Get on top of your leadership to do list

Practical tips to help you get stuff done and 7 ways successful leaders keep their ‘to do’ lists in check.

How many times have you thought: ‘I’ve just got too much to do’, ‘I don’t know what to do first’, ‘My to do list is completely out of control’ or ‘I’ve got so much on I’m not actually doing anything’?

If your leadership to do list is out of control, you may have had the following advice from well-meaning friends, managers or organisations:

  • ‘Just focus on doing something simple’
  • ‘Prioritise’
  • ‘Don’t worry, everyone feels like that’
  • ‘Gosh, you think you’ve got problems, just look at the size of my list’
  • ‘We’re going to ban Zoom meetings on Fridays’

Although people mean well, their ideas often aren’t particularly helpful. So, what is helpful?

Approach ‘doing’ differently

The first step to ‘doing better’ as a leader, is to actually stop ‘doing’ for a moment. Start by reassessing that endless to do list and even your perceptions of what it means to be ‘doing’ something. 

I certainly don’t have a single solution that works for everyone, but over the years I’ve come across some behaviours that seem to work for many folks. Maybe some of them will work for you:

Give yourself permission to think

Plan to spend maybe 4-6 hours in a typical working day ‘doing things’, then spend the rest of the time thinking.

Thinking is great. Do it actively and regularly. Your brain has a brilliant capacity to work stuff out if you give it the time and space. Have a specific home for thinking on your to do list every day.

Embrace displacement

Don’t fight the urge to mow the lawn, go for a walk or clean your shoes. Embrace these moments and, while you’re doing these things, allow yourself to also think about the other things that, in your back brain, you feel you ought to be doing instead.

Muse on the bigger picture of why those other things are important to you and what it would feel like to have finished them. See if you can find a first step that you know you can accomplish that gets you on your way. Once your shoes are shining go and ‘do’ that first step.

Think about what people really need from you

You’ll have things you need to do for a whole range of different ‘customers’ – everyone from your boss to your family.

Firstly, make sure you haven’t overcomplicated what it is that they really need from you. Do that by checking in with them and quite often you’ll find the response is ‘Ah, I see that is a bigger thing than I had realised, all I really need is xxxx’ or ‘Oh, don’t worry about that I’ve already sorted it’.

Then, if they really need you to do something and you understand why, that will often give the spur you need to do exactly what your customer needs and do it more easily than you expected.

Find your own secret to do list process

Ugh, the ever growing to do list! It feels like nothing is ever knocked off and the list itself can come to represent a constant reminder of your failures.

There are some leaders who are on top of their game. You know, the ones who have time to think, are ‘in the moment’ when they talk to you, who are present in meetings and aren’t doing their emails under the desk or on their second screen.

What is their secret? Their secret will be that they have found a way of working that works for them.

If you ask them what their secret is, they might say ‘what I do is xxxxx’, but what they do won’t necessarily work for you.

So, you need to find what works for you. Use your thinking time to work out a method.

If you need some ideas to get you started, the list below should help. They are some of the things I’ve noticed top leaders doing to tackle the to do list overwhelm.

7 to do list secrets of top leaders

  1. They organise their to do lists under themes or ‘big picture’ topics so they know where they are heading and why.
  2. If something is urgent and important for them, they know why and they do it.
  3. If it is urgent and important for somebody else, they know why and they support the other person in doing it.
  4. If it isn’t urgent then it isn’t in their minds.
  5. If it isn’t important then it isn’t on their list at all.
  6. Things that are fun are allowed to be important!
  7. They don’t panic when they have a bad day or make a mistake. We all do it, and it’s OK.

So, there you have it. Hopefully there are some nuggets in here that will help you be more efficient and effective in deciding what to do.

Now I’m off to clean my shoes (again!).

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