Which list is best?

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 31st January 2022

I recently flew to Dubai for my first international client engagement since the pandemic put an end to our travels a couple of years ago. It is not an understatement that it was a bit daunting, but I was very keen to ensure that the trip ran in a safe and uneventful way.

One of the complications of travelling during Covid is that there is a lot of paperwork, forms and approvals involved now, and they all must be spot on, or you don’t get on that plane! Because of this, I was super-focused on exactly what I needed to fill out before I travelled. To ensure nothing was forgotten I created a check list in OneNote, and worked through it, ticking things off as I completed them. It is a quiet period for me workwise, so I had plenty of time to do this. Time was not an issue, but thoroughness was.

This got me thinking about how different types of lists can help us in different situations. I don’t normally use check lists in my day-to-day work, but in this case, it is the perfect tool. Here is my thinking.

When we are managing activities, action items or priorities, we need some way to remember what needs to be done. There are usually two dynamics at play:

  1. Timeliness – much of our work will have a deadline attached or some associated time-sensitivity, and
  2. Thoroughness – we may need to be certain that every step or action has been completed.

With this in mind, think about the different lists that we could use to manage these dynamics.

A Mental List

If time is not an issue, i.e., is there is no time pressure to get the things done, and thoroughness is not a critical factor, then managing the list of things to do in your head may suffice. If I just need to remember to fix the latch on the shed door at some stage, I probably don’t need to write that down. I am sure to get around to it when the time is right. Some of your work might be like that, but I am guessing that much of your work needs a better system, as your head is not very good at remembering things at the right time.

A Check List

A check list is just a ‘To Do’ list with check boxes to the side, so they can be ticked off as they are completed (a list with lines through completed items serves the same purpose). It is a good way of getting things out of your head and making them visible, and therefore manageable. A check list is useful when time is less of a factor, but thoroughness is critical. For example, pilots will use a check list before take-off to ensure that everything that needs to be checked, switched on or switched off has been completed. Yes, time is a factor, but the plane does not take off without the full list being completed. My list for the trip to Dubai was the same. I needed to get everything done before I left, but the key dynamic was that I had successfully and thoroughly checked every box.

A Dated List

At Adapt, when we run our personal productivity training, we focus heavily on using what we call a ‘dated list’ in MS Outlook to manage day-to-day priorities and activities. This is because time is a factor when we are working on many different things at once and have other people relying on us to deliver information or work to them. A dated list is a task list that has been divided into a series of daily lists. So rather than having one large check list, you may have several tasks scheduled for today, a few tasks scheduled for tomorrow, and some scheduled for Friday. You could either use your calendar for this, or a dated task list in MS Outlook or Gmail, or a combination of both. This method of managing your priorities is most useful when time is of the essence (and let’s face it, in our modern workplaces, it usually is). The benefit of scheduling your tasks for specific days is that it reduces procrastination and promotes working proactively. Most of us are time-poor, so managing our work with time in mind makes sense. You will also find that your list is less overwhelming when it is broken down into more manageable chunks. And to be clear, I am not saying that thoroughness is not important with your day-to-day priorities, but time is often the greater focus.

A Project List

Finally, some work needs a strong focus on both time and thoroughness. Project work is a good example of this, as they are complex endeavours, involving multiple people, over a longer period of time than most day-to-day work is managed. Keeping an eye on when things need to be done is critical and ensuring that everything gets done is also critical. A good project plan or schedule should show the entire team a list of all activities, and a list of start and due dates for each task or activity. The project plan may be managed in a high-end project tool like MS Project or Jira, or a more user-friendly tool like MS Planner or Asana. Either way, time and thoroughness can be managed more easily because the right tool is being used for the job.

So, to close, there is no right or wrong when it comes to the list you use. But some tools are better in certain situations. In the work context, at minimum you would be well advised to stop using your head to remember things, and at least write them down in a check list or To Do list. But don’t dismiss the value of a dated list or a project list to manage your work.

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