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Just "To-Do" It

Having trouble getting organized? Start by getting a grip on your to-do list.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the August 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Every Sunday, John Madden creates a to-do list for the upcoming week. The co-founder of Contemporary Audio in Okemos, Michigan, jots down a dozen or so items-everything from attending a networking event to creating outlines for projects, such as a new brochure for the 11-employee audio and home entertainment products retailer.

"Every morning," Madden adds, "I write down a half-dozen things based on my weekly plans." These include to-dos on weekly projects and to-dos he didn't get to the day before. "I feel good if I can get 50 percent of my list done," he says.

Other entrepreneurs tell similar stories about to-dos, according to a survey last year of 2,000 mostly small-company executives by NFI Research of North Hampton, New Hampshire. "About everybody-95 percent-keeps a list of things to do," says Chuck Martin, CEO and chair of NFI and author of Managing for the Short Term: The New Rules for Running a Business in a Day-to-Day World. "The overwhelming majority have six to 20 items on their lists. And less than 1 percent get everything done on the list every day."

Madden uses Microsoft Outlook and a FranklinCovey day planner to create and manage his lists. Other listers employ handheld computers, paper notebooks and crumpled memo slips carried in pockets, says Martin. One even put sticky notes all over the screen of an unused PC, he adds. Some use daily lists, others weekly lists, still others weekly rolling lists like Madden's, where uncompleted tasks carry over to the next day.

Technology doesn't matter, says Martin, but technique does. He recommends entrepreneurs employ not one but two to-do lists. The master list contains a maximum of three items of long-term importance. These might be "grow sales" or "get new customers." The second list, Martin explains, contains day-to-day to-dos that represent tactical steps to completing those strategic to-dos.

All entrepreneurs should keep to-do lists, according to David Allen, a productivity consultant and author of Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work & Life. Says Allen, "It's especially critical to make sure you keep your eye on the big picture but don't lose the detail."

Allen likes to use a Palm handheld to manage his list. He categorizes all items, tagging them as projects, phone calls, errands, agenda items, work to be done at his computer or desk, things he can do anywhere, and items that aren't urgent. This approach allows him to quickly identify, for instance, a phone call he can make while waiting for a plane or an item to pick up while he's out and about.

What's most important, says Allen, is to review your list items frequently to see if they are listed correctly and should be there to begin with. "Most people just write stuff down, aren't clear about it and aren't committed to it," Allen says. "You haven't made decisions about it, you've just reminded yourself of it."

Reviewing also involves making sure that a to-do you've listed as an errand isn't really a call. Working over your list in advance daily and weekly means that, when you consult your list, you don't have to rethink your commitment and your plan right then, he says. Allen says what lies behind people's discomfort with to-do lists is feeling like they're obstacles. He says, "You should be energized and thinking you can't wait to see what you can cross off next."

For entrepreneurs like Madden, crossing off to-dos is critical to managing his business. "I have no control over a lot of things," he says. "But this is one thing I have control over. And the better I am at that, the better our business operates."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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