To-do lists, plans, and strategy

The tyranny of the urgent catches up with all of us at times. And so does the deception of the slow times. If our work were steady and predictable, all would be right with the world. But we know that's not the case.

Our methods of organizing our work vary, but I've found that it's important to consistently keep three horizons of work in sight: 1) to-do lists; 2) plans; 3) strategy. 

To-do lists, plans, and strategies help address immediate priorities, structure broader responsibilities, and keep end-goals in focus.

We've all seen it. Maybe it's in front of you right now. It's the legal pad filled from top to bottom with itemized items requiring your immediate attention. These lists are specific tasks that, when intentionally prioritized, help us determine how to use the hours and minutes of our day. When scratched off the list, they give us a feeling of satisfaction, indicate progress, and prove our capability. To-do lists are the small steps we take. But do those small steps lead to bigger impacts?

Completing the to-do list may or may not actually contribute to achieving the plan. I have often encountered people with detailed to-do lists but with no idea what all those tasks will add up to. Effective time management is not simply completing a to-do list; that to-do list must contribute toward a greater collective outcome. 

Plans are the larger outcomes that our to-do lists feed into. The greater collective outcome might be called a project, and the plan is the intentional set of steps required to reach a particular objective. When the to-do list and the plan are in sync, synergistic outcomes emerge.

The strategy provides the overarching direction for the organization. Strategy keeps vision and mission in focus. It's the framework for keeping the overall purpose of the organization front and center. The plan reflects the strategy, and the to-do list ensures discreet steps for executing the plan.

One of the most common derailers in organizations is the to-do list syndrome. Because the immediate needs are so numerous and the to-do list so long, the plan gets lost and the strategy is neglected. You might be doing a thousand things, but in the end what do they contribute to?

A simple exercise to keep the plan and strategy in focus while plowing through the to-do list is to build a simple coding system. Keep the strategy in front of you and make sure you have a written plan. Then, for each task on the to-do list, be sure you can assign it to both the plan and the strategy. 

Not everything will fit perfectly in the plan or strategy; if that's the case, you'll want to ask whether or not it still needs to be done.

If a task fits the strategy but not the plan, perhaps the plan needs adaptation.

If the task fits the plan but not the strategy, check to make sure the plan is actually supporting the strategy. If not, change it.

Instead of being consumed by the to-do list, take a few minutes and allow it to work for you and the organization to prevent mission creep and keep progress toward the larger vision and mission of your organization. 

Then when you've crossed the items off your to-do list you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that each activity, and you, made a difference!