Before You Give the Paper To-Do List a Pink Slip Consider This

Yes, you know high on our priority list at Schulte and Schulte is helping our construction contractor clients ditch the paper. Yet, here I am saying, “No! Get some paper and a pen. We’ve got work to do.”

Sometimes scaling your contracting firm is aided by something as simple as a pen and a piece of paper. The truth is, there are a number of reasons for putting pen to paper when it comes to the short list of action items you need to be reminded of each day. I’ll mention the four I find the most important.

It helps you remember

One of the reasons for hand writing a to-do list is you remember better that which you write. It seems the very physical act of moving ink (or carbon) across a piece of paper helps your brain with its multitude of memory tasks. One example is a grocery list. Write it down, and even if you forget to take the list to the store, you’ll have a better chance of remembering what was on it. Try that with the list you made on your “forgotten” phone and you won’t have the same outcome. This article from Dustin Wax at Lifehack explains more about the science behind why we remember what we write.

It allows you to “see” the progress

You can see progress with a to do list and that feels good. Seems many people (I’ll admit, I’m one of them) feel so good about checking things off the list they even jot in an unplanned task which they’ve just completed so they can check it off.

It gives you a sense of relief

There is that “whew” moment, a sense of relief when being able to cross certain items off the list. Perhaps the action item was one you’ve been needing to accomplish for quite some time or one which you dreaded doing. Either way, checking it off your list can aid you in that welcome sigh of relief. It is as if that little X or mark-through is the period at the end of a sentence. Or better yet the exclamation mark. Done!

It is a benevolent task master

This is probably the most important reason I find for having a well written to-do list.

You’re able to focus your energy.

You don’t enter your office, shop, or job-site wondering what should be done today. You have a list.

It enables you to remain strategic.

You aren’t (as) tempted to do things which are more time fillers than actual work moving towards specific important goals.

It allows you to be proactive rather than reactive.

Because you’ve allowed your calendar to inform your to-do list you know what next action step to take. (More on this a little further down.)

It is an important tool for returning to the tracks if you’ve been derailed.

Perhaps I should have said when you’re derailed. When you’re interrupted, you don’t need to stop to rethink which task you were working on, you simply look at the list.

It reminds you to have fun.

Even though you probably won’t put silly things on your list every day, you may find it a nice break to occasionally add something that is simply goofy to your to-do list.

  • Give someone in your office a copy of War and Peace, then ask them to proofread it.
  • Prank the boss or someone away on vacation (balloons, toilet paper, or aluminum foil comes to mind)
  • Walk sideways to the photo copier – every time you go there all day long
  • Skip rather than walk
  • Put a sign on your photocopier that says “New Copier – Voice activated – please speak your command” Watch the fun.
  • Carry your keyboard over to someone else in the office and ask, “do you want to trade?”

Now that you know why a paper to-do list is helpful, let’s move to how to formulate a truly workable to-do list.

What a cave man teaches about using a hand-written to-do list

I recently read an article in which several “up and coming” young entrepreneurs were asked to give their best “secrets” concerning the use of a to-do list. Some of the answers were useful, some not so much. Of the dozen respondents, there was only one who espoused the need to move from paper to a digital system. And it was that one which made me smile because of the mental image I had after reading her response.

I was listening to what she had to say until this sentence popped up, “Don’t limit yourself to the Stone Age when it comes to something as important as your productivity.”

Yeah, the Stone Age. So, of course I started thinking about this fellow grabbing out his chisel and tapping away on the wall of his cave to produce his to-do list for the day.

  • Find long-haired woman and drag her to cave
  • Throw spear into large mammal
  • Learn how to make fire
  • Berries
  • Dog

This was a pretty smart caveman-type-person. Let’s call him “Grug.”  Grug knows the value of a to-do list, and he is on the right track. But, he can improve his to-do list skills. Here is a quick critique of his entries.

Find long-haired woman and drag her to cave.

Grug, made the mistake many make with this item. Finding said woman and dragging her around is more likely a project. A project that may indeed have many steps, each of which can be separated out and added to Grug’s to-do list as needed on any given date.

If Grug had let his calendar inform him concerning on which date this project needs to be completed, he may have made a to-do list entry more like, “locate nearby village with long-haired women.” Future action steps on future to-do lists might include, “scope out perfect woman,” then “note when woman goes to water source,” and so on and so on. Grug’s to-do list should be the place he breaks down his long-term goals into actionable steps.

Throw spear into large mammal.

If this is a step in Grug’s short-term project of Feed the Fam, then he did a great job of adding to his list. This is likely an actionable step he can take today because he has completed the step of finding the beast already.

Plus, Grug remembered to start his entry with a verb. It helps Grug know immediately what needs to be done. He need not look at his list with perhaps the single word “mammal” and wonder, “What is this all about?” instead, he knows, “This is my next task and this is how I should do it.”

Learn how to make fire.

Good call, Grug. We’re with you on this one.

Berries and Dog

Oh no, Grug has forgotten his verbs. Chances are he might not have a clue why he wrote those entries. Pick berries? Dispose of rotting berries? Pet dog? Find dog? Feed dog?

One more thing – Grug should have used a tablet *giggle* to write his list. Cave walls don’t transport easily.

There are three main principles we learn from our dear friend Grug:

  1. Use your calendar to inform your to-do list, breaking down your projects or plans into actionable steps.
  2. Use a verb at the beginning of each item on your to-do list so you know right away what to do when you look at your to-do list.
  3. Keep your to-do list manageable and portable.

On that last note, a small notebook or a 3X5 card work well. If you want to have a running reminder of what you’ve already completed the notebook is a good choice. If you’re happy to have completed the list and will let the project speak for itself then tossable 3X5s might be your paper of choice.

What if Grug adds items to his to-do list that include dealing with his co-cavemen?

Grug should keep his to-do list for his own actions, but he can very well indicate on his list that he is delegating certain tasks to others. He should also include any pertinent data right on his list. For example, he should include contact information or at the very least where to find the information. And, if he plans to get in touch with Galg he should include what he is getting in touch with Galg about. He might say something like, “Call Galg about footwear idea.”

Getting back to the 21st century

If you have more to do than your memory can hold, figure out a better way to keep track of everything than just keeping it in your head. Building your modern construction contracting business depends on taking smart actions at smart times. Get in the habit of creating smart to-do lists and you’ll wonder what you ever did without them.

This is another in a series of articles all about organizing your construction contracting business. You can go here to find more.