What do you do first thing every work day?

When I have asked this question of business people, I usually get answers along the lines of checking emails or answering phone messages. This reactionary way of time organization is not recommended. You are literally allowing other people — the ones that made the call or sent the email — to set your priorities.

One of the most productive life strategies is to live deliberately; do not become a victim of life, but make life happen. This applies to our work days as well as our personal lives. Our time should not be a victim of our emails or phone messages. Our time should be spent deliberately.

Lists are a powerful tool for doing so.

The functionality of a list is staggering:

  • The generation of a list is a form of prioritization. With a prioritized list, we still may not get everything done, but the most important things will get done before the less important things
  • Less important things will not be forgotten. If they did not get done on one list, they can be carried over to the next list until they rise to a priority sufficient for completion. Or, there may be a realization that it really is not important
  • A list does a magnificent job of compensating for bad memories
  • A list is a great communication tool. An employee can share their list with their supervisor to insure the priorities are shared. An employer can share their lists so that staff can understand and support their boss’ priorities.

How to develop a list may not be intuitive for everyone. Here are some tips:

  • Always have a means to document an emerging to-do item. A piece of paper in your pocket; notes on your smartphone; a journal. As action items or other items for a list become apparent, make note of them
  • Items that need to be added to a list can emerge at any time. The obvious places would be in a meeting or during a conversation, but items come up while driving your car or mowing your lawn
  • The most strategic sources for items to add to lists would be your position description and business plan. Imagine how impressive it would be during a performance review to be able to present the 37 steps you took to achieve an item on your job description!
  • Regularly (ideally, daily) compile the items from your lists into one document. Sort them by importance (how significantly will this item advance my mission or purpose or targeted outcome?) and urgency (will the impact be impaired if I do this item next week rather than this week?). While the tendency is to focus on the urgent, it may be better to get non-urgent but important things done at the expense of urgent but non-important things.

Using a list may take practice. Some people prepare their to-do list, or project list, or priority list, the evening before. Others do it first thing in the morning. In any case, set a time to perform this vital task and do it, every day, all the time, always. If you do not, you are choosing to be a victim of your time, not benefit from it.

Refer to this list throughout your day. We may not realize it, but our day is filled with pauses — between meetings, between phone calls, between projects. At every pause, consult your list. Don’t just do what you feel like doing, but do what is next on your prioritized list.

Importantly, learn to take joy from completing an item. Check off a completed item with a smile on your face. Have a mini-celebration in your mind. Then move to the next item.

We have been focusing on lists that contain things you need to do, and for a person in business this is very practical. But consider other lists, like people that need to be thanked, or people that need praise, or things you are grateful for.

It can be a good idea to have different lists for different aspects of your job, or different aspects of your life. And if you really get into lists, you can make a list of your lists!

Dave Bartholomew is retired after a career as a business adviser to leaders around the world. He and his wife Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities. He can be reached at [email protected].

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