One of the basic principles of working smarter is: get everything out of your head. Your head is for thinking, not for storing lists of things to remember. But when you’ve cleared your head and have a long action list… What do you do then?
Prevent your action list from becoming a mess. Bring order!
Examine your actions and look for commonalities. What do some actions have in common? It could be:
- You need a computer to execute them (searching for information on a website, ordering something online).
- You need access to your email and/or files.
- They are phone calls you need to make.
- They are actions you can only perform in a specific place (with a particular colleague, in a department meeting, when you’re at supplier X, in your organization’s archive, in a specific store, in the city, with a friend).
Sort your actions based on these characteristics. Doing similar actions in succession is more efficient than doing everything haphazardly. It’s better to spend half an hour making phone calls than to make a call, then send two emails, and then remember you also wanted to visit colleague Y. Moreover, this helps prevent mistakes and confusion. For example, when you’re in the city, you’ll know exactly what you need.
Make your action list mobile if it’s convenient. You do this for grocery lists, right? (Personally, I’ve never understood the success of taking chalkboards to the supermarket to write down your groceries… Who brings such a thing to the store?) Choose what works best for you:
- Outlook’s task list works great for some people. Give it a try!
- Create action lists for different projects so you can keep related items together. You can also write a colleague’s name at the top and jot down everything you want to discuss with them below.
- Use a notebook with tabs or colored dividers to keep everything you note in its own section.
- For things that need to be carried with you, use loose sheets or large post-its… Whatever works for you.
- Excel action lists can also work well; create different tabs for different topics (projects or areas of responsibility).
- Utilize smartphone apps if you have one. Evernote is very useful, but Remember the Milk also has many fans.
Clearly distinguish between notes and actions. Clearing your head generates a stream of output, but not everything you jot down needs to be done. Sometimes they are concepts, thoughts, ideas, considerations… You can handle this in various ways:
- Write in different places: notes in one notebook, actions in another place.
- You can opt for separating pages: on the left, note everything that comes to mind, on the right, distill the actions.
- You can simply continue writing but highlight the actions in your text, using a highlighter (possibly with different colors), or by simply writing a big “A” with a circle around it.
For everything, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. How you manage your actions is highly personal. Some swear by digital methods, while others value tangible action lists.
As long as your action method satisfies the three key characteristics:
- It’s easy to update.
- You have it at hand when needed (or at least it doesn’t require too much effort).
- It has a structure and logic that works for you.