When “To Do” Becomes “Too Due”

or, the Ballad of Gary and Steve

Almost everyone I know has a “To Do” list that runs to several pages–if, indeed, it’s all in one place. At the bottom are some low-priority items that languish for weeks, maybe months, while the more important things get priority.

One day, for whatever reason, we realize how long some tasks have been pending. “I’ve just got to get that done and off the list,” we say. This is the moment when “To Do” has become “Too Due.” How do we handle it?

I once worked with two guys named Gary and Steve. They were totally unlike one another, yet together they were a powerhouse at getting work done. I’ve found that by combining elements of their work styles, I can clear some “Too Due” tasks quickly.

Gary was a planner and organizer–he seemed to have infinite patience for reviewing any project. He would lay out work orders over an entire table, scanning, sorting and matching information against the work order database that was my primary responsibility. By the time Gary was done with a pile of work, no matter how high, it was organized, prioritized and seemed manageable.

That’s when Steve took over. Steve had the attention span of a hyperactive three-year-old, but he could churn out enormous amounts of work. He would take a stack of Gary’s neatly organized work orders and dash around the building getting work completed. He’d visit whatever offices he needed to, talk to anyone, get on the phone and call someone across town…. And then he’d walk back into our office, papers in a messy pile, notes scribbled in margins, but nearly everything done.

Back to your “Too Due” list.

First, be sure you have a block of time–at least two hours, but three or four is better–with no truly urgent tasks hanging over you and no scheduled appointments. Put it in your office calendar if you have to; even close the door.

Be Gary. Start with your list. If it’s not one list but a collection of scribbled notes, gather them into one big list. Don’t worry if there are other lists lurking somewhere that you might have missed. The point is to clear low-priority tasks from your To Do lists and make room for everything else. You’ll be better able to deal with the misplaced notes after clearing out the backlog a bit.

Go through your list and cross off anything you can. There will usually be items you’ve already done, but forgot to cross off; duplicates; items for which the deadline or registration date have passed; or things that don’t really need doing after all. As you go, prioritize items and corral a sub-list of low-priority tasks that have been languishing. You’ll have reduced the list by a little, but it’s still “Too Due.”

Now be Steve. Starting with the most overdue tasks, grind ’em out. Remember that these are low priorities and have probably been on your To Do list a while. There’s no need to be a perfectionist. Get a task done–or if it turns out to be more complex, more time-consuming or more important than you thought, take a few moments to make some notes, write down a few next actions, or fire off an e-mail to someone whose input you’ll need. Then move on.

Because we’re not all Steve (which is both good and bad) we can’t all put forth the bursts of energy he’s capable of. There are two ways to approach this: task based or time based. Task based is great for getting a select number of tasks done. Just pick a number of tasks and churn your way through them. Time based is great if you have a definite end time–like you’re doing this at work on a Friday afternoon and you want to leave at 5:00. Either way, a big part of your goal is to get as many items as possible off your To Do/Too Due list. If a task is taking longer than seems reasonable, move on.

Most of us are neither Steve nor Gary. They represent extreme opposites in work styles who just happened to work in the same department with me. We are not capable of such bursts of energy as Steve, nor such long, patient organizing of details as Gary. So my solution, which has worked fairly well for me, is to make myself have short periods of each–about 30 to 60 minutes of Gary’s style and one or two hours of Steve’s style–to get a lot of low-priority or short tasks done quickly.

If your To Do/Too Due list is still longer than you’d like, repeat the above process as necessary. Once a week is probably good–more than twice a week tends to make you (or me, anyway) run out of steam for the “Steve Sprints.” Once you get things under control, try scheduling two or three hours once a month, at a slow time like Friday afternoons, to keep things under control.

Remember, Gary first–consolidate your To Do lists, thin out the items that don’t need to be there, and choose the pending low-priority items you want to get done. Then Steve–a quick, focused burst of energy to get as many tasks done as possible.

Last on the list? Well, both Steve and Gary would agree that this is a good time for a beer–or a cup of tea, if you prefer.

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