Before You Create a To-Do List

For several years now, I have profited from using a “Master Task List.” This is a way to group your work-related activities so that you do what you were hired to do and keep from getting side-tracked by “trivial pursuits.” It is something you should develop before you start throwing together a to-do list.

Photo courtesy of ©, Image #7195918

Photo courtesy of ©

I first learned this technique from Todd Duncan, whose book, Time Traps, published by Thomas Nelson, is a must read. It is subtitled, “Proven Strategies for Swamped Salespeople” but don’t let this put you off. Even if you aren’t in sales, this book has news you can use. Every page is loaded with time-saving tips and techniques for managing your workflow.

“Master Tasking” is the process of identifying your five to seven most productive, most important work-related tasks. A Master Task List is similar to a job description but more useful. It answers the question, “What was I really hired to do?”

Here are some characteristics of master tasks:

  • They are usually important but not urgent.
  • They spell the difference between success and failure.
  • You have a hard time getting to them.
  • They are things you usually do on your own.
  • They can be scheduled but usually aren’t.

The purpose of developing a Master Task List is to enable you to focus more easily on those activities that really add value to your department, your division and your company. Once you have a Master Task List you can measure your performance against it. More importantly, you can schedule these activities so you accomplish the most important tasks related to your job.

Master Tasking will enable you to become more productive, more successful, more confident, less frustrated, and less stressed. It is one of the reasons why I have gotten as far as I have in my career. Others who have practiced it have reported similar results. It’s a high pay-off activity for a relatively small investment of time.

Your Master Task List should be written down and periodically reviewed. Each Master Task should be stated as a broad activity area; for example, “Manuscript Development,” “Copywriting,” “Travel Planning,“ “Financial Review,” etc. Then, you should list three to seven bulleted subpoints that represent the specific activities related to that particular Master Task.

For example, I have a master task called “Business Planning.” Here are the activities associated with that Master Task:

  • Casting corporate vision
  • Defining corporate strategy
  • Reviewing Group and Divisional Strategic Plans
  • Reviewing Group and Divisional Annual Plans

Notice that each Master Task list activity begins with a gerund (i.e., a noun formed from a verb). The idea is to make these action-oriented. These are things you do.

To give you a real-life example, here’s my current Master Task List:

Master Task List
  1. Managing Up
    • Meeting with the Board
    • Responding to the Board’s requests
    • Preparing for Board meetings
    • Providing our equity sponsors, investors, and lenders with agreed-upon reports
    • Making presentations to our equity sponsors, investors, and lenders with agreed-upon reports

  2. Business Planning
    • Casting corporate vision
    • Defining corporate strategy
    • Reviewing Group and Divisional Strategic Plans
    • Reviewing Group and Divisional Annual Plans

  3. New Business Development
    • Identifying new internal growth opportunities
    • Identifying new acquisition opportunities
    • Meeting with and courting prospective sellers
    • Evaluating acquisition opportunities
    • Recommending acquisition opportunities

  4. Employee Development
    • Coaching my direct reports
    • Chairing the Executive Leadership Team
    • Meeting bi-weekly with my direct reports and ad hoc as necessary
    • Preparing for and conducting direct report performance reviews
    • Recruiting and hiring new executive team members as necessary

  5. Author Relations
    • Building relationships with our top authors
    • Attending author planning meetings with our top authors
    • Visiting each of our top ten authors on an annual basis
    • Monitoring the performance of our top authors

  6. Customer Relations
    • Building relationships with the CEOs of our top customers
    • Monitoring the revenues of the company’s top customers
    • Monitoring the business strategy of the company’s top customers
    • Visiting each of our top ten customers, in-person, on an annual basis

  7. Media Relations
    • Monitoring our brand online.
    • Maintaining a social media presence online via my blog, Twitter, and Facebook
    • Representing the company to the local and trade media
    • Returning calls to the media and answering questions
    • Building relationships with the media

  8. Financial Oversight
    • Chairing monthly financial review meetings with group and division leaders
    • Reviewing and approving financial decisions that exceed the approval level of my direct reports
    • Providing direction and guidelines to the annual budget process
    • Insuring that we exceed our financial objectives

Once you have completed your Master Task List, you can begin scheduling these on your calendar. This is a process Todd Duncan calls “Time Blocking.” It ensures that you schedule your priorities and make time to do the things that are truly important.

Question: Have you thought about your job from this perspective?

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