Try this technique with your to-do list?

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Did you notice that the title of this message is phrased as a question? It’s done that way on purpose, to illustrate a “hack” for breathing new life into tasks that are languishing on your list. 

The idea is that by phrasing the task as a question, you will think about it in a different light. You’ll either see the value of doing the task or give yourself permission not to. 

Let’s say you have a task you know you should do but don’t really have to do and have been putting off. Something like calling a professional contact to get caught up.  

On your list: “Call Joe Johnson”. Re-written: “Call Joe Johnson?”

When you read the task as a statement, it leaves you cold. You see it as a chore and your attention wanders off to other items on your list. 

Phrased as a question, however, you may start thinking about an interesting aspect of the task or the value of completing it. 

You may think about a case Joe told you about and be curious about the outcome. You might remember something interesting about his personal life. You might recall your last conversation about football, the referral you gave him last year, or a marketing idea you and he discussed. 

In this light, you may be inspired to make that call. 

In the words of the author of the article, phrasing the task as a question can help “Rekindle the excitement that made you write it down.”

Sometimes, converting a task into a question is as simple as adding a question mark, he says. Sometimes, you need to rephrase the task. And no, this doesn’t work for everything and it is subject to losing its effectiveness if you use it too often. 

But worth a try. Or rather, worth a try?


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How to choose the right tasks to do today

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Yesterday, I said that a good way to avoid being overwhelmed by a large to-do list is to make a list of 3-5 tasks you are committed to doing today and putting everything else out of the way (on other lists). I said your “today” list should be comprised of your most urgent and import tasks, but how do you decide what those are?

Urgent is pretty easy. These are tasks you must do today or bad things will happen. One expert says urgent tasks are ones you would be willing to stay late at the office to finish. If it can wait until tomorrow, it’s not urgent.

Works for me. But what about “important” tasks? How do we choose those?

One way to do that is to “start with the end in mind,” as Covey says, and work backward. That means first deciding on the outcomes you want to achieve today, this week, or relatively soon. Once you know the outcomes, brainstorm what you have to do to accomplish them, or take the next step in that direction.

If one of your desired outcomes this week is to file a motion in an important case, you would first write down all of the necessary action steps (e.g., assemble a factual time line, research, write points and authorities, write a declaration, write the first draft, and so on). From that list, you would choose what to do first and put that on your to-do list for today.

If a desired outcome this week is to get at least one referral from your professional contacts, possible actions would include going through your database to identify professionals you want to contact, writing emails, and making phone calls. Put one or more of those tasks on your list for today.

Now, how do you decide on the outcomes you want to achieve? By first looking at your goals. But that’s a subject for another day.

How to use Evernote for getting things done

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Getting things done by re-thinking the definition of a to-do list

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No matter what task management system you use, or even if you don’t use one at all, the odds are you have a seemingly endless list of things to do.

You might keep them in an app. You might keep them on paper. You might keep them in your head. But there’s your list, a mile long and growing every day, overwhelming you to the point where you don’t want to look at it anymore.

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

But I have a new weapon in the battle of wits between my lists and my sanity and you may want to use it.

It starts with thinking about a to-do list as simply a list of things to do TODAY.

Not tomorrow or next week. Today.

It is a list of 3 to 5 tasks you are committed to doing today because they are urgent or important.

Take a deep breath and imagine a list of ONLY 3 to 5 tasks. That’s a list you can and will do.

If you find yourself resisting a task, break it up into 15-minute bites. You’ll be less likely to procrastinate when “it’s only 15 minutes”.

You can also use 15-minute increments for bigger projects. I’m working on something right now that’s tedious and will take many hours to complete. I had put it off for a long time but I’m doing it now because my task list only commits me to 15 minutes. I can do more than 15 minutes if I want to, and I often do, but only if I want to.

Yay me.

Now, what do you do if you have more than 5 important or urgent things to do today? You keep them on a second list.

Your first list (today) has your most important or urgent tasks on it. Your second list is what to do after you’ve taken care of those tasks.

Your second list has no more than 15 or 20 tasks on it. It includes other things you need to do today, and things you need to do in the next week or so. Or things you’d like to consider doing.

When you have completed the tasks on your today list, you look at list number two and choose additional tasks.

Two lists: 3 to 5 most important tasks you are committed to doing today. 15 to 20 back-up or “next” tasks.

Check your today list frequently throughout the day. Check your second list once a day, after you have finished your today list.

Put everything else–all of the someday/maybes, ideas, things you’re not committed to doing–on a third list. Check that list once a week. Skim through it and find things to put on your first two lists and then put your third list away until the following week.

I’ve been doing this for about a week and it’s making a big difference in how I feel about my lists and in my overall productivity. My lists are much more manageable and much less daunting.

And, you can use this with any other task management system because it’s basically a way to combat overwhelm by limiting the number of tasks in front of you and the amount of time you commit to doing them.

One more thing.

While your first two lists are purposefully limited in number, list number three (everything else) will no doubt grow to hundreds of entries, many of which don’t need to be considered each week. To keep list number three from overwhelming you, at some point, you’ll want to segment it so that you don’t have to look at every task or idea on it every week.

You can do that by creating sub-lists or by using software to label or tag items to consider at some point in the future or under certain specified conditions. I have a list of more than 1000 blog post ideas, for example, but I only look at that list occasionally.

How to use Evernote for getting things done

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You want to be more productive? Ask yourself this question every day.

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I get it. You’re incredibly busy. You have way too much to do and not enough time to do it. You’re getting things done but wonder if you’re doing enough.

Take a breath. Stop worrying about how much you’re not getting done.

The truth is you’ll never get it all done and it doesn’t matter. Being productive isn’t about how much you do, it’s about doing what’s important.

Take a look at your to-do list for today. All the calls and emails, the errands, the work that is on deadline. Lots of things you have to do and you will get most of them done.

Because you have to.

You’ll file that motion because it’s due. You’ll make that call because the other guy is waiting. You’ll write that letter because you want to settle the case.

But what about the important things you don’t have to do? Things that will advance your career or improve your life but don’t have a deadline or someone else waiting or watching?

This is the sweet spot in your growth. This is where you advance towards your long term goals. This is where you find your purpose instead of just taking care of your obligations.

Every day, when you write down your to-do list, I suggest you ask yourself this question:

“What is the most important thing I can do today that I don’t have to do?”

Your answer may be “to start exercising” because you want to get in shape. It’s important but you don’t have to do it. Now, at least you are aware of what’s important.

If you ask yourself that question again tomorrow and you get the same answer, you might pick up that exercise book you bought three years ago and put it on your desk. The next day you might actually read the first chapter.

It might be six months before you do your first push up or register for that hot yoga class, and that’s okay. You may never have done it if you had not asked yourself, “What is the most important thing I can do today that I don’t have to do?”

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