Be a Granny about Productivity: Make a List

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If I’m not on deadline, it takes me awhile to finish things. It’s as though if there’s no end, there’s no urgency, which I admit disturbs me a tiny bit. But I’ve realized something. If I make a list and cross off tasks as I complete them, I get a lot more done, and fewer things slip through the cracks.


Some people make super long lists of things-to-do each day. These lists are so comprehensive and so detailed that unless they remains chained to their desks the entire day working at a furious pace, they almost have no chance of completing everything that’s there. This is not productive. In fact, daunting to-do lists actually invite a lack of productivity, not to mention stress. And looking at that long list of not-completed work could conceivably drive you nuts, especially if you add more to it the next day.


Consider. If someone offered you hundreds of variations of your favorite food, and told you, ‘Choose three in the next five seconds or you get nothing,’ you’d probably spend the first three-and-a-half seconds sputtering and goggling at the bounty before you, and the remaining second and a half blindly grabbing the first things that came to mind. Not a terribly effective strategy, right? Think what you could be missing. And you would think of what you missed, later, while you were stuffing your face with what’s left.


A too long list of things-to-do is similar to the aforementioned scenario in that unless things are prioritized according to their importance, their level of complexity or their deadline, you could very well sit there and stare at the list like, whoa. Then you might put your head down and cry. No, no. Of course you wouldn’t. You’d probably howl in a feral way and defenestrate the list and your computer. Kidding. A better solution is to create a doable list with no more than five major to-dos and perhaps as many would-be-nice-to-dos.

Then prioritize tasks according to their importance, how long they may take to complete (this could help determine how many tasks you take on in a day), and get to work. Extremely clever list makers even schedule time to take breaks. So don’t forget to allow some random time for things that crop up: meetings with the boss to discuss how fabulous you are, an urgent need to visit the vending machine, the chatty Cathy or Clifford who sits nearby and loves to tell you all about his/her girl/boyfriend ad nauseum, ad infinitum.


Presenting an organized and proactive face at work is one of those intangible goods in your career development arsenal that can score points with the powers that be. You know what points I mean? Those invisible points that your supervisor or boss or whoever it is that oversees your work is tallying on an invisible or perhaps visible list of why you should or should be given a raise and/or promoted.


On my very first job out of college, I worked for a publishing company that produced training materials for aspiring CPAs. My co-worker and soon-to-be friend, we’ll call her S, worked in the cubicle next to mine. I’ve always been a tidy desk keeper. Papers and records were almost immediately filed away and work forms were parceled where I could lay my hands on them immediately in labeled folders. S was not. There were piles of papers so huge stacked on her desk that if she leaned into the middle, which she often did, you couldn’t even see her, and she was a tall girl. A promotion opportunity came up. I applied for it and got it, despite the fact that I was the newest employee and one of the youngest. S never spoke to me again. But really, what did she expect? The boss knew that the program coordinator position I was up for required a lot of organizational ability: scheduling instructors, monitoring equipment deliveries, scouting class venues—this, that and the other. Was he going to risk the success of his program on someone who couldn’t master rudimentary filing and might conceivably have outstanding work problems loitering in one of those gargantuan desk piles? Short answer? No.


It often helps to take a little time before you even launch into the day’s prescribed activities to visualize things being completed easily and in due course, and plot out a course of action, essentially how you plan to get things done, what resources you require or who you may need to help you. This, of course, may require another list…

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