How To Turn Your To Do List Into An…


We’ve talked about organizing your email inbox and organizing your To Do list. But the next thing I often get asked is, “Now what?” Because it’s all well and good to tell someone “you need an organized To Do list” but if you don’t then tell them what to do with the thing, well, you’re not being very helpful, are you?

I can hear some Time Management experts in my head right now, simply because I’ve actually seen so many of them say things like this:

“Well, it’s a To Do list, so do.”

Not so fast. Unless the “To Do” item is something extraordinarily simple like “brush my hair” (which even then requires several steps to accomplish, mind you) then you may have to flesh out your To Do list into something more robust. Let me explain using the “brush my hair” example.

If you are seated in your living room, and your brush is in your ensuite bathroom on the second floor of the house…and you have a sleeping cat on your lap (don’t laugh, it happens frequently in my household) then you suddenly have a To Do item that has become it’s own…wait for it…project.

Because everything in life is a project. Everything. I mean it. And yes, I can prove it. If something takes more than one step to complete, it’s a project by definition. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says:

Definition of project

1: a specific plan or design : scheme

2  obsolete : idea

3: a planned undertaking: such as

a : a definitely formulated piece of research

b : a large usually government-supported undertaking

c : a task or problem engaged in usually by a group of students to supplement and apply classroom studies

4: a usually public housing development consisting of houses or apartments built and arranged according to a single plan

Note the definitions I’ve bolded above. A specific plan or design. A scheme. A planned undertaking. Well, if you have to get up and walk across the room, friends, you have to plan to do so – even if it’s done without much notice on your part. Your brain is always doing this! First, is the floor between your chair and the room’s doorway wet or slippery? Is it cluttered or otherwise presenting any sort of trip-and-fall hazard? If you have an injury, such as a broken leg, this process becomes even more cumbersome. Can you get out of the chair on your own? Can you then hobble across the floor? The possibilities of things that need to be considered to get up out of your chair and walk across the room to the doorway could go on and on and on depending on a lot of factors. Now that we’ve detailed all that out, let’s go back to “brush my hair.”

You have to find a way to get the cat off your lap without getting scratched up, so you decide that with this particular cat, overpetting is the best option because if you pet him too much he’ll get up and leave of his own accord. Ergo, Step One is to overpet the cat to achieve the goal of him vacating your lap.

  1. Overpet the feline (Feline gets off lap)
  2. Stand up
  3. Assess the floor – no hazards – walk through the living room to the dining room
  4. Assess the floor – no hazards – walk through the dining room to the stairs
  5. Note that your child has left every Lego she owns on the stairs and WHOA you now have to on the fly adjust your project plan. In order to make it up the stairs safely, you first have to sweep all the Legos to the side so you have a clear path that won’t involve you stepping-on-Legos-and-falling-down-the-stairs-so-you-truly-do-wind-up-with-a-broken-leg. Step 5 now becomes multiple steps – the cleaning of Legos off them.
  6. By the time you’ve reached the top step with your Lego Sweep you’re up there already so now it’s time to go into your bedroom. Assess the hallway floor – no hazards – walk along the hall to your bedroom.
  7. Open your bedroom door
  8. Walk into your bedroom.
  9. Assess the room, no hazards. Proceed across the floor to your ensuite bathroom
  10. Open the bathroom door
  11. Be screamed at by your teenage daughter who’s going to the bathroom in your bathroom for reasons known only to her
  12. Quickly slam the bathroom door shut
  13. Realize you won’t be brushing your hair right now as your daughter continues yelling at you through the door for not knocking first
  14. Come up with a new plan that involves heading to the refrigerator for some ice cream

Above: My ImpCat, Ramses and yes, that is the method I have to use for getting him off my lap!

Okay, that was a kind of silly example, I’ll admit it, but you have to know that this sort of thing happens in peoples’ homes all the time and it illustrates the fact that something as simple as “brush my hair” on your To Do list involves not only multiple steps, but also having to alter your initial plan whenever obstacles arise. In Project Management we have to learn to be flexible as well. The end goal is still the same – I still want to brush my hair, after all. But I had to do some extra work to get to the place where I could and even though I’m right there on the threshold of where my brush is, I still can’t actually execute (brush my hair) because of what we call a constraint (my ability to reach my brush is hindered by the fact that my teenager is occupying the bathroom).

So if you have a To Do list, understand that everything from “running to the store real quick” to “making lunch” to “painting the garage” to “starting a new business” is a project. Some may have more steps than others. Some may consist of things that you find easier or more familiar (what it takes to drive to the store or what it takes to make your lunch) to things that take you outside your comfort zone and will therefore take you longer to do (painting the garage or starting a new business). They are ALL PROJECTS and must be treated as such within the context of your To Do list or you will simply become frustrated that your To Do’s aren’t, in fact, getting done.

Don’t treat your To Do list like a laundry list where you just have a list of the articles of clothing that need washing. Treat it like each line has its own To Do list hiding behind it and then you can plan how to achieve each To Do in a sensible, methodical manner…and actually get it done! A for-instance to get your mind spinning on more real-world examples:

  1. Brush my hair – Action Plan: plan how, when, where
  2. Fix lunch for me and my spouse – Action Plan: you have to figure out everything from your culinary capabilities to what food you have or need to what pots and pans you’re going to use, never mind recipes, how much time you have vs. how much time it’ll take and when you and your spouse want to eat so you know when to start the preparations
  3. Vacuum every room in the house – Action Plan: you have to first be certain the floors are free of obstacles, you have to make sure you’re not going to disrupt anyone with the noise of the vacuum, you have to plan how long this will take you to do and when you can fit it into yours and everyone else’s schedules
  4. Get caught up on emails and social media – Action Plan: you have to carve time out to sit at the computer (maybe you even have to schedule time at the computer if more than one person uses it), you need to set a time limit for yourself so you don’t go down the Facebook Rabbit Hole for the rest of the evening, you have to consider each and every individual email, post and Tweet you look at and decide one by one whether you need to respond, whether it’s given you yet another To Do and if so, where that goes on your To Do list…I could go on and on here but I think you get the idea!
  5. Go on a date with my significant other – Action Plan: Depending on who you are, what your style is, whether your male or female, whether it’s a casual or more formal date and a whole slew of other factors, your Action Plan for this could be so extensive it could take multiple days to carry off. What if you have to buy a new outfit, or make reservations, or purchase tickets in advance? What if you need a haircut first, or have to get your car detailed before you pick her up, or have to clean your house from top to bottom before he comes over for dinner? This one has the potential to be a very involved and detailed Action Plan that becomes its own To Do list!

The long and short of it is this: You turn your To Do list into an Action Plan one To Do at a time. There is really no other way to do it. Otherwise, your To Do’s are destined to slide onto that list you keep hidden from view called “Didn’t Do’s.”

What are your thoughts? Have you ever considered before that what seems simple is actually made up of a series of complex thoughts, considerations and tasks which is essentially what a project is? Or is this the first time you’ve heard anything like that? Let me know, I’m really curious!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *