January 16, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:35 am

Start new year with a 'to do list' strategy

Jason Womack

Q&A talks with Jason Womack, author of "Your Best Just Got Better," about New Year's resolutions and dealing with that to do list.

Q: It's mid-January and most resolutions will have passed by the wayside. What's your recommendation for the one resolution people need to keep going in the office?

A: Remember who's on your team. Your social network, the one that existed long before Facebook or LinkedIn, is (at least partially) responsible for the habits you make, change and sustain. To get the most out of your goals this year, identify one or two professional colleagues with "good habits" — the ones you're looking to build — and schedule time with them, such as a #CoffeeChat once a week or a walk together on the weekend. During your time with them, ask them, "How do you do it?" Listen for their tips, their ideas and their philosophy so you can mimic what they do to achieve success reaching their goals.

Q: You say, "The psychological weight of unfinished tasks and unmade decisions is huge. There is a constant feeling of pressure to do more with less." What is the best way to handle that pressure?

A: There are two ways to address this: (1) acknowledge what DOES get done during the day, (2) make a "Stop Doing" list on a weekly basis. At the end of the next five workdays, make a list of the bigger things you got done (contacted a new client; reviewed an important research paper; went to lunch with a mentor/colleague; etc). At the end of a week, review what you ARE doing, to make sure you're "on course" with your goals and objectives. (If you do this over the course of a month, you may just have the information you need to "stop" doing some things that have a high time investment with a low payoff.) Next, again at the end of the day, identify just a couple of things you're NOT going to do tomorrow. I call this a "Stop Doing" list. Some things I have seen people write down are: Eat lunch at my desk. Open emails, and leave them open all day long. Delegate ambiguously.

Q: One thing your book suggests is to ask yourself: How much time do I really spend each day clicking through e-mails and making my to-do list? What's a good way to get control over that time? After all, you can't avoid doing either.

A: When you open an email, identify the "action" the sender is asking you to take. Then, before you close that email, capture that "verb" somewhere you can organize all your reminders together. In some systems, such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, you can actually change the subject line of an incoming email. (Bonus: Ask your immediate team to start each email subject line with an "action verb" so you'll be able to see and organize your to-dos as they come in to your inbox.) As far as the "non-email" to-dos, consider a digital "task organizer" such as Microsoft Outlook or some online list manager so that you can easily add your tasks to a complete list. More systems are designed with the ability to "bunch" your like items together.

Q: Email is something that we just can't escape because it's with us 24/7. How can we change the way we manage it or is it better to say the way it manages us?

A: The email inbox of tomorrow is already with us today: more companies are providing "virtually unlimited" email storage to their employees. I regularly meet with clients who have 2,000 or 12,000 or 42,000 emails in their inbox. (The business leaders I coach — in finance, retail, politics and education — simply don't spend minutes a day — or on the weekend — filing emails.) So, one thing to do, talk to the 20 percent of the people who email you 80 percent of the time. About every six months, I suggest clients schedule a 30-minute live conversation (in a conference room or via a Web-enabled meting) and discuss the role of each of the "Five Fields of an Email Message." Think about this: Most people review their email on a handheld device throughout the day. They have between 3-30 seconds of attention to give each email before they move on to the next one. In the first paragraph — or a couple of bullet points — write what you think someone may need to know after reviewing the subject line. Make it easy for them to know what you need them to do.

Q: Technology short cuts are another suggestion of yours, including how Outlook can handle email. What are a couple of good short cuts people may not know that Outlook can do with their email?

A: My favorite Microsoft Outlook tip is to create "search folders" (Here are videos for nine of my favorite tips: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL4A446D5899736F1F&feature=mh_lolz). By "saving a search," you can save time and maximize your focus when you're looking for groups of emails — by topics or from domain names, for example. Many clients have used "Search Folders" on the weekends to clean up, capture any missing to-dos, and plan for the week ahead.


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