Sophia Martine Colquhoun

Do more of what you love

By Sophia Colquhoun

Is your daily to-do list a business tool?

How I turn my lists into plans

People love list making; you only need to do a Google to see the hundreds of results about creating lists, checklists, and to-do lists.

There are also loads of online tools to help you create lists (Dropbox Paper, Checkli, Canva Checklists, Forgett and recent updates make Google Docs pretty handy for this purpose).

And I’ll wager the first thing you do when you feel unorganised is make a list.

But why the popularity? Well, writing lists is really just a type of Project Management. And Project Management in a simple sense, is a strategic and flexible method of organising your actions towards achieving your goals.

Want to learn more about Project Management? Try the Project Management Institute or this article by Moira Alexander which focuses on the more modern & flexible methods of Agile Project Management.

There are so many benefits to list-making, and this article by Kristina Malsberger; Here’s how the magic of to-do lists can put you in control, covers benefits and some of the psychology behind creating useful lists.

But I’m not here to sell list writing to you. I want you to consider how you can use list-making as a pathway to more powerful project and business management solutions.  


So why is Project Management the popular girl in school?

Project Management (PM) can trace its roots from the 20th Century and has grown its following across industries since. It’s starting to be recognised as an independent profession and a skill set with tangible value across industries and businesses (Brief History of Project Management).

There are many methods of PM you can learn about (e.g. Agile, Lean, Waterfall), but traditionally there has been a focus on helping large product based businesses (think factories, manufacturing lines and Toyota). The result? Smaller and service-based businesses are left to fend for themselves.

In the days of ever-increasing time restrictions, distractions, mixed priorities, complex knowledge work and global/online competition, it has become sought after, to have methods to make all of this easier (or let’s be honest, achievable). Giving small businesses an edge to move faster than our competition (Project management for the small business).

I believe there are many elements of Project Management methods which can offer benefits to small businesses and list making provides an accessible entry into many principles of Project Management, Strategy and Planning.


So what will this cost?

So should you be expanding your business skill set to be able to use Project Management Methods? Well, you don’t need to enrol in uni or attend expensive seminars.

Many of us get our first introduction to Project Management methods, whether we realise it or not when we make lists.

Lists allow us to capture our thoughts, share our thoughts, order our thoughts, and come up with new thoughts. But how do you take your humble list and turn it into a strategic planning and organisational tool?


How I turned my list obsession into something useful

I love writing lists. It gives me that smug organised achievement feeling without having really lifted a finger. It often comes after a period of guilty procrastination whereby I finally write a long list of everything I need to do.

But my lists often ended up a messy mix of different tasks, which had me feeling rather less smug, and rather more overwhelmed. In other words, my lists sucked, and more regularly than I’d like to admit, I’d find myself in a very unproductive state of inertia, where another episode of Kimmy Schmidt felt like a great life choice.

Ultimately though, I’ve never regretted writing a list, and I feel like I’ve refined my process into a method which provides value to my business, instead of acting as a procrastination tool.

Here’s how I tackle it

Brain dump

I write everything down and try not to muck around

I start by writing every to-do item down on the same page/google doc or whatever happens to be handy (great novels have been started on napkins).

I like to get it out of my mind and get it captured as quickly as possible. I try not to get stuck thinking too long on any one item, or even get excited about starting just yet.

I’ve found if I jump straight in, I’ll end up down the wrong path and this can really set goals back, sometimes by months.

Once I’ve vomited words onto a page, I’ll walk away and make a cuppa.



I start grouping items together

When I revisit my big list, I begin grouping the related tasks. A few highlighters, pens or numbers help me get organised.

Hopefully, that time away from the list has allowed my mind to settle and be able to cross off vague stuff or items which don’t really matter.  

I’ll usually have a few outliers, including personal tasks, I group these so that they also get a home.

Your system for organising and capturing your to-dos will need to differ. The critical step is to start creating your system and recording it as we are forgetful creatures, and it takes time and repetition to develop habits.  

Everyone’s systems must be different, because everyone and everyone’s goals are different, so please fight the urge to obsess over creating the perfect one-page planning document. (My system includes starting with a notebook and typing up uncompleted tasks from the day or week before into my laptop).



Good Enough Prioritising

By now I’ve got a few lists and several tasks but only so much time, so next, I need to figure out which tasks are my top priority.

I usually aim for top 2-3 tasks. I have given up on being able to perform perfect prioritising. It’s hard to know precisely what priority or order you should complete tasks and honestly, good enough is going to propel you forward versus, aiming for the impossible and Paralysis of Perfectionism.

This is where experience, knowing your working style (strengths/weaknesses) and ongoing learning, really do help. If you want to learn more about realistic prioritising and productivity, check out this short video summary by Tim Ferris.

I use the following questions of myself to make a good calculated guess:

  • Is this task helping me reach a goal?
  • What reward do I expect for my efforts on this task?
  • What impact will this task have on my clients: Will they notice or care?
  • Is the task fun, hard or boring?
  • Do I need help? How long will that help take to get?
  • How long will this task take? Is it a quick kill, which will relieve stress
  • What questions do you ask yourself when you are prioritising what to do next? Write them down and reflect on these regularly.

Just like I avoid the chip aisle in the supermarket, there are certain disciplined actions I take in my business to try and prevent the naughty stuff (wasting time and money) and help me prioritise.

For me, It’s important I don’t prioritise the “fun” tasks because ultimately I’ll get these done, I don’t need extra motivation or organisation, because I enjoy them and so I’ll magically find a way (what I find fun can change from week to week).

If I’m ever really unsure how to prioritise, I reach out to a business friend or mentor to bounce around ideas on what needs to be done first. Ultimately though, it’s up to me, my business goals and the knowledge on how I work (and my gut feelings).  

A book which really helped me dig deeper into understanding how I work best and effective prioritising is Deep Work by Cal Newport. It helped me understand that I work best in the morning, in silence. Now, I get up earlier, schedule important or difficult tasks first thing and avoid putting on music or podcasts when completing complex work.



Why is it more fun to start straight away on an unclear path, end up lost, than prepare for the journey ahead?

A big breakthrough for me which helped make me a successful project manager was fighting the urge to jump straight in.

Before I dive in with my priority item, I’ll create a plan, which may be a couple of steps or a detailed written project plan.

When the task is more complicated, and I may be feeling overwhelmed, I’ll start by writing down every step I can think of which needs to be completed. Where I am unsure, I indicate this too with a question mark and write a research-step which might mean an hour on YouTube or speaking to an expert to get “unstuck”.

I try to practise honestly/realism with myself, which regularly means admitting that I might not have a clue, and that’s ok because just by writing stuff down I’m closer to my goal that sitting back and having a cry (also ok though).



Be willing to regularly review your plans and practise discipline

I make a habit of checking my to-do list before I start work and sometimes the night before. I decide what I want to start on (prioritising gets a crack again), and regularly re-write lists and my plans for the next day.

It did take time and failures to make this a habit, so don’t beat yourself up if you forget or get sidetracked.

I should now be feeling pretty well prepared for the following morning, and ready for my designated “tricky task time”. So regardless of what I might feel like doing (i.e. “fun” stuff), I start with my top priority item. It isn’t easy, and you have to be strict on yourself (discipline = freedom), you might need help initially with someone keeping you accountable until you develop habits of how you want to work.


Reuse and Recycle

Repurpose Lists for an Agile Business

So you know those fab to-do lists and plans you have by now created and successfully finished? Don’t throw them away!

These documents can help create your business instructions, processes, policies and procedures. You will be able to prepare these documents faster and more effectively if you start chipping away early, and your completed lists are an excellent resource for this purpose.  

You will also start to notice patterns which will help you with process creation and refinement.

Don’t stress if much of what you do is knowledge work, as you may not be able to write step by step procedures for everything you do, but you can still set objectives.

At the very least keep notes about your style and tastes of how you like to action and complete work. This might seem obvious, but a bit like defining love, it can be tough to articulate.


The end?

After years of list making and prioritising I am only recently identifying and recognising the number of tasks I can complete in any given day (spoiler… not many!)

You won’t know this number by magic, so start taking note about how many things you actually get done a day, this will help you create more realistic lists (plans) in the future.

I still pat myself on the back for the times I took the extra time to plan before jumping in, and I kick myself for the times I didn’t.

As small business owners we don’t need to over complicate our actions or spend big dollars, but with tweaks, we can transform a humble habit such as list making into a powerful planning and strategy tool.

List making can be a form of Project Management that’s not just going to keep us on track now, but also about helping solve our future challenges.  

I’ll leave you with Cal –

“Try to keep your systems simple, but make peace with the reality that what these systems contain might be too wild to capture on a few elegantly-formatted pages.” Cal Newport

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