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6 Reasons Why Your To List Is Useless

Do you have a To Do list?

How useful do you find it?

These are two questions I often ask when I’m training people to be more productive and to use their time well. The answers are usually, “Yes” and “Not very”.

When I look at the To Do lists that people have, I’m not surprised that they’re not very useful. They tend to suffer from the same problems. Here are 6 reasons why your To Do list is probably useless.

  1. It’s far too long. It is literally a list of everything you could possibly do. Every time you think of another task, it goes on the list until that list is so overwhelming your heart sinks when you look at it and it saps all your energy.
  2. It’s not prioritised. That’s why it’s so long. There’s no distinction between tasks which are long-term, medium-term or urgent. It doesn’t help you decide what you should be doing now, then what you should do next – which is the whole point of a To Do list.
  3. The items are too vague and ill-defined. Some examples I’ve seen are – “marketing”, “prepare for presentation”, “product training”. These are potentially huge items which are actually a collection of many smaller tasks. Writing them in this way does not help you see exactly what you need to do. Just breaking them down into their component steps is a task in itself.
  4. You never review and amend it (this is why it’s too long – see Point 1). The list just goes on. Every time you think of a new task, you write it on the list. Some have been there for months. Now and again, you’ll sit down and write a new list, copying items from the old one. It’s like moving house and taking piles of junk you’ve never used from the old attic to put into the new one.
  5. You don’t even look at it anyway. It sits on your desk or on your computer because you were told you should have a To Do list, but you don’t actually use it to guide what you do each day. In fact, you often end up doing things which were never on the list and, occasionally, you’ll then write those things on the list so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off.
  6. You can’t stick to one thing and get it done. When you do try to do something that’s on the list, you end up getting distracted, bored or interrupted and go off and do something else. You can’t seem to get anything finished.

What’s the answer? To be of any use to you, as To Do list needs to be:

  • Short
  • Specific
  • Prioritised
  • Action – focused

A To Do list should help you decide what you should be doing at any given time. Large tasks need to be broken down into smaller ones and they need to be expressed in terms of actions – start each item with a verb, e.g.

  • “ring the client to discuss payment of the outstanding invoice”
  • “write a brief outline of my presentation”
  • “circulate the agenda for Monday’s meeting and ask for comments”

The items also need to be prioritised – which ones need to be done first? It helps to put a deadline next to them, also a timescale – how long will each one take? That can help you to see when they can be fitted into your planning.

Now pick 3 items which are your priorities and work through these one by one. If you’re interrupted, decide whether it’s more important to deal with the interruption (e.g. a phone call or email) or to get on with what you’re doing.

And delegate as much as possible. Go through your list and see how many things could be done by someone else.

Follow these guidelines and you may find that your To Do list becomes a useful planning tool rather than another waste of your time.

The Triple Whammy Of Poor Delegation

Whenever I deliver any training on management in general, or time management in particular, the subject of delegation always causes a lot of discussion. And it’s one of those topics where people say, ” Yes, I know I should do it, but…”

The funny thing is, whoever it is I’m working with, I can predict how that sentence is going to end. Because the same excuses, sorry, reasons for not delegating always come out.

“I know I should delegate more but…it’s quicker to do it myself/I need to know it’s going to be done properly/I’ll only have to spend time checking it anyway” or some variation on that theme.

Most reasons for not delegating come down to a lack of trust in the people who work for you. You don’t delegate because you don’t think they’ll do a good enough job.

Of course, this is self-defeating. If you don’t delegate, people will never learn how to do the tasks you need them to do, so you’ll keep doing them yourself…and so on.

Yes, delegation will involve some investment of your time at first because you will need to train people to do the tasks correctly. You will need to review their work, help them when necessary and give them feedback. But the end result should be that they will, at some point, become skilled enough for you to leave them alone to get on with that task, saving you time in the long run.

Actually, although this is usually the stated reason why people don’t delegate, there are others which people don’t like to admit but which are often the real barriers.

For example, many managers don’t delegate enough because they haven’t made the mental shift into management. What I mean is, they haven’t realised that their job now is more about managing other people in order to get things done rather than doing things themselves.

When you become a manager, you should leave behind many of the tasks you used to do. Those are now someone else’s job and you should be delegating those tasks to them so they can learn how to do them (in the same way that you learned).

One of the reasons that many managers I work with are so overworked is because they are still doing tasks associated with their previous role as well as all the new tasks they are meant to be taking on. So no wonder they don’t get to go home on time.

Another reason many people don’t delegate is, not because they don’t trust other people to do things correctly, but because they don’t trust them to do things in exactly the same way they would themselves. In other words, some managers seem to think they know the best, in fact the only, way to do something. And they don’t want someone else having a go and trying to do it differently.

What amazes some managers is finding out that there can be different ways to approach a task. And what amazes them even more is finding out that some of these new ways may be more effective than their old ways. I worked with a manager recently who said he was genuinely surprised that, when he eventually delegated a job to one of his team, that person came up with a new way of doing it which was far quicker and more efficient than the way he had been doing it himself for years.

Whatever the reasons, a failure to delegate effectively can cause serious problems. In fact, it can be a “triple whammy”.

First of all, it causes problems for the managers because, as I’ve mentioned, they end up working far harder than is necessary and may struggle to find time to carry out their management roles because of spending too much time on tasks which are no longer appropriate.

Secondly, this causes problems for the people in the team who should be learning and developing by taking on the tasks which the managers should be delegating. They can become underworked and underskilled, frustrated by the lack of opportunity caused by the managers hogging all the work.

Thirdly, all this causes problems for the organisation. Apart from having overworked managers and underdeveloped staff, there is a commercial impact. Work is being done at the wrong level. Instead of being passed down the chain, it is being moved up as managers continue to do things they should have left behind. Since managers are presumably paid more, this means that the work is more expensive. It costs more than it should to get things done, so the business becomes less profitable.

So a failure to delegate is not a minor issue, it can be a major problem. It is one of the critical management skills and one which managers, and organisations, need to take very seriously.

What’s The Point Of Meetings?

I’m still amazed at the tales I hear from people on my courses of the time they spend in meetings which seem to have no purpose and achieve nothing.

It annoys me, to be honest, because if you asked some organisations to let people spend half a day a week, say, in training workshops, they would say, “We don’t have time for that. People are too busy.”

But change the words “training workshops” to “meetings” and they’re more than happy to allow the time, even though nothing useful gets done.

Lots of meetings still happen because, “It’s Monday, we always have a staff meeting on a Monday”. And, of course, once you get people in a room, they feel they have to come up with something to justify being there so they never just say, “No, we don’t seem to have anything to talk about today, let’s leave it at that and get back to work.”

Which raises the whole question – what’s the point of meetings? What are meetings for?

I think you should only have a meeting if you are going to do any of the following:

  • generate ideas
  • share opinions
  • discuss and debate ideas
  • review or plan activities
  • make decisions
  • agree actions

You should NOT have a meeting just to:

  • distribute information
  • let people to report back on what’s happening in their team or department, unless this leads to any of the other activities listed above
  • see whether anyone has anything they want to talk about

Like training workshops, meetings should be active. They should get people involved, talking, moving around, working together. They should not involve the participants sitting listening for long periods of time while one person drones on about what they’ve been doing.

Meetings don’t need to be a waste of time. In fact, there are lots of ways to make them interesting and useful. But it starts with asking yourself the question – what’s the point of this meeting? If only more people asked themselves that question before organising meetings, there would be a lot less time wasted

Delegating Work, Dumping and ” Don’t Do That! “

Back in the days when I was a Tax Consultant, one of my jobs was to negotiate with clients who were quibbling about their bills ( I know, the nerve of some people ).

One of the Partners I worked for used to say, ” Go out and see them and agree how much they’re going to pay. ” When I asked how much scope I had for discounting the bill if it came to that, he always said, ” I’ll leave it up to you. Do whatever you think is best. ”

Now, that sounds like good management, delegating work and giving me some responsibility ( or ” ownership ” or ” empowerment “, to use two examples of modern jargon ).

The problem was, if I came back and said I’d agreed they could have a 10% discount, for example, he’d go mad and say, ” What? Why did you agree to that? “ 

That’s the problem with giving people some scope to make decisions, they may make ones you don’t like. And that’s a problem with delegating work – how much authority do you give people to make decisions or to use their own judgement?

There are two extremes of delegating. The first is delegating as dumping – where you just drop a task on someone and leave them to sink or swim ( usually sink ) with no guidance or support.

The other extreme is where you give them the task, then stand over their shoulder, saying, ” No, don’t do it like that! ” I’ve worked for people who did that, they’re called micromanagers or control freaks or other colourful terms which I can’t repeat here.

So how do you decide how much authority or responsibility to give someone when you’re delegating work to them?

As you might guess, the answer is ” it depends “. On what? Well, on:

  • their level of experience
  • your confidence in their judgement
  • the importance of the task
  • the consequences of them making a poor decision
  • how much you want to use the task to motivate and develop them

 When you delegate, the other person needs to know certain things, such as:

  • what the end result is that you want from them
  • what the deadline is for completing the task
  • how much scope they have for making decisions
  • in what circumstances they should come back to you for help
  • when you want them to report back on progress
  • the resources available to use
  • what the purpose of the task is and why you’ve chosen them to do it

In some cases, if a task is fairly routine, you may not need to say much because the other person may already know the answer to most of these questions. Having said that, it’s still possible to make false assumptions about what the person knows so it’s best to check. 

Then, once the person has begun the task, you may not need to supervise them much, just to be available if they need help. 

With non – routine tasks, say ones which the other person hasn’t done much before, you may need to carry out quite a comprehensive briefing to make sure everything is clear.

Then, when they’re working on the task, you may need to have regular points at which you review progress and deal with any problems which have arisen. 

In terms of giving people authority to make decisions, this may be part of the learning process for them. You may do this to help them gain experience and confidence. 

In the example of my negotiating fees with clients, this was part of the plan. Where it went wrong was that the Partner had a fixed idea of how much room there was for haggling and it would have been helpful if he had let me in on that piece of information instead of keeping it to himself until I got back. 

So it’s a bit of an art deciding how much freedom to give people when you’re delegating work. You want to give them enough to build their confidence, develop their experience and motivate them ( because micromanaging does none of these things ). But you also need to give them support and guidance so they aren’t left to flounder and, if there are specific limits to the judgements they can make ( e.g. how much discount to allow a client ), they need to know about this at the start.

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Effective Meetings – The Curse Of A.O.B.

Have you ever been in a meeting which looked as if it was just about to end, when the person chairing it looked around and said the dreaded words, ” Any other business? ”

This is where you cross your fingers and hope that no – one says anything. But, of course, they always do. There’s always someone who has been waiting just for this moment. This is their chance to take the stage, to get everyone’s attention and to keep them trapped in the room when they’re desperate to get out.

A. O. B. is a good example of what is wrong with so many meetings. In my opinion, it should be banned. Why? Well, since you ask…

What are some characteristics of a well – prepared and well – run meeting? ( What do you mean, you don’t know, you’ve never seen one? )

One feature is that everyone at the meeting knows why it has been called, what it is for and why they are there.

This doesn’t always happen, of course, but it should. Meetings should have a clear purpose and a defined outcome, e.g. to make a decision, to agree a course of action, to brainstorm ideas.

A good meeting will also have an agenda agreed and circulated in advance so that everyone knows what is going to be discussed. They will have a chance to think about the issues and to prepare, if necessary.

The agenda will give start and end times, perhaps even timings for the individual items.

Once the meeting is underway, there should be no great surprises in terms of what is discussed because everyone saw the agenda.

The person chairing it will keep to the timings ( don’t laugh, it can happen ) and will make sure the meeting ends on time.

Any items discussed will have a purpose beyond simply giving out information, because that can be done in other ways, it doesn’t usually need people to be in the same room. The meeting is for people to DO something with the information, e.g. use it to create ideas, to make decisions.

This might seem an ideal situation, but only because so many meetings are so poorly prepared and run. Most people’s experience is of long – winded meetings which don’t seem to achieve anything and which go on too long, with some people apparently speaking for the sake of hearing their own voice.

A. O. B. encourages this. In fact, it encourages all the bad aspects of meetings.

It allows people to hijack the meeting, to raise their own pet issues which may not have any place in that particular meeting and which the other people there may not need to hear about. Some people just want to take advantage of the fact that they have a captive audience to sound off about something or make some announcement which could just as well be made on another occasion.

It sits there like an unexploded bomb, waiting to destroy the whole agenda and the timing of the meeting. Because the person chairing it has no idea what issues will come up or how long they will take.

It discourages proper, informed discussion because people will not be prepared to discuss the issues raised, they have had no time to think about them.

And, because A. O. B. tends to come at the end of the meeting, people are not in the best frame of mind to discuss anything anyway because they just want to leave.

So, what’s the solution? How can you deal with A. O. B. if you are chairing a meeting? Well, if you want to be radical ( and why not? ) just outlaw the whole idea of ” Any Other Business “. If the meeting is properly planned, there shouldn’t be any.

Alternatively, if you still want to have it as an option, ask people right at the start of the meeting if there is any essential business they need to add, then ask what it is and make a decision about how long you can allocate for the item. Then stick to that timing so it doesn’t wreck the whole meeting.

In case you think I live on another planet, I do realise that this often isn’t possible ( or wise ) if the person who keeps raising spurious A. O. Bs is your boss or some other senior bigwig. However, most people do appreciate well – run meetings ( even bigwigs ) and it may be possible to gradually introduce more efficient procedures if enough people are aware of them, start to put them into practice and show the benefits that arise in terms of time and productivity.

The Great Time Management Fraud

Something has struck me from talking to a number of managers recently. It’s a tendency many of us have to hide a whole range of issues under the umbrella of “ Time Management “.

This is particularly relevant where the supposed Time Management issue is procrastination, or putting things off.

I don’t know about you, but I have a number of strategies for putting things off, in fact I sometimes use several at once ( who says men can’t multitask? ). These include:

  • “ thinking about it “ as in “ I just need to give it a bit more thought, you can’t rush these things. “
  • “ I’ll do it when..“ as in “ I’ll make those phone calls when I’m sure I’ve got an up to date list. “
  • waiting for motivation to strike,“ I need to be in the right mood. “
  • suddenly finding other things endlessly fascinating, such as checking for emails or tidying up that pile of papers.

If you suffer from similar complaints, it’s easy to put them down to “ Time Management “ because it seems your problem is not getting things done.

So you think you might benefit from reading some ideas on TM ( I got sick of typing it out ) so you read a book about it or go on a course.

But that won’t help – because the problem isn’t really to do with TM, at least not in the sense that you need a better system for planning or keeping track of your time. The question is WHY you are putting things off. Dealing with it as a TM problem is like treating the symptom rather than the cause.

For example, as a business owner, I know I should ring people to follow up meeting them or sending them something. But I tend to put this off.

Why? Because I fear rejection. I don’t like ringing people I hardly know in case they take it badly and are horrible to me.

It’s my emotional reaction to the thought of ringing them that holds me back. To get round it, I have to remind myself that, when I have done it, no – one has actually been nasty to me, that I am ringing them because I do want to get to know them better and, if I’m offering them some service, it’s something I sincerely believe will help them. In fact, the more I do it, the better I feel about it because my experience is generally positive.

Another reason I sometimes put it off is because I haven’t properly worked out what I want to achieve by it. I’m not sure what I want to say to them, what I want to ask them to do. In that case, I really do need to think about it a bit more so I’m clear about why I’m doing it. Until I’ve tackled that, I’ll keep putting it off because I feel anxious about it.

That’s why I say it’s not really a TM problem. It’s not that I haven’t got the time to do it. I don’t want to do it – for a number of reasons.

TM is all about making choices. What you get done in a day is all about the decisions you make. You may try to blame other people if you feel you’ve lost time, or you may put it down to bad planning, but in the end YOU have made the decisions. When you decide to do one thing, you’re deciding NOT to do something else.

What you need to do is to work out WHY you make the decisions you make. When you analyse that, you may well find that there are other issues lurking beneath the cloak of TM such as fear of rejection, self – doubt, lack of confidence, conflicting values, lack of clear goals. All these things can be dealt with, but only once they’re recognised.

If they stay hidden beneath the surface, and you only try to deal with the TM issues, you won’t get to grips with them.

So, next time you succumb to procrastination, give yourself a good talking to and work out just what’s going on. Then tackle the root cause, not the symptom.

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