Sick of your todo list not getting done? If you have an overwhelming to do list, it might be doing more than just getting neglected. It mighty actually be hurting your performance in more ways than you realize.
High performance today is about being clever. It’s about working smarter, prioritizing the million things bustling for your attention, finding creative solutions and finding new opportunities to improve.
The part of our brain that is most responsible for this is called the Pre-Frontal Cortex. But while the PFC tends to do this high value thinking, it’s also responsible for some very low level stuff as well.
And here’s the real problem:
This PFC only has a limited fuel supply. If you spend you time and energy doing the low value things, it leaves less fuel for the high value things. This concept of a performance fuel tank is a good analogy. If you have burnt all your fuel – if you’re fatigued, sleep deprived, or have spent an entire day doing high level thing – then you are less able to do things like make decisions, control emotions and behaviours or think critically. That PFC doesn’t function as well.
So what has your to do list got to do with all this?
Well, one of the low value things we do is hold things in short-term memory. Think about when someone gives you a phone number when you’ve got nothing to write on. The process of remembering that number – holding it in short term memory – for two minutes while you find a pad and pen is exhausting, right? Now imagine trying to actually do a problem solving activity while you’re remembering that number? Impossible.
A similar thing happens when you have a long to-do list. Most people spend an abnormal amount of their day trying to remember what they have to do. Thinking about who you can call in the car, wondering what you have to do when you get into the office etc. And all this ‘recall’ burns a lot of cognitive ‘fuel’ – leaving less to do the really important things.
Here are some things you can do to get that to-do list under control:
1) Write everything down – in one place
When you write things down all of a sudden it signals to the PFC that it can stop trying to remember. And you free it up to do some of the more important work. What is most important about this is to make sure that everything is in one place. Most people have a few different places for their tasks – their email inbox, a spiral notebook, their outlook folders – and this only adds to the angst. Now, you don’t just have to remember what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to worry about where everything is and if you’ve overlooked something
2) Think about ‘Task Categories’, not tasks
The reality is that even if you write things down, you’re going to still try to remember what you have to do when you get to the office. You have to write two reports, return three phone calls and construct five emails. To lighten the load of these things swimming around in your head, try to think in terms of Task Categories. These might include: Business Development, Administration, Report Writing… pick the four to six categories of things that are most important and fill your day. When we think in terms of categories, we can say “when I get to the office I have to do two hours of Business Development” instead of thinking about the ten individual tasks.
This is also handy as our scope of memory is about 4-6 items. At this level, it doesn’t take as much performance fuel to keep them in our head.
3) Park Everything in a time slot
Another way to get things out of your head is to ‘park’ them in a specific time. Have you got two hours free from 12-2pm? Then schedule the tasks that you’ll get done in those two hours. For some reason, parking things is much like doing them. We can rest assured that we have found time to take care of them, so we stop worrying about them – but this only happens when we are specific about what we are going to do and when.
This also has the added benefit of stopping us from having to make decisions about what to do. Usually, when confronted with a decision, we tend to go for the easiest option. When you’ve already planned what you’re going to do, the decision is removed.
Working smarter today is about understanding how we free up resources to do our best thinking more often and for longer. This simple adjustment to managing your task list will create less stress and leave more resources available for you to do your best work.
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