How To-Do Lists Help You Manage Your Time

Michele Warg
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Perpetually running behind isn't the best formula for a successful career, but scrambling to finish your workload on time is pointless if you don't learn how to differentiate between advantageous and inconsequential tasks. Use to-do lists to redistribute efforts where they're most beneficial, bringing productivity and balance back to your work life.

1. Promote Transparency

Overestimating what a list can do for you sometimes makes you want to give up when your workload balloons. Keeping track of your duties and goals doesn't solve time-management problems unless you use the information to improve your prioritization skills. For one week, make a list to track everything you do at work, including time you spend doing nothing, brainstorming, having conversations or taking breaks.

Auditing your activities can help you overcome misconceptions that you don't have enough time in a day. Look for time slots when you're most and least productive, and think about which tasks affect your company and career most significantly. Review your work patterns through fresh eyes, and restructure your schedule to better suit your priorities.

2. Use Relative Comparisons

Outlining your responsibilities and the steps you have to complete to achieve them makes it easier to determine how much time to allocate in your schedule. If any task or one step in the process must be finished today, you know you have to fulfill that goal to reach the next project.

Lists also encourage you to set deadlines and stick to them whenever possible. Otherwise, you may devote unnecessary time to low- or medium-priority goals for superficial reasons. For example, don't avoid or short-change mentally draining jobs. Add the task to your schedule, commit to a time frame and move on.

3. Quantify Actions/Results

Time management often fails when people take an abstract approach to goal-setting, rather than creating measurable plans. Use your self-audit to list activities and strategies that produce positive results to help you achieve that success over and over again. For example, if records show you save the company money by checking inventory every two weeks instead of monthly, recognize the value of devoting more time to auditing supplies.

Make sure you understand how different types of results all contribute to company value, whether it's organizational efficiency, profit, innovation or goodwill. This is especially true if your job heavily involves conversations, brainstorming or intellectual problem-solving. Those obligations may seem secondary to concrete tasks, such as drafting a newsletter or screening applicants, but they should be integral to your schedule if they advance the business.

4. Improve Communication

Telling your boss you have too much to do may send the message that you aren't a team player or lack self-discipline. On the other hand, taking on too many burdens can negatively impact your performance. If you're not sure what to complete first, ask your manager what goals to prioritize. Use your list to provide proof of your workload, giving your boss a realistic picture of what you're juggling. The priorities of upper management may change without your knowledge, so checking in helps you avoid wasting time on low-priority tasks.

When budgeting your professional time, aim for quality over quantity. Use lists to filter out distracting tasks and concentrate on goals that help the company thrive.

Photo Courtesy of Prakairoj at


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Duncan work smarter, not harder. @Jane thought that what she was doing would make her stand head and shoulders above her coworkers when, instead, it made her look like she couldn't handle the load so she had to work more hours than anyone else. See if you can't take several tasks and combine them together, Are you doing over and above your job description? If so, then you need to discuss this with your supervisor. Let him see what you are doing. Maybe some of the tasks that you are performing could be handed off to a coworker who has a lighter schedule. Maybe you could request to work one extra day a month - say on a Saturday - with pay, of course, in order to complete your to-do list. Bottom line is that if you stay overwhelmed and overburdened for a length of time, you are going to experience burnout and start looking for a new position. If you like your position, talk to your supervisor - sooner rather than later.

  • Duncan  Maranga
    Duncan Maranga

    While I agree with the concept of aiming for quality instead of quantity when allocating professional time, I need some clarification on knowing what the company management actually needs versus what I think they need. How can I still deliver quality work when I am expected to handle a mountain of work within a stipulated time line, without compromising on the quantity requirements from my boss?

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    Taking on too much work seems like a good idea at first, but like you said, it can be a burden. At a company I worked for many years ago, my to-do list was twice as long as anyone else's. I learned the hard way that my overachieving was not appreciated because I was working too hard for too many hours above and beyond the job requirements. While I thought I was helping myself stand out from other employees, curing the deficiencies in their work, upper management not only didn't appreciate the load I was carrying, they reprimanded me for it. In addition to work-life balance, the workplace itself also requires its own internal balancing act.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    I love the idea of auditing your activities. All too often we think that we have a shortage of time and put things off. However, if we paid attention to how often we spend on things such as social media, mobile games, and texting and chatting, we would quickly realize how much more time we really have to accomplish our tasks.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    I agree that breaking down your tasks into steps is helpful, however, I don't think you should stray from listing all tasks at once. If it needs to get done, it should be on the list. It may be helpful to plan long-term, too.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @William check out for some great programs to help with your to-do lists.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    Do you know of any tools that can help manage my to-do lists? I have several going at once because I have lists for both work and home. Those lists break down further into various projects I have going all at once. A to-do list manager would be a valuable asset to me.

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