CWB August 2003

Daily Agenda

List making is a great way to keep focused on the stuff that really matters - and to recognize what really doesn't.

By Anthony Noel

Many things compete for your attention every day - sales figures, insurance, employee relations, productivity. The list is endless. Before you deal with any issue, one thing must take precedence: the very act of deciding which items deserve a piece of your valuable time, and how much time you can afford to give them.

Probably the last thing you need is a lecture about how time-centric our society has become. Much of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of companies hawking computer systems ("It's faster! You'll save time!") or equipment ("It's the latest technology; you can crank out more parts in less time!") or software ("It's the newest version; what you are using is behind the times."), or books (think how many you have seen on time management). Still, a strong understanding of your time's value is critical to making smart decisions about how you spend it.

Neither will this become a lecture about the importance of cost accounting. (But could I just mention here that regular cost accounting is the fastest way to learn exactly what your time is really worth? Thank you.)

Instead, I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt. I will assume that my many past rantings about the necessity of cost accounting and the importance of not buying into the time-compression madness that afflicts our society have gotten through to you. Which means you already are a highly cost-conscious, quality-driven manager (since quality is only possible when it is provided with adequate time to be achieved). All you need now is a tool for reaching your larger goals.

Ask 10 successful managers the secret of their success and you will probably get 10 different answers. But rest assured that all their efforts can be traced to one essential practice: making a list. It may not be a formal, written-down list. On the other hand, it may be just that, and quite detailed to boot.

Regardless of whether it is a few key items that are kept in mind as they go about their day, a short list on the page of a daily planner or a carefully prepared slate of planned activities, list making is a basic skill every manager uses. Some are not even aware of it, but they use it nonetheless.

There are two ways people make and use lists: methodically and haphazardly. The latter may sound a little dangerous, and it can be. But so can the methodical route.

If you have little or no consciousness about the listmaking you do every day, you are a haphazard list maker. (That is about to change.) At present, the priority you assign to any given item on the list you subconsciously make can change like the wind. When something more interesting or more pressing or more - well, anything - comes along, you subconsciously reshuffle your priorities.

Want proof? Okay.

How many times in the last month have you arrived home after a long day only to wonder where the day went and how you managed not to do that one thing you swore you would get done?

Yup. Haphazard listmaker.

But taking things to the opposite extreme can prove just as counterproductive.

Though I encourage methodical listmaking, there are pitfalls that should be avoided if the use of lists is to provide the best possible benefits.

One chief pitfall of methodically listing your priorities for the day can be a sort of inflexibility about dealing with other situations as they arise. In extreme cases, listmaking and listfollowing can become such obsessions that a person finds it almost impossible to make a move without first consulting his list.

Needless to say, what you are after is a happy medium between haphazard and compulsive listmaking. The trick to developing this skill is applying a little perspective.

Start by thinking about why you need lists in the first place. Maybe you feel less organized than you would like to be. Perhaps your plate just seems so full all the time that you need to prioritize the items on it, in order to ensure getting the key things done. Good.

Now pull back for a minute and think about the bigger picture.

What are your overall goals for your company? What do you want to be certain to accomplish in the next six months? The next year? Over the next three years? The next five?

For example, you can't have an effective training program in place six months from now if you don't start planning it soon. Will you start planning it today?

Maybe, maybe not. Doing so may mean nothing more than asking some informal questions of shop-floor employees in order to gain some insight into what is needed. You might spend a total of 20 minutes on it today, then nothing for the next week. But you will have taken a little step in a big direction.

Think of such items on your list as little snapshots or small tasks that can get you pointed toward larger goals.

Sometimes just getting through today or this week is all you are after, and that's okay. The items on your daily list need not always reflect your longer-term goals. But even when they don't, they are still helping move you toward those goals. After all, knowing that your biggest challenge this week is just getting through the week is pretty valuable information!

Also valuable is the practice of taking a look at your big-picture list every week or two. Don't be shy about changing it. Doing so will give you tremendous insight into - and more importantly, patience for - the fact that some things are beyond our control. Way beyond our control. More so, really, than we care to admit.

Above all, remember that no matter how many lists you make or how detailed you make them, planning is a dynamic activity. And (surprise!) the more rigid your plan, the more dynamic daily circumstances tend to become.

So be flexible and be alert. If you do, you will quickly learn when something is worthy of your attention and when it would be better to wait.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.