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What Project Management Taught Me About To-do Lists

It’s safe to assume that many people who clicked on this article, like me, have read countless articles about productivity. Often, the authors of these articles are CEOs and entrepreneurs. Indeed, their ability to juggle many different priorities and effectively manage their time is admirable. But I would argue that there’s an untapped resource in almost every workplace, one that can help us all plan and execute our personal projects better: the Project Managers. They’re essentially experts in meticulously roadmapping projects and making sure to-do lists get checked off, after all.

Having recently completed some very basic agile training, the way I organise my personal to-dos has seismically changed- for the better. It’s also left me wishing that I’d asked my Project Manager friends and colleagues for their insights earlier!

Identify Productivity Goals First

The initial way my planning has changed is that I identity goals and desired outcomes before I start identifying tasks. That might sound blindingly obvious, but how many of us actually take time to do this before we start scribbling down all the individual tasks we have to accomplish?

For those of you working on a specific project, identify what success looks like, and also why you’re undertaking the project. For example: “New feature will be rolled out by end of Q2”, and “Users will be able to engage with each other more easily, and more meaningful connections will be established”. Writing down what you hope to get out of the project, and why you’re taking it on in the first place, will be a huge motivator along the way.

For those who don’t have a specific projects in mind, but just want to optimise their to-dos and planning, set a deadline- say, three months- and based your desired outcomes on what you’d like to change in that time. For example: “all paperwork and accounting taken care of in the next three months,” or “first 100 pages of my novel written.” Getting things done is much easier if you have a clear and constant reminder of what you’re working towards, and why you’re trying to make a change.

Organising Your To-Do List: Must Dos, Should Dos, Could Dos

Perhaps the most profound way project management has changed my personal planning is in how I write to-do lists. No longer do I write every possible task I could do, with no themes or organisation, into a list app or notebook. Instead, I break down each of my tasks into categories.

The methodology I was exposed to was the MoScOW method. It’s primarily used to clarify what should be prioritised across teams, but I’ve also found it invaluable on a personal level. Simply put, you break down your tasks into four categories:

Must Have: The completely critical tasks you absolutely have to do

Should Have: Important tasks, but the world won’t end if they don’t get done

Could Have: Tasks that would be desirable to complete, but you’ll only look at if you have time

Won’t Have: Tasks you’ve identified which you won’t be dedicating any time to at the present moment

Write down all of your tasks and separate them into four categories (I use a Trello board to easily drag and drop items). I’ve also added a fifth category: “Done”, so I can see all the tasks I’ve finished, as a nice little boost. Once you’ve broken down all your tasks, it’s very likely that your “Must Have” list is going to be considerably shorter than your original to-do list. In essence, that “Must Have” list is your actual to-do list; this is the list of things you actually have to do, and the others are things you can get around to if/you have time. This method is invaluable for identifying priorities, and focusing your time on what really needs your attention.

There are two main criticisms of the MoSCoW method. The first is that there’s no inviolable definition of the “Must Have”s, “Should Have”s, and so on- but on a personal level, I consider this to be the beauty of the system. If I’m working towards a personal project that I know will bring me a huge amount of fulfillment but isn’t a matter of life and death, I can choose to bump it up to the “Must Have” list. That way, rather than go through all the Musts and Shoulds before I make time to do something that gives me personal satisfaction, I can treat my personal task as a high priority, and carve out time accordingly.

The second criticism of the MoSCoW method is that there’s no defined time period where you re-evaluate what is a priority. Which brings us to…

Review, Review, Review

With this method, you get to choose how often you go through all of your tasks and re-evaluate your priorities. I look at the list every day, adding any new tasks that arise, and using the lists to identify my key to-dos for that day. I’ve then set a calendar reminder once every two weeks to go through and re-evaluate priorities. Got something in your “Won’t Have” list that you want to start working on now? Bump it up. Has the deadline passed for something on your “Should Have” list? Strike it out.

Reviewing is another key facet of Project Management that many of us neglect in our own time management- but it’s critical for making sure your priorities are always aligned, and reviewing your progress along the way. Reviewing also makes time for reflection- we tend to fixate on what we have to do, and ignore how much we’ve already accomplished. Just as those initial goals kept you motivated when you started, reflecting and reviewing is what’s going to give you the fuel to keep going.

In essence: what Project Management taught me was to always keep an eye on the bigger picture. Moreso than ticking off to-dos, the key to sustained productivity is keeping your goals in mind, identifying your priorities, and reflecting on your progress. Taking a macrocosmic view is what’s going to keep you on track to accomplish all your goals, and put you on the path to success.

 

Eileen McNulty-Holmes is a writer and content specialist based in Berlin. For the past ten years, they have written, edited and strategized for companies and publications spanning tech, arts and culture.

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