Optimize Your Day-To-Day Focus With This Reverse To-Do List Technique

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Peter Shallard
CEO | Commit Action |

Ever asked yourself why it feels like you’re not getting much meaningful stuff done, even as you’re wrapping up a crazy, busy whirlwind of a day?

The gap between busyness and high leverage effectiveness is where entrepreneurial dreams go to die.

This gap is the easiest thing for anyone to accidentally slip into.

This gap is where business growth stutters.

It’s where business owners reach the limit of their ability to scale.

It’s where entrepreneurs get too busy to take themselves and their work to the next level.

If you want to win big as an entrepreneur you need to reframe the meaning you make out of that “busy but unproductive” feeling.

Don’t tell yourself things will get better soon. Don’t believe you can just push on through…

You need to treat that feeling – that you’re doing so much but accomplishing so little – as a signal to act: It is time to try something radically different.

(Continuing to attempt to make your maniacal busyness work for you by doing the same things, with more gritted teeth and gusto… is the definition of insanity.)

On the other hand, there is a simple exercise any entrepreneur can do – that fits into any schedule, no matter how busy – that will change everything for the better.

This is the exercise I’ve prescribed to clients as an occasional productivity audit over the years:

The Reverse To-Do List

A week of applying this exercise kicks off a profound psychological “reset” of all things work and focus related. It removes cobwebs from your eyes. It doses you with a huge hit of self awareness. It shines a light on the real (and totally fixable) obstacles, between you and ultra-effectiveness.

Ultimately, The Reverse To-Do List returns you to a state of prioritized, high leverage focus.

Here’s how it works:

  • Instead of diligently writing lists of things “to do” and proudly checking them off (or not), keep a retrospective log book of what was actually DONE.

  • It works best to think of it like a Captain’s Log on a ship: An objective, impartial and non-judgmental record of exactly what happened onboard the good ship “YOU”.

  • Bullet point out exactly what you did, not what you wanted to do. Not what you thought about doing. Nor what you wished you did. The goal is to produce a totally dispassionate record of “action taken”.

  • Update the list multiple times a day, with whatever level of granularity you require. Honesty and self awareness is key. If you can’t remember what you spent the last hour doing, you may need to update the list every thirty minutes. It only takes a half second to scribble “-> 10:30am: Answered email…”

  • Do this for a number of days. I recommend taking a seven day snapshot of your life, including the weekend. Remember, this exercise is about bringing your time-use into your conscious awareness.

That’s it.

Write a Done List.

Feel the self-awareness hit you. Watch the transformation unfold.

Welcome to Instant Optimization

The day you start this exercise is the day the first benefits arrive.

You’ll feel guilty about documenting that thirty minutes you spent scrolling through social media, so you won’t allow yourself to scroll.

Measurement of your time use itself will naturally modify your behavior: People become more conscientious when they know they’re being observed. Even by themselves.

The next benefit comes from becoming conscious of your previously-unconscious time usage. It’ll shake out in a whole slew of personal epiphanies, all of which are massively beneficial.

You’ll realize…

1. You spend a ton of “leisure” time doing things you don’t actually enjoy

This is probably the most common.

People will review their week of log-book entries and it’ll hit them that “their hobby” is Facebook. Or Reddit. Or Buzzfeed.

They’ll realize that they’ve spent six hours in the last week consuming media, mindlessly, without actually enjoying it.

One of my favorite take-aways people get from this is to deliberately unplug from whatever low-leverage relaxation activity they were unconsciously engaging in… and then consciously choosing to allocate the time somewhere more meaningfully relaxing and fulfilling.

The entrepreneur who’s “so busy” they never have time to play their guitar or paint… realizes they’ve traded their meaningful, character-defining hobby to be a pawn in the Pay-Per-Click Attention Economy.

This is an Aha Moment worth having.

2. That a small handful of responsibilities (or people) eat up the majority of your time

Particularly for entrepreneurs with scaling companies and growing teams, a realization will hit that a particular person or business unit sucks up hours upon hours of time.

Time use itself follows the 80/20 rule, so it’s never a surprise to find that one in five of your employees uses four fifths of your open-door office hours. Same thing happens for service businesses and their customers.

This epiphany is responsible for some of the most effective course corrections I’ve seen in day-to-day management. For example, realizing that roper meeting structure needs to be implemented. Or, the outright realization that a new hire needs to be prioritized to free up time. Or that a time-sucking client needs to be “fired”.

3. That the best work you do takes longer than you think

I’ve fallen prey to this one myself. I once wrote a great blog post in under hour, so I tend to think writing a blog post takes an hour. And that’s not always true.

A week of Reverse To-Do Listing will remind me that my daily practice of pumping out 500 words of meaningful content… can take much longer than I think.

More generally put, it makes people realize that sometimes, you’re setting yourself up for failure by diving into a day with a ton of well-laid intentions to get big stuff done… but an unrealistic set of expectations about the time it takes to produce quality output.

The value of this realization is one ultra ambitious folks get nervous about: That setting realistic productivity goals and actually achieving them – even if it means going a little slower than you’d hope – is ultimately more fulfilling and thus more sustainable. It wins, long term.

Past performance is the best predictor of future outcomes. The Reverse To-Do List removes entrepreneurial myopia for your own past performance. It makes you see what really happened.

That’s uncomfortable as hell, but useful. You need to accept that on average that thing you thought takes an hour… actually takes two.

(To that effect, the fourth epiphany is the wider realization of this same phenomenon…)

4. You’re doing way more work than you thought you were

For my Type-A over-achiever clients, this tends to be the big one.

They realize that the reason they’re not feeling effective is because they have so many projects and big goals, that even though they ARE getting a ton of work done each day… they’re only making a small percentage of progress relative to the scope of their ambition.

One reflection for folks in this position… is that their ambition and hubris is the cause of (unnecessary) self flagellation and misery.

Cut it out. You’re doing great.

There’s one more big realization a lot of people need to have…

5. Moving forward on your highest leverage stuff is faster than you realize

A lot of entrepreneurs – myself included – have the tendency to not even want to start the big, bold and scary projects until they have a nice clear chunk of time on the calendar.

You know the feeling: It’s when you’re procrastinating something big and important, and you’re just lusting after a whole uninterrupted meeting-free morning to sink your teeth into it.

The tremendous danger here is that the project we’re talking about is precisely the highest leverage thing that you absolutely need to find time for above all else. This project is the stuff that drives exponential growth.

One of the coolest realizations to get out of the Done-List exercise is the jaw-dropping epiphany that your biggest, scariest projects don’t always actually take a ton of time to execute. This is only clear with the gift of hindsight a log-book creates.

So often, it’s tremendously quick to send that email – to that strategy partner for example – that kicks off “The Big Deal”.

Its quick to make the five minute follow up call… that sets the meeting… that then secures the sale.

The Done-List exercise exposes the truth about the worst, most sabotaging form procrastination: When we hesitate to execute what is mechanically easy but emotionally difficult.

Nothing accelerates bottom-line business growth more, than the realization this kind procrastination is happening.

Once you see the light, you can’t keep lying to yourself: You weren’t too busy, you were too afraid.

Real and meaningful personal growth (is scary)

The best personal development is uncomfortable. It shines a light on parts of your psyche that you don’t want to acknowledge. It brings your unconscious, irrational behavior into the scrutiny of your conscious intellect… which knows better.

You can tell this Reverse To-Do List exercise is powerful, because you want to procrastinate doing it.

Yes you. The person reading this.

Every single person I suggest this exercise to tries to procrastinate the same way:

“Not this week. This week is crazy and not a normal week because of <insert fictitious narrative to rationalize busyness here>”

The truth is, you haven’t had a “normal” standard week in years. You’re an entrepreneur. Normal is for people who have to get the report to their boss’s desk by 5pm Friday.

Your whole life is crazy. Week after crazy week. You might as well start optimizing your focus and effort now, in spite of the craziness.

You might as well start optimizing your focus now because of the craziness.

If not now, then… when?

Achieve Your Goals Faster