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The Unconventional Guide to Work

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Not Getting Everything Done? Why Your To-Do List Sucks

A few months ago we set up an innocuous little survey on the WorkflowMax blog to help us understand our customers’ pain points better. We wanted to create more targeted and relevant content that would address their issues directly (and maybe even bring a smile to their face as they scrolled past the occasional GIF and bad pun).

One of the issues which keeps cropping up in the survey responses is that of time management. More specifically...not finding the time to do everything!

Harvard Business Review calls to-do lists “a million dollar opportunity”. This post discusses how re-thinking the humble to-do list can give you back your time. So whether you’re a compulsive list-maker, a serial productivity app downloader, or simply want to know what NOT to do when it comes to to-do lists and productivity, read on my friend, because this blog post is for you!

Mistake 1: You’re collecting apps

“Finding the right tool to track your to-dos is highly personal, and one person's best is another's junk” – via Lifehacker

Whenever a new productivity app hits the store or gets a glowing review in Netted, you just know it’s going to solve all of your problems. It’s beautiful, well designed, and has already racked up a few decent reviews. Of course you download it immediately, have a quick play and then, because you have tons of stuff to do, figure you’ll get back to it later.

Only you never do (you’re too busy!)...and thus into the graveyard of productivity apps your new toy goes, quickly outliving its moment of glory. Trust me, I know the feeling – only instead of “to-do” apps my vice is fitness tracking apps. So let’s break the habit together!

Here are some tips to help:

  • Clear out the apps you’re not using; Pretty basic right, but just like your room needs the occasional once over, so does your phone. Why use up precious space with unused apps that only create clutter and confusion?
  • Get familiar with the app’s features; These days most apps come with tutorial videos, support documentation (depending on how complex it is), testimonials and contact details for help.

Mistake 2: Out of sight out of mind

This is easy to do if you’re guilty of Mistake 1 as well. Downloading a bunch of productivity apps, grouping them into a meaningless category called “productivity” and then promptly forgetting about them is counter-productive.

So what should you do?

  • Minimise the number of apps you have (refer back to tips in 1)
  • Make sure your app(s) are easy to find on your preferred device (e.g. not hidden on the 5th window of your iPhone's hoem screen!)
  • When sorting apps into folders or groups, make sure to choose a logical naming convention!

Mistake 3: You’re trying to do everything

“The longer your list, the less you accomplish” – Wired

I know making lists can be addictive; the more to-dos you add, the more productive you feel. But are you compulsively adding everything to the list, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate? And then padding it out with excessive detail?

A to-do list shouldn’t be endless (think about how daunting that would be!) and definitely should be specific. Consider the difference between “Finish Project” as an item on your list and “Finish Webpage Layout Draft 1”...!

Here are some tips to help:

  • Try delegating your tasks. A great manager or project lead knows how to let go of control and empower others in the team. Assigning tasks to staff members is one great way of doing this or using the collaboration feature your tool offers.
  • Be brutal. Is everything on the list really necessary? If you don’t want to delete it outright, at least archive old lists so they’re hidden away from sight but still there if you need them.
  • Ask if there’s a better way. For example, could you leave a quick post-it note on a colleague’s desk, rather than input a specific “action item” in your list? Or could something be resolved by a direct conversation?

Mistake 4. You’re not organising your list

If you’re not prioritising the items in your list how will you know where to start? Trying to do everything all at once is a surefire way to set yourself up to fail.

Some apps give you the ability to “pin” tasks to the top of a list, add colour categories or even offer the option of tagging with hashtags for easy searching and filtering.

My favourite way of keeping my lists nice and tidy is to have a master group and sub-tasks or categories within it.

Our supremely organised product team uses Trello to provide a big picture overview of upcoming releases; they group projects by due date, such as “immediate”, “within two weeks” etc. Anyone assigned to the card gets notified when a change occurs, and you can open up the card to dig deeper for more detail. at

Mistake 5: You’re not setting reminders

When you’re trying to keep on top of multiple jobs, deadlines and milestones, setting basic reminders is incredibly useful. Most planning/scheduling apps have this functionality – so make sure you’re taking full advantage of it! In WorkflowMax notifications can be created to alert you when:

  • The state of a job changes
  • New tasks, notes or documents have been added to the job
  • The actual time on a job or task is approaching or has exceeded the estimated time
  • The due date of a job or task is approaching or has exceeded the estimated due date

Tip: When creating notifications try not to have too many or include the wrong people in a notification. The more relevant a notification is, the greater the chance it will be read and actioned!

Mistake 6: You’re using someone else’s system

“There's task management methods that'll fit you perfectly—and others that'll never work for you no matter how hard you try” – via Zapier

All right, can we just pause for one second and recognise that we’re all different, beautiful unique human beings. Hallelujah.

Sure, streamlining the way your team communicates is important, but for personal workflow management, there often is no “blanket solution”. Are you more of a visual person? Do you need to have a physical system offline? Does an endless 10 page Excel spreadsheet do your head in?

Understanding your way of working is the first step to finding a solution that’s right for you!

Zapier put together a comprehensive guide on the best apps for personal task management – head over there and compare the reviews to your heart’s content. But my top 5 favourites are:

  • TeuxDeux; Great if you like a visual overview of your entire week in a calendar format, this “simple, designy to-do app”, lets you add to-dos as you go and check items off as you complete them. If you didn’t quite manage to get to everything, unfinished items will automatically be moved to the next day.
  • To Round; Are you a visual thinker? Want a to-do list that’s more entertaining? Try this neat little app, which lets you create tasks as bubbles and prioritise by bubble size.
  • Todoist; With the motto that “Keeping life in order shouldn’t be this hard”, Todoist is a simple and flexible productivity app that helps you “spend as little time as possible organizing and more time doing”.
  • Google Keep; Require a great deal of flexibility? This app lets you capture your thoughts in any format. I love how simple, visual and effortless it is – you can collect and organise anything and everything, easily drag and drop notes to reorder them, capture, edit, share, and collaborate on your notes on any device, anywhere. The design is minimal and uncomplicated, designed to help you work at your best.
  • And well...good old fashioned pen and paper. Vogue said it perfectly when it stated “there’s still something about a crisp new planner that is just irresistible”. So if you’re more the daily planner/diary type, there are plenty of inspirational options to get your hands on. Check out Kikki.K’s gorgeous collection of notebooks and planners, Mi Goals “get shit done” books, Good F*cking Design Advice, or of course Moleskine’s extensive range of notebooks.

At the end of the day, a to-do list is there to serve you, and your workflow process, to help you remember, organise and prioritise your tasks. By re-vamping your to-do list and steering clear of the 6 mistakes we mention, get your time back so you can keep doing what you love!

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