To Do: Get to the Things That Are Really Important in Life

Want to get to be better at prioritizing the big stuff? The two-list strategy will help you to turn to-do lists into accomplishments.

by Lauren Steele
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Getting stuff done feels great, so why do to-do lists always feel like such chores? When we get our specific goals and resolutions identified on paper, there is a tendency to tackle the process by making laundry lists of the things we should get done to achieve those goals. But this can be counterproductive to success. There’s a better way to achieve your goals and be more efficient.

The two–list strategy, made famous by Warren Buffet, is a time-tested life hack that helps to keep daily tasks focused on what really matters. Here’s how it works: First, write down 25 goals and then identify the top five priorities (i.e. plan for my family’s financial future) and put those on a separate list. Take a good look at the twenty that remain. Now throw them out. By no means should you chip away at any of them — at least not until you’ve succeeded in your top five goals. By making priorities and creating an easily-digestible, organized subset of “to-dos”, you create the opportunity to tackle your biggest goals and stay motivated. Those twenty items were the distractions that got in the way of your biggest goals.

That’s not to say that juggling your top five goals and your other daily to-dos with kids, spouses, and bosses all vying for your attention is easy. Parents, especially, could use a bit of guidance to keep the big five in their sights. We talked to the experts about how to make a long-term to-do list work for working families.

Shake the Distractions

Whether it’s busy work, emails, or a needy boss, the key to feeling productive is to eliminate the noise. Take out the complications and this becomes that simple. “One of the main distractions that makes people feel unproductive is the advent of technology, which ironically was meant to help us and make us more productive,” says Mark Gardner, author of the best-selling book, Your Family Misses You: Time Management Strategies That Free Up Two Hours a Day and Get You Loved Again. “People are constantly answering emails, social media, text messages and they don’t concentrate on the things that they should be doing. All these things are interruptions that steal our time.”

Like everything, our relationship with tech needs to be managed to remain efficient. “By the time you’ve read the email, decided what to do with it, and got back full focus on the task you were doing,” says Gardner, “there goes twenty minutes.”

Here’s a solid trick to get rid of busy work: Schedule a time later in the day for all tasks that take less than 10 minutes. That way the little things never even make it onto your list. Eliminating these small distractions makes a big difference when it comes to being able to focus on the important stuff.

Streamline Your Daily Actions

When you consider what you have to do each day, create an action list of what you truly need to accomplish to achieve forward momentum. Identify three or four tasks — at most — that must be started or completed by the end of the day. For each task ask yourself: “Is this essential for my goals?” and, “Will completing this task remove distractions, or is it a distraction?” “Think of this as a task list, nothing more,” says Gardner. Getting this together before you start working for the day helps you to focus on what you really need to get done.

Rethink Your Relationship With Deadlines

What you do with the limited time you have matters. Two rules — the Pareto Principle and Parkinson’s Law — are excellent guides for how to make the most of your day. “The Pareto Principle states that 20 percent of your efforts give you 80 percent of the results,” explains Gardner. “Yes, you can cut your workload quite a bit and end up with more and better results. All you need to do is to do more of the 20 percent stuff.”

Parkinson’s Law, on the other hand, is an old adage stating: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, if you have all day to clean the house, it will take you all day. If you have a 45-minute warning before friends show up, it’ll (magically) get done in 45 minutes. “The 45-minute sweep-up may not be as much of a deep cleaning as the all day job, but your house will be much cleaner than it was an hour earlier,” Gardner says.

To make use of these principles daily and see results, you have to be willing to put yourself on a deadline on a regular basis. Grab a kitchen timer or use an app on your phone and start using the timer to have a deadline for all your tasks — whether it’s responding to an email or cooking dinner. “Challenge yourself to get stuff done much faster than you are right now,” Gardner says. “It will force you to focus, stop wasting time, and it will boost your productivity.” In other words, you’ll get a lot more done in a lot less time. Isn’t that the magic productivity potion we’re all looking for?

Be as Efficient as Possible

One last thing you can do to achieve goals more easily is to look for more efficient ways to get things done. This is where technology can be your friend instead of a distraction. Look for providers that organize and streamline how you manage your life, whether that’s where you keep your notes, how you invest your money, how you buy insurance, or how you take care of recurring tasks like paying bills and ordering groceries.

Life can be complicated, but living successfully doesn’t have to be. Streamlining and focusing how you approach tasks can help you achieve your goals.

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