Southeast Asian Founders Burdened With Huge To-Do Lists? Ask 3 Questions First

Knowing which tasks to prioritize is key to conquering that list

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BY Tanya Mariano - 09 Mar 2017

to do lists

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Years from now, when aliens sift through the rubble that was planet Earth, there’s one conclusion they can safely make: humans liked to make lists.

Lists bring order to chaos. The philosopher Umberto Eco, in an interview with Spiegel Online, even went so far as to say that “the list is the origin of culture,” referring to man’s desire to grasp the incomprehensible “through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries… We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.”

In today’s work culture, it’s the to-do list that's central. But as much as it is helpful, it can also backfire on productivity if not done right. The key? Ruthless prioritization.

When faced with a daunting list of tasks that, on the surface, seem equally urgent and important, learning to prioritize is vital.

Inc. columnist Kat Boogaard suggests asking yourself three simple questions when you're struggling to prioritize. So sit down, refocus, and get ready to conquer that to-do list.


1. Does this need to be accomplished today?

Filter through your list and highlight those tasks that absolutely need to be done today.

Stanley Chia, co-founder of Singaporean edtech start-up Cialfo, puts tasks through an “urgent vs. not-urgent, and quick-to-resolve vs. takes-time-to-resolve metric.” He recommends having a general rule to follow about when and how to approach which types of tasks. For instance, you may choose to get urgent and quick-to-resolve tasks out of the way, but already start working on urgent but takes-time-to-resolve tasks.

For bigger tasks, break these up into smaller, more easily-actionable steps. This will also allow you to take a breather once in a while, says Chia. “Mentally challenging tasks may require you to take a few snippets of time each day over a few days to think through, rather than dedicating a whole hour or more.” He adds, however, that there may be tasks that will warrant blocking out your calendar to avoid distractions.


2. Does this need to be accomplished by me?

Some tasks are better off delegated to others – an assistant, a subordinate, or perhaps a more qualified colleague. Some tasks may even be mindless enough that they could be automated completely, writes Boogaard.

When trying to decide about delegating work, Chia asks himself the following questions: “Will the task involve confidential information? How much time do I need to pass down information or train someone to do it? If the task requires time and effort to impart knowledge before someone can do it, will it be a repeatable task that makes it worth it? Is the subordinate equipped with the knowledge/experience to deal with the requirements of the task? What is the consequence of the tasks being failed to be performed or delayed?”

If it makes more sense for someone else to do it, then delegate away.


3. Does this need to be accomplished at all?

Finally, avoid the trap of continuing to do things just because you've always done them. For instance, Boogaard used to spend an hour every month working on a spreadsheet, which (it turned out) nobody ever reviewed. “It was just one of those tasks that had always been completed by the person in that position – regardless of the fact that it didn't really matter.”

By being critical of the items on your list, tasks can be completed more efficiently, you avoid getting too frazzled, and you’ll have time and energy for more meaningful matters.

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