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Who among us isn’t busy? You have a lot on your mind and multiple things to do. Finding a simple way to keep it all straight and prioritize your activities can make you more productive and a lot saner. Thankfully, there are people out there who have made it their life’s work to become expert at the art of creating and managing to-do lists in ways that can, indeed, make you more productive at work. What do they suggest?

Be systematic

Whether you’re a techie or an old-fashioned pen-and-paper kind of person, effective list-making starts with devising (and sticking to) a consistent system. You can manage your workload and manage your time more efficiently. There are complex software applications and numerous more basic online tools to help you do this, many of which sync up with other applications and mobile devices.

A systematic approach also helps you sidestep common distractions, like feeling the need to check your email every few minutes or respond immediately when you receive a new one. If it isn’t time-sensitive, ignore it. Instead, schedule a time during the day (or two or three times, depending on your work environment) to check email. Consider it a formal task, so you can check if off.

Be specific

“Finish project” doesn’t work as a to-do item, because it’s too vague. What tasks do you need to accomplish to get to that finish line? What sub-tasks apply to each task? That’s what goes on your list – individual actions. Bite-size to-dos are less intimidating and, therefore, more likely to get done. They’re measurable, so you can monitor your progress. Best of all, you get the psychological bonus of crossing more things off your list, faster. You’re on a productivity roll, and you can prove it.

Once you have all your tasks listed, you can organize them into categories, if that helps you track your work. You could categorize by project, by client, etc.

Prioritize

There are two reasons to rank the importance of tasks. First, you’re accountable to yourself – and probably others – to get the most important work done soonest. Second, there are a lot of things on that task list you just created that are not actually important, now or (in some cases) ever.

Some experts say you should cross off half your tasks, then focus on the most important 20% of those remaining. That may sound vicious, but there are only so many hours in the day. So ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that will happen if I eliminate this task?

Assign a timeline

Even among your most crucial tasks, some are timelier than others. First thing each morning (or as your last act of the business day), make a “today” to-do list. You can organize by week or month, too, if that helps. Each morning, identify the most difficult (or most hated) item on today’s list, and do that first. You’ll bring fresh brain-power to the task, and crossing that item off your list will energize you for the rest of the day.

Write things down

Note-taking is essential if you expect to be productive. You cannot and will not remember everything without capturing thoughts and information in writing and storing them where you can easily retrieve them when needed. Otherwise, you will find yourself wasting untold amounts of time hunting for something you require in order to accomplish the task at hand.

Whether you prefer writing on pieces of scrap paper and the backs of business cards or electronic capture via your phone, tablet or laptop doesn’t matter. Just take notes.

A final caveat: writing notes and making lists can surely make you more productive at work. But beware any temptation to turn list-making itself into a work-avoidance behavior. It’s a tool, so use it wisely.

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