurred the lines between work and leisure. What we consider leisure activities today such as board and dice games, horse riding, hunting, etc. formed the backdrop in those days for discussions on provincial politics.
Today, in contrast to having ‘plenty of leisure time’, the status symbol of success has changed to ‘being extremely busy’.
Being busy for the sake of busyness?
In today’s world, the busier you seemingly are, the more revered you are. A survey group tried to conduct a survey of people who said they were ‘very busy’. The point of the survey was to find out what people were busy doing. Most of the group declined to take the survey. Because they were too busy.
Can you find a better definition of Irony? I guess not, because you’re probably too busy.
If I called you at the end of a weekday to ask you how your day was, I bet you, more often than not, the answer’s going to be ‘Busy’. Doing what? That may be a struggle to answer.
Our goal, in this series, is to try to avoid busyness for busyness’ sake. To help us clarify WHAT we are actually busy doing.
“It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?”Henry David Thoreau
What are we busy doing?
Let’s pick up from where we left off ln Part 1. We previously spent effort creating the Master list, which truly is more a brain dump than a to-do list, right?
Our goal for today is actually quite simple: to determine what tasks belong on your to-do list. At the end of this exercise, you will have a clear, concise, and practical list to guide your day-to-day actions. This should help you escape the spiral web of busyness by claiming back some of that well-deserved leisure time. Hopefully.
Our approach to getting there will be two-fold:
- Pruning the master list to get rid of clutter
- Categorizing remaining items
Ready? For each item on the master list, first answer this question:
Can this task be done by someone else?
I’m not talking about pawning off your responsibilities to others, however appealing, that may sound. I’m referring to tasks that truly need not belong in your plate. I have a lot of personal experience with this situation.
You’ve heard about the growing problem of over-consumption of material goods, especially in the developed world. Decluttering is a huge industry. Marie Kondo has a cult following because people are on a spree to acquire and hoard all sorts of things.
I admit I used to have an acquisition problem too. Not so much with material possessions. I liked to acquire tasks and responsibilities belonging to other people. That’s right. I took over others’ tasks because I felt I could do them more efficiently/effectively. What proof did I have of my superior task skills? As Bill Maher says in his TV shows, ‘I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true’. Of course, I won’t take any blame for this habit – happy to pass the blame on to my Type A personality.
As a result of these ‘acquisitions’, I was constantly stressed out whilst also complaining that no one else was doing their bit. I whined that I didn’t have time to pursue meaningful activities. Resonate much?
So, I’m here to tell you to do as I say not as I do.
Step 1: Identify tasks that DO NOT belong in your list
To determine what tasks belong in your to-do list, you first have to determine what tasks DO NOT belong in your to-do list. Review your master list and determine which tasks can be taken off your list by either dropping them off altogether or delegating to someone else.
While dropping entire tasks off may be difficult, delegating may be easier.
The following tasks lend themselves well for delegation:
- Routine tasks
- Tasks that others can do equally effectively
- Any tasks that don’t require particular skills that you are exceptionally good at
- Tasks that may result in another’s development (like getting your kids to cook a meal)
You need a willing recipient. Otherwise the task is just a boomerang that will hit you with double the force, usually at an inconvenient time. How do I know? Experience.
Experience is simply the name we give our mistakesOscar Wilde
When you delegate, make sure you:
- Communicate the expected results and expected timeframes very clearly. E.g. the laundry needs to be folded and put away every alternate day by 6 pm.
- Provide feedback and coaching for the first few times
- Keep your control-freak tendencies in check: The whole point is to free up your time. If you stand around barking instructions, you’re missing the point.
- Be prepared to take responsibility for failures. Because, unfortunately, you are an adult and the buck stops with you!
“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.”A Bug’s Life
Got it? Take your time. Review the list a couple of times to find what does NOT belong there. Find recipients for those tasks. Lighten your load.
Some of these tasks you may be able to remove right away. Go ahead and strike those out of your list. Feel free to jump for joy!
Other tasks that you decide to delegate may require some time for (to borrow a business term) KT -Knowledge Transfer. So, let’s leave these on the list for now.
Now you’ve answered the question, ‘What tasks belong in your to-do list’?
Step 2: Categorize tasks
The last step today is to group the tasks left on your list into categories. Believe me, dry as it sounds, this will make a world of difference.
Simply, add a column to your master list and assign one of the following categories:
‘R’ for Rapid wins
The low hanging fruit. The ones that make you feel good about yourself because they usually don’t take much time to complete and you can feel great that you accomplished something by checking these off your list.
Examples include calling customer service about a problem, registering for an event, scheduling appointments, etc. Believe me, there is never a shortage of these every day. But the best part of these tasks is that they are ‘one-and-done’.
‘E’ for Enjoyable
The good stuff! Tasks you really want to do. Spa appointments, Netflix binges, pub crawls. If I start listing more examples, I may never finish this post.
‘S’ for Sub-Projects
This may be just a simple line on the list. In reality, this type of task is capable of spawning a whole to-do list. These are little seeds that are capable of turning into whole forests on their own. Example: take a task that simply says ‘Change kitchen and living room floors’. Sounds simple and innocuous, right? But in reality, it requires you to shortlist flooring stores, pick out floors, order samples, find material, find contractors, get quotes, and complete the project.
‘T’ for Transition
The tasks that you’ve decided delegate. These will stay on your list for a little while longer, but instead of actually completing these tasks, you’ll spend time training someone else to do them. Bye-bye folding laundry.
‘I’ for Inspiration
The inspirational and aspirational stuff belongs here. To continue with the examples I used in Part 1, this would include items such as becoming Parent of the year, pianist, ultra-marathoner, writer, etc. Like sub-projects, these need to be broken down into a whole series of tasks. But, let’s just leave this as a single task for now.
‘P’ for persistent:
These are never-dying tasks that regenerate after you complete them. They are like the Hydra monster in Greek and Roman mythology. Every time you slay their head another appears. These tasks, by nature, are regenerative and recurrent. That’s because they naturally tend to be basic life-sustaining tasks.
Unfortunately for us, this is a large proportion of what we do. Examples of these tasks include grocery shopping, day job, cooking, cleaning house, etc. Just when you think you’re done, a new day dawns and you’re at it again! Ce la vie.
That’s it for categorization. Done? Notice the acronym for the categories – RESTIP. That’s what this exercise is meant to do. To allow you to RESTIP while you are still here and engaged with the world in contrast to the RIP when we all check out!
A few pointers
It’s possible, you may struggle with categorizing some of these tasks. What if you come across a task that could belong in multiple categories? Something that is perhaps, Enjoyable and Persistent? Aren’t you so lucky? Go ahead and be a kill-joy by marking it as Persistent because those will have a special place on your list.
What if you cannot find a category to match it to at all? Simply, assign one of the above categories even if it’s not a perfect match. It is highly likely there is a bigger problem with the task, which we’ll explore in an upcoming post when we answer the question ‘Why a task belongs on your to-do list’?
As always, use common sense and your judgment. You are trying to make your life easier. Not build a spaceship.
You’ve managed to answer the question ‘What tasks belong on your to-do list?’. Next, we’ll discuss ‘Why’? Until then, RESTIP